Tuesday, 16 October 2012

This Sporting Ego

By Shane Thomas

As William Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage". And many of sport's most fascinating stories are from the athletes who view their profession as exactly that; a stage for them to display their talents.

Personally I don't subscribe to the maxim that says sport is entertainment, especially when justifying its more oleaginous aspects. I have always viewed it as an athletic contest between either individuals or a group of people to see who is superior. The fact that this happens to be something which is engrossing is a happy coincidence. 

However, part of what makes sport so engrossing is the actions of a hyper-talented person, one who fully believes in their own abilities, so much so that they are deemed as arrogant, and often fail to gain the sympathy of many sport fans. This becomes more acute when the individual in question is part of a team. 

One of the more undignified sporting stories of the summer concerned Kevin Pietersen. Pietersen was dropped from the England side - seemingly for good - after making critical comments of his teammates to members of the South African squad (whom he was competing against at the time). This was the latest in a series of controversial incidents to dog KP's cricketing career. 

Cristiano Ronaldo also fits into this category. Often looked upon by many in this country as a man who would be more suited to a supermodel catwalk than a football pitch, he was once asked why he feels he comes in for such criticism. His response was as follows, "I think that because I am rich, handsome and a great player, people are envious of me. I don't have any other explanation." He recently stated that he was "sad" at Real Madrid, rumoured to be because he feels that players like Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta are more highly valued in their roles at Barcelona than he is at the Santiago Bernabeu. 

This phenomenon of the sporting egotist isn't restricted solely to men. The United States women's soccer team are one of the world's best. But press stories often centre around their goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Her recent autobiography ensured Solo and controversy were bedfellows once again. She talks about being branded as a traitor by some of her teammates after being dropped during the 2007 World Cup, writing, "I do believe back in '07 I would have made those saves … I'm confident in who I am as a player and as a person … I would have made a difference."

These athletes will often be derided for their vanity. Handwringing over why can't they be more of a team player are commonplace, as are press articles using the likes of Pietersen, Solo and CR7 as an exemplar for why society has gone to the dogs. But what many fail to realise is that adjectives such as arrogant, pompous and cocky are subjective. I doubt Pietersen thinks himself arrogant any more than Ronaldo thinks himself cocky. If your sporting life is a movie in which you are the star, than the aforementioned anecdotes are perfectly justifiable. 

Ego itself is a fascinating thing. It is a Latin word, meaning "I". But the drive for one's own satisfaction can come into conflict with the needs of the collective. The intriguing thing for coaches is trying to balance the two. After all, if these performers come with so much personality baggage, why bother selecting them? Well without Pietersen, England's magical Ashes summer of 2005 doesn't happen. And after becoming the world's best ranked team at Test level, it seemed as if England thought they could succeed without him. They couldn't, and as such, an uneasy truce looks to have been forged.

Since 2007, Ronaldo has been indispensable for Manchester United, and now Real Madrid. The Premier League titles of 2007, 2008 and 2009, the Champions League success in 2008, the Copa Del Rey in 2010, and La Liga trophies of 2012. They simply don't happen if the Portugese played for another club. 

Solo has been a key member of the United States recent run of success. They are top of the FIFA women's rankings and retained their Olympic title this summer, also winning gold in 2008. Want to know just how good a player Solo is. Then click here. But being a shameless egotist only makes the pressure of being a top level athlete more intense. Your coaches and teammates are likely to find you irritating, and the second you no longer become an asset on the field of play, they will have no qualms in throwing you under the bus.

I'm not sure why, but sporting superciliousness tends to be more tolerable in individual competition. While there are examples of distasteful self-regard coming in the form of Floyd Mayweather, Bode Miller or Mark Cavendish, I seldom hear the tag of arrogance levelled at the likes of Roger Federer, Usain Bolt or Oscar Pistorius.

And yet, what links every sports star I've name checked - and many more besides - is that they see sport as more than displaying athletic prowess. It is their personal platform. For them, the world exists to showcase their brilliance, and like the titular Emperor from 'The Emperor's New Clothes', we should all turn out in the streets in sheer wonder, admiring just how special they are.

But like a microcosm for being, the sporting life is a short one. The bulk of their careers may be analogous to Marilyn Monroe in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', but it's likely to end like Bette Davis in 'All About Eve'. Athletic brilliance is seldom forgotten, but it is ultimately fleeting. 

While the Shakespeare line about the world being a stage is often used in moments of grandiloquence, it actually comes at a very maudlin moment in 'As You Like It', concluding, "Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Eventually the same fate will befall the careers of our sporting superstars. And not even their ego will save them.

The Greatest Events in Sporting History" is available to download from http://www.simplysyndicated.com/shows/sportinghistory/, e-mail us at sportshistoryshow@googlemail.com and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH

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