From Hero to Zero


Sports stars in Australia are idolised, placed on a pedestal far above the ordinary Australian or extraordinary scientist or artist. In the last month, seven out of 10 Fairfax newspapers featured sport on the front page. Australians win by far the most Olympic medals per capita of any nation on Earth. Frequently, sports professionals are labelled Australian of the Year.

As a nation, we are quick to celebrate the sporting success of these "heroes" and yet equally quick to deride a less than perfect performance. Indeed, the "Sporting Hero’s Fall From Grace" is one of the most reported, salivated over and gleefully experienced examples of schadenfreude we have.

Athletes are considered simple people; single minded, dedicated beings who must be dull in order to have achieved such finely tuned mental and physical skills. What’s exciting about an athlete following a punishing, regimented, repetitive training program day in day out for many years? Often from the onset of adolescence, the athlete is sequestered away from ordinary teenage activities, training morning and night.

We celebrate success at the elite level, but overlook – or perhaps have little understanding of – what it takes to get there. I have heard often the comment that it is ridiculous that sporting stars are referred to as "courageous" and "heroes". One friend recently questioned how we could call someone these things, when all they’re doing is using their skills for something that’s ultimately fun, not heroic. But I question this logic.

Sure, for the majority of athletes sports are fun, but they are also a chief form of spectator entertainment. The performances of our Rugby players, our AFL stars, our swim team are entertaining. If the athletes didn’t perform remarkable feats week in and week out, we wouldn’t watch. We assume that an athlete will perform to our expectations, but we neglect to consider the immense personal and individual pressure that goes with this assumption. In every competition – which may only last seconds – the chasm between success and failure taunts.

I believe that the ability to stare down this chasm day in, day out, under the intense glare of a media that only accepts success, is definitely courageous – perhaps even heroic.

Recently, the media has been swamped with stories of athletes’ spectacular falls from grace. This accompanies the discussion that athletes, despite their virtually institutionalised upbringing, are ultimately responsible for their own actions and deserve everything they get.

No one would question that people are responsible for their own actions, and equal punishment should naturally be enforced. But one might question the media’s role in the sensationalisation of these falls from grace.

Right now, as Andrew Denton describes him, the "surprisingly articulate and not unintelligent" Wayne Carey sits in the unenviable position of coming to terms with the consequences of his poor judgement and substance abuse, underneath the relentless scrutiny of the Australian media and a public that has turned on him. The very source that afforded him public success, garnered him the highest accolades and placed him upon the perilous pedestal of sporting heroism, now gleefully watches as he plummets to Earth.

Growing up as an elite athlete (ultimately unsuccessful, and one of many thousands in a similar position), I experienced – on what must be a small, comparative level – something of the Australian sports professional’s parallel life.

Training was a twice-daily affair; socialising, something I did more with my fellow players than with schoolmates. We bypassed the ordinary teenage experimentation, competition taking precedence over sneaking out of home to see a band, going to a club or taking drugs. We weren’t dull, and we did have fun. Alcohol existed, but never regularly, only outside of competition. As finely tuned athletes, our tolerance for it was terrible. A couple of drinks and we would be drunk.

When I stopped competing (I "retired" from the world of junior competitive sport at the ripe old age of 19, already well past the chance of "making it" on the senior circuit), the transition to normal life had difficulties I never expected to encounter. My world had been one of discipline and routine, where goals are clear and achievable. Sports psychologists encourage the setting of "performance goals", ones that have no basis on competitive outcomes and are therefore completely controllable. Other people are merely opponents, and so long as you stuck to your own game, could be defeated. Rules were straightforward and unbending.

Try translating this overly simplified view to the real world where things aren’t simple, fair, or controllable. A world where, as they say, the goal posts are constantly shifting.

In my experience, the feeling of loss associated with the end of competition set off a series of unexpected and inexplicable reactions. From being a singularly focussed athlete, I found it virtually impossible to find any sort of focus. I morphed from a dedicated and motivated athlete into a slightly flaky and motivationally suspect twentysomething.

Going from being really, really good at something, to being mediocre at everything else completely distorted my perception of success and failure. With no experience of the regular teenage rites of passage, I spent my twenties making up for lost time, and even today I still sit silent and slightly embarrassed at my lack of teenage "war stories".

Relatively speaking, my experience is minor and certainly manageable, but it does allow for sympathy for true professional athletes. At the end of an illustrious sporting career, they are left alone to find out – at a stage when most of us have only just begun our careers – that the world outside the punishing routine of sport is hard to navigate and full of temptations. Training may be hard, but the rest of life is a challenge that a magnetic left foot or flawless backhand does not prepare you for.

There is no excuse for appalling behaviour, but perhaps we need to allow our athletes a chance to fail. Even just a chance to live life away from the spotlight, to make mistakes, and pay the penalties as any ordinary person would.

We live in a country where it seems the choice made by a kid with an extraordinary talent, to pursue a life of sport, forfeits them any right to be left alone as an ordinary citizen. Is it not hypocritical for the media to exclaim the greatness of an athlete’s success, to call him extraordinary and unique, yet demand he be treated as an ordinary person in times of failure? It is true that our athletes don’t deserve special treatment for bad behaviour, but one could argue that constant media attention is a form of special treatment in itself.

Maybe we just need to be aware that along with the wealth and outsized accolades laid on our sporting stars, comes the impossible expectation to be both ordinary and extraordinary.

I’m just glad I got out early.

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