The days of the ample athlete are over

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Piri Weepu often led Haka before heading for the bench. AAP Photos

Piri Weepu has let himself go and Chris Sandow has had too many pies. The message for today’s professional sports men and women is resoundingly clear; fat is out.

Lean and mean is in. Carry an extra kilo or two and you will cop it, especially if your team is losing.

In the 1980s and early ’90s overweight sports stars, or the more ‘rubenesque’ players to put it more delicately, were plentiful (pardon the pun). They were members of the Australian cricket team and played in the Winfield Cup.

I grew up watching David Boon and Merv Hughes star in Test and one-day cricket.

I remember Warnie cracking into the Australian team as a youngster with a love of a pizza, or five; of Steve Roach patting a referee’s head in Balmain colours; of Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin hitting the ball up for Manly and Queensland.

It was not that fat was in; it was just that it was more acceptable.

You could be more on the large side but if you delivered on the field, that was all that mattered.

Boonie was a legend. Warnie was one of the greatest bowlers of all time.

I mean, look at Glenn Lazarus. He was never going to win Cleo Bachelor of the Year or model alongside ET but he played 20 Tests for Australia, 19 games for New South Wales and won five premierships. The ‘brick with eyes’ was a freak.

But things started to change in the late ’90s, and the speed of change ramped up post millenium.

The Western world was getting fatter in general, and there were no longer any excuses at the highest sporting levels, which became much-more professional as money poured into sport (rugby union props aside; take a bow Matt Dunning).

Even golfers started working out. I’m not saying this was entirely a bad thing.

Excess on a grand and consistent scale is not to be celebrated. But along with this change came an unhealthy focus on body image.

Everyone had to be Brad Pitt, or a Men’s Health cover. The fact that some people, despite all the diet and exercise in the world, will never have the build of Cristiano Ronaldo, got ignored.

We began to lose our Mervs, Boonies and Blockers. The establishment of a six-pack and a score of 13 in the beep test was compulsory. Talent, not so much.

But a few remnants remain. I would hardly classify Weepu as generally overweight, but maybe he enjoyed one too many Steinlagers last year after beating the French.

The scrum-half has a nuggety build, which probably means he puts on weight easily. But let’s not ignore his vital influence on the World Cup-winning All Blacks at the 2011 tournament.

Sandow also has a nuggety build. There is a lot to like and dislike about Sandow: his love of pokies; his cheekiness, his want to pull off shoulder charges despite probably being one of the smallest players in the NRL; his ability to win games and go missing in others.

But after moving to Parramatta he is a massive target. And with the Eels winning one from seven this season, his performance and weight becomes a bigger than normal issue.

However, I’d rather see an NRL with Sandow in it, than without. The same can be said about Weepu in Super Rugby, and George Rose at Manly.

Rugby union celebrates the fact that it is a sport for all body shapes, and good on it.

Not everyone can be David Campese, Jason Little or John Eales.

A few hefty sports stars remain as standouts in their field.

Paul Gascoigne probably downed too many Newcastle Brown ales, but boy could he play. Artie Beetson was never the fastest on the field, but he was an immortal.

Matt le Tissier wasn’t the quickest sprinting into the box for Southampton, but how many footballers could do this?

Melbourne Victory’s Carlos Hernandez is currently a local standout.

In every game the Costa Rican looks like he can’t wait to finish the match, so he can go off and tuck into some churros.

Hernandez appears to be a little rotund, and does little during a game until he receives the ball and pulls something brilliant out of the hat. But that’s something that few other players in the A-League can do.

This former Johnny Warren Medal may not be the ultimate specimen of health and might not have thighs to match Ronaldo’s. Nor does he do more sit-ups or push-ups than his teammates. But few of them can pull off what he does.

So let’s spare a thought for those corpulent players who could still dazzle us with their skills. The Owen Craigies, Ferenc Puskas’, John Dalys and Babe Ruths.

We’d be poorer without them.

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