There can be little debate that both the Paralympics and Olympics provided an inspiring spectacle for observers across the globe last Summer. The participating athletes provided moments of unbelievable triumph and glory, glories that were amplified when achieved against the backdrop of hardship or adversity. It was all too easy to label these athletes ‘role-models’. It was particularly easy when the athletes were disabled. These new role models were held up in the media and press as paragons of virtue without any real reference to the person behind the achievement.
Last month saw the Paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, dramatically charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. While it is too early to comment on Pistorius’s guilt, the subsequent news coverage and revelations around his private life has offered a more rounded and perhaps accurate picture of the South African athlete.
Until now, it was almost inconceivable that someone like Pistorius could be anything other than an icon and inspiration but by placing these ready descriptors on a person based only on his ability and disability you are walking a similar path to negative prejudice. What the Oscar Pistorius story could show is that disabled people can be flawed too. That disabled people can possess poor character traits. In short, it could show that disabled people are people- people who should be judged individually in the same way as anyone else and shouldn’t be placed on a prejudicial pedestal, the type of which we saw constructed for all the Olympic athletes last Summer.
As ever, the chief engineers behind these pedestals were the mainstream media who further decided, en masse, that the success and behaviour of the Olympic athletes should and must be juxtaposed with the nation’s shame-faced footballers.
“Look at these Christ-like sporting heroes “ the red tops yelled. “If only our footballers were even half as virtuous.” Article after article couldn’t wait to compare the achievements and behaviour of the athletes with footballers. It felt like sanctimonious bull-shit at the time and it feels more so with each passing month.
Now there’s no denying that the footballing community has its fair share of un-loveable characters but there’s little doubt that if you analysed any cross section of society the characters revealed wouldn’t differ greatly. Whether that cross section be journalists, bankers, the rich, the poor, the armed forces or nurses. Or athletes.
Since the Olympics we have seen Tom Daley and Louis Smith turn their backs on their profession to appear on TV in Splash and Strictly Come Dancing respectively. In both cases their coaches have expressed their disappointment.
We watched Justin Gatlin grab Bronze in the 100m final after completing a 4yr ban for doping. We saw Dwain Chambers competing after a similar ban. We read about how the Olympics village turned into a 1960s free love festival for 2 weeks. We read about Usain Bolt partying with Swedish handball players without any sub-text of outrage. We heard how 30% of Paralympians were suspected of boosting – illegally self harming to produce an adrenalin boost shortly before competing. We saw at least 11 athletes disqualified from the Olympics for doping. There were probably many more who managed to remain undetected.
Yet despite this, Olympic and Paralympic athletes were all squeezed into one moralistic pigeon-hole and lauded from all quarters. Now compare this to footballers. The media have long enjoyed reporting on the more publically reprehensible characters and have managed to ensure the profession of ‘footballer’ is held on a par with ‘banker’ or ‘politician’. These culpable footballers still need to be held to account if their behaviour warrants it but lets not lazily lump all footballers into the same basket. Like athletics, there are just as many good eggs as there are rotten ones within the footballing community and so, like athletes at the Olympics, lets celebrate our footballers a bit more.
Lets be proud of David Beckham giving his wages to charity at PSG, of Craig Bellamy quietly setting up a foundation in Africa with his spare cash and time, of Stephen Ireland popping round hospital after hospital in Birmingham, of the eloquence of the ‘Secret Footballer’ and of Angel Rangel driving round Swansea trying to feed the homeless. And while we’re at it, lets just accept that no cross section of society is universally good or bad- no matter what the newspapers may tell us.