By Steven Doherty
Every sports fan has their heroes. And outside of our own specific favourites, fans tends to have a high regard for nearly all elite athletes – the sports man or woman that has made it to their top in their own particular sport. We love our sport, and we love if not worship it’s top practitioners. To make a living out of playing sport is probably most fans dream, but to make it to the very top is the pinnacle.
The best of the best are often hugely admired, garnering attention and praise for their sporting exploits – footballers, boxers, cyclists, tennis players, cricketers, GAA players, basketballers, thelist is endless.
But not all sports people who make it to the very top are universally loved. Some aren't even liked.
Serena Williams picked up her 19th Grand Slam when she won the Australian Open last weekend, surpassing the great Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (both with 18). The debate as to whether Williams is the best female tennis player of all time is ongoing, but by any measure you like she’s up there with the very best women who has ever lifted a tennis racket.
Her achievement in Melbourne, surpassing both Navratova and Evert, barely registered back home in the USA. Not only did it clash with the all encompassing Superbowl, but her dominance is now taken for granted. It's so passé even for most sports enthusiasts. But perhaps more than this, Serena Williams and her sister Venus (who has won 7 Grand Slams) are simply not loved. I don’t know anyone who has ever said they adore Serena Williams, and I know plenty of tennis followers.
Sometimes a sports star’s single minded determination, their absolute focus on their sporting goal, can come at the detriment of other qualities – warmth, charisma, humour, modesty, frailty. Some of the qualities that make us all, but not them, human.
Tiger Woods (pictured above) is another. Long before his dramatic fall from grace I had little time for the man. Woods – head and shoulders the best golfer of his generation with 14 major championship wins would saunter around the golf courses of the world obliterating his rivals, but doing so with a face on him as long as the Palm Sunday gospel. And yet I simply couldn’t warm to him. As magnificent and peerless as his golf shots were, the man himself left me cold. Rarely did he play the game with any smile of enjoyment (and given what extra curricular activities he was up to you'd have thought he would have looked a bit happier.) Postround interviews were often humourless affairs, with Woods dry and craicless, and you got the feeling his temper could explode like a volcano if the wrong question popped up.
But it’s not just an American thing. Britain’s Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton have never really caught my attention or raised my sporting pulse. Too boring, no fun and about as much craic as a weekend in Strabane. And probably the most successful Grand Prix driver of the lot – Michael Schumacher – I’d give him a wide berth too. A flat track bully behind the wheel. Ruthless and fanatical – everything I suppose you need to beat your rivals. I could appreciate the fact that he was a great driver and an unbelievable competitor (to the point where he would have no problem risking his rival’s lives as he tried to shunt them off the track to win a race) but I really couldn't have given a hoot about the rubberfaced German android.
Give me McEnroe, Federer or Becker. Give me James Hunt (a drinker, a smoker, a character) or Ayrton Senna. Give me a driver with flaws and man who likes his women as fast as his cars. Give me a driver who would risk his own life rather than his fellow competitors.
Which brings me to the dark knight of sport himself – Lance Armstrong. Armstrong won the World Road Bike Championship in 1993, but outside that he was nothing particularly special. On October 2, 1996, then aged 25, Armstrong was diagnosed as having (advanced) testicular cancer.
The cancer had spread to his brain, lungs and abdomen. Quite incredibly Armstrong survived and in February 1997, he was declared cancerfree and decided to resume his cycling career. Two years later, he won the first of his seven Tour de France titles in 1999.
The cancer survivor would go on to win the next seven Tours de France and provide a beacon of hope for millions across the world who had been affected by that terrible illness.
Long before Armstrong’s dramatic unveiling as a cheat and a fraud due to his systemic use of performance enhancing drugs in all of his major victories, the Texan was never a sports man I could find myself rooting for. Maybe he was ‘too good’, defeating all his major rivals throughout his seven year reign as the Tour de France champion. I even found myself cheering for cyclists whom I knew were drugs cheats – the likes of Jan Ulrich and Marco Pantani. They at least seemed fallible, had weaknesses, were human. They would make mistakes, Armstrong wouldn’t. And, as it turned out, Armstrong was a better doper than anyone else and had the council of the best doctor in that particular field of pharmaceutical skullduggery Michele Ferrari.
Armstrong’s fall from a lofty height has been well documented. Once a sporting god, Armstrong is now the No. 1 sporting pariah on the planet. Two Irish sports journalists were at the forefront in exposing the king of EPO – David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Both played key roles (among others) in exposing the truth that Armstrong was a systematic doper, an arrogant bully and a pathological liar. They went toe to toe with the American, took manys a beating down through the years in press conferences and in court houses, but they eventually felled the seemingly infallible Texan. Armstrong’s recent interview with the BBC’s Dan Roan showed that he has changed little.
Sure, the American took performance enhancing drugs in an era where doping was endemic in the sport. We can say without doubt that almost all the top cyclists were at it. But he always was and remains still a dislikeable individual – cycling’s version of the Scunner Campbell in Super Gran.
Is there a common denominator with all these sports star who have no doubt made it to the top in their chosen arena of competition? Humorless – yes? Lacking any real warmth – yes? Robotic – most of them. Bullies – certainly one or two would be stained with that specific trait. But maybe it’s just an individual thing. Maybe sporting heroes and indeed villains are just a matter of personal choice. Lewis Hamilton was voted Sports Personality of the Year by the public, so somebody likes him.
Do they care if they’re not loved? Perhaps. Perhaps not. No doubt they will all go down in the annals of sport with their own chapter and verse, and there will be no footnote to say whether they were universally loved or not by me or anyone else. But I choose to cheer on other sports stars, win lose or draw.
And given the choice between movie stars, musicians and other celebrities it's always the sportsman who raises the beat of my heart. But not all of them.
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