If the great life lessons of sport are in losing, does this mean champions inevitably fall through the cracks of civility?
The vilification of Victoria Azarenka over her dubious time-out against Sloane Stephens in this week’s Australian Open has again raised questions of our expectations of grace and piety from winners.
But do we set the moral bar too high for athletes?
Maybe we should all take a deep breath and consider whether it takes some serious darkness of soul to dedicate one’s self, from age 6, to subjugating all who dare stand on the other side of a net.
Actually, let’s include those who stand beside the net too, as an unfortunate lineswoman found out in a recent Serena Wiliams US Open appearance.
It’s a doddle to accept that sportsmen under pressure may occasionally behave intemperately or boorishly, but where should we draw the line? Many would reply that if the rules do not disqualify them for their outburst or infraction, then it’s all okay.
Others would have no qualms about barring the offender from not just the court or arena, but from plaudits of ‘civil life’ as well. Witness the absurdity of those propriety-fascists who judged Joey Johns unworthy of rugby league ‘immortals’ inclusion for his off-field misdemeanours.
And what about kicking a ball-boy in a football match. Will we ever be sure if the player was merely trying to dislodge the ball, or if the boy was illegally smothering it?.
And what about David Nalbandian causing physical injury to a linesman’s leg after loutishly kicking an advertising billboard?
Should we all shrug and mumble it’s ‘grist for the mill’ for tabloids – all part of that big PR psychodrama we cynically call the 24-7 media cycle?
Bad or unsportsmanlike behaviour deserves to be penalised, but let’s not rush in to place halos on the heads of winners only so we can righteously yank them off again.
Hopefully, we are slowly beginning to accept elite sportsmen as flawed demi-beings occupying the same firmament as showbiz celebs and pop stars. Who would deny Mick Jagger a place in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame just because he dropped acid in the 60s.
How did this curious moral apartheid of sportsmen in our pantheon of cultural heroes start anyway?
Is it because we want our children to become sports stars that we cast such a stern paternal eye over them? Some of us want our brats to be musicians or politicians too, yet we don’t require those to be perfect role models.
Let’s also keep in mind that many sports stars spring from seriously dysfunctional parenting. Remember the tennis player, Mary Pierce? Her father was banned from some of her matches, and a restraining order placed on him for fear of assaulting his daughter.
And Mr Damir Dokic? He made threats against public peace back in Serbia, with a cache of explosives and the like.
Mr Agassi? According to Andre’s recent memoir, Agassi senior walked around with salt and pepper in his pockets to throw in the eyes of anyone who took umbrage against his habitual road rage.
Perhaps instead of joining the occasional chorus of condemnation, we should all be marvelling instead at how our top athletes keep it together – for the most part – in today’s pressure cooker of global scrutiny.
And yes, I know, they get paid for it.