15 February 2013

Dangerous myth of the role model athlete

(Aşağıdaki Simon Kuper imzalı yazı, 15 Şubat 2013'te Financial Times'ta yayınlandı. Siteye giriş üyelik gerektirdiği için -kişiye göre değişiyor mu bilmiyorum, benden istedi- kolayca okunması için yazıyı buraya taşıdım.)


The sports-industrial complex should be shrunk before it destroys society

Way back in 2008, the three most admired personalities in sport were probably Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. They were portrayed not just as great athletes but as great men, role models: Woods was the ultimate professional, Armstrong had overcome cancer to rule cycling, and the double amputee Pistorius had become an outstanding sprinter. It later turned out that Woods was a serial adulterer, Armstrong a drugs cheat, and on Thursday in South Africa Pistorius was charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. His family and management have disputed the accusation “in the strongest terms”.

Any sentient person over the age of eight already knew that great athletes are not necessarily role models. That’s not what the scandals have taught us. Rather, we can see now that the sports-industrial complex – the machine of media and advertising that cranks out myths about athletes – has gone into overdrive. As with investment banking it might be time to shrink it before it destroys society.

Like most modern industries, the sports-industrial complex arose in the US. Its operatives understood that if people viewed great athletes merely as ordinary humans with one unusual gift, hardly anyone would bother following sport. So, drawing on a myth that goes back at least to the English novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), it was proclaimed that sportsmen possessed special moral characteristics. Athletes were determined, they sacrificed, they “took one for the team”.

The sports-industrial complex was already pumping out stories about American athletes who loved their mamas and drank the right soft drink while Europe’s best footballers were still taking the tram to work.

Even 20 years ago, the fantasy of the athlete as role model was sufficiently widespread in the US that the basketball player Charles Barkley could say in a commercial: “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model . . . I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court.” In truth, he was merely presenting himself as a different type of role model: a rebellious “bad boy” able to compete with rappers for the lucrative teen market.

From the early 1990s, satellite TV and then the internet promoted sport globally, taking the sports-industrial complex with it. Its role models are now marketed worldwide. In interviews and commercials – spot the difference – Armstrong fought cancer, Pistorius fought for the disabled, and Woods fought for the global consulting and outsourcing firm Accenture.

Male athletes have taken over roles once held by knights, saints and soldiers. They represent the masculine ideal. (Female athletes remain less saleable, unless very pretty.) In today’s vast mythmaking enterprise, the athletes serve only as raw material to be transformed from humans into paragons. All the athletes need to do is parrot the myth. “My example can be an inspiration to those who, like me, have experienced and struggled with a physical problem,” writes Pistorius in his autobiography, Blade Runner . “This can also be true for others who have had to overcome obstacles of a different nature.” He was a role model for all humanity.

The sports-industrial complex lacks imagination. Anyone stuffed into its machine comes out sounding like the offspring of Cinderella and the Soviet workaholic Stakhanov. There is a standard story – hero overcomes adversity (cancer, loss of legs, etc) through willpower – that is also a parable proclaiming the values of capitalism: hard work and discipline lead to wealth.

Sporting myths have become so stereotyped that any sportswriter or advertiser can whip one up in 20 minutes. The US college football player Manti Te’o recently saved everyone the trouble by coming up with his own myth. He said his girlfriend and grandmother had died almost simultaneously, whereupon he had overcome adversity. This story was endlessly retold – until it emerged that Te’o had made it up. He had brilliantly satirised the sports-industrial complex.
The mythmaking only gets louder, yet the ability of athletes to live up to these myths is diminishing. In real life, they are becoming less exemplary. That’s because in many sports it’s now almost a professional obligation to take drugs; because athletes as masculine ideals have boundless opportunities for adultery; and because they have got used to everyone saying yes to them, which means they often struggle with challenging human situations. Moreover, the sports-industrial complex now selects its heroes so young (Woods was identified age two) that they have little unprotected experience of life.

Athletes’ brands are being stretched ever further just as they themselves become narrower people. Yet when the athlete predictably falls, the sports-industrial complex is dismayed. “So many people feel let down by his behaviour,” lamented Time magazine after Woods’s exposure – as if people could cope with war, unemployment and climate change, but go to pieces when a golfer commits adultery.

There are now vacancies for role models to replace Woods, Armstrong, Pistorius, Te’o, and Ryan Giggs, the most admired man in English football’s Premier League until his complicated sex life was revealed. Replacements will be found – and later will fall. Only the sports- industrial complex goes on forever.

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