Think twice about worshipping athletes with feet of clay
In times of distress, the poets offer us some solace. “Where have all the good men gone/ And where are all the gods?” Bonnie Tyler asks in the timeless Holding Out for a Hero “Where’s the streetwise Hercules/ To fight the rising odds?”
Where indeed, Bonnie? Where indeed?
The question is prompted by recent revelations in the stupid world of annoying sport. Giving new meaning to the word contrite (that meaning tallying with the old meaning of unrepentant), Lance Armstrong has confirmed that the Tour de France was more at home to drugs than the average Grateful Dead tour bus. We haven’t been so shocked since that peroxide lunatic in the shell suit turned out to have been molesting young people in BBC dressing rooms.
Armstrong had barely packed away his onion – brandished ineffectively beneath stubbornly dry eyes on the Oprah show – when something called Manti Te’o popped up to further sully the stupid name of annoying sport.
Te’o, who plays for an American football team called Notre Dame (pronounced as if by an idiot), has got himself involved in a cyber-scandal whose absurdity would have strained the imaginative powers of even the late JG Ballard. In the autumn of last year, many US sports pages carried moving stories concerning this paragon of the Fighting Irish (they’re not really Irish, but they do seem quite violent).
The reporters explained how both Te’o’s grandmother and his girlfriend had died within six hours of each other. On the day of the younger woman’s funeral, Manti took the somewhat unusual decision of playing a game against the Michigan Something-or-Others. “She said, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, promise that you’ll still stay over there and that you’ll play and that you’ll honour me through the way you play’,” he later explained.
“All she wanted was some white roses. That’s all she asked for. So I sent her roses, and sent her two picks along with that.” We will never know why the unfortunate woman would have wanted mining equipment with her flowers. Seances will not assist us. No amount of rooting through her effects will offer illumination. She never really existed.
It soon transpired that the relationship had taken place online and that the being at the other end was actually a male human named Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Tuiasosopo soon followed hopped-up Lance into the television confessional. Speaking last week to giant psychiatrist Dr Phil McGraw – a creature created in Oprah’s lab – he explained how he had led the footballer to believe that he was, in fact, a young woman called Lennay Kekua.
At this stage, one might easily have forgiven Dr Phil for observing that the scandal now featured more absurd names than the sleeve of a Captain Beefheart LP. Instead, he allowed his guest to clarify that, far from being an idle prankster, he was “romantically in love” with Manti Te’o.
Bill Maher, on his excellent Real Time TV show, admitted that – there being nobody under 30 in the studio – he found it impossible to discuss this notion of adoring a girlfriend you’d never actually met. In the past, such relationships tended to develop only between convicted murderers and lonely pen pals in cat-ridden hovels. Much of the conversation touched on the notion of the tarnished hero.
You know how this stuff goes. Won’t somebody please think of the children? Every Saturday afternoon little Biff flings an inflated bladder at his deadbeat dad. Frantata Spongebottom was. . . Sorry, Manti Te’o was his idol. Now he discovers that this footballing person spent his evenings wading through the Kleenex while exchanging confused pleasantries with a 300-pound stranger in cyberspace. (I’m suggesting he mopped up the tears with those tissues. Honest.) Barely a day goes past without some footballer “letting down his young fans” by kicking a ball-boy or tweeting racist abuse.
What are we to do? Well, we could start by looking elsewhere for heroes. The fact that somebody is good at throwing a stick, heading a ball or – in Te’o’s case – running pointlessly towards a hurtling crowd of Michiganders does not imply they are any more moral than the average gynaecologist or quantity surveyor.
They are only role models because we choose to make them so.
Don’t worship golfers. Don’t worship rugby players. Don’t worship anybody.