If you're looking for a cheat, Armstrong not Dettori is the real deal


Tipping PointCharles Barkley has over a foot on Frankie Dettori, and, as befits his “Round Mound of Rebound” nickname, is well over twice the champion jockey’s bodyweight. But the American basketball legend is someone a few of Dettori’s critics would do well to heed.

The widely reported suspicion that Dettori tested positive for cocaine in France last September has provoked some rather pious condemnation of the world’s most famous jockey, much of it along the lines of he has a responsibility to set a better example, an argument for private probity by public figures that is as old as celebrity and one which can be as bogus as a B-lister’s bosom.

That this country in particular should remain in thrall to the childish delusion that profile somehow requires a corresponding personal moral rectitude shows how deeply the concept of “role-model” has burrowed its way into the public consciousness like a prurient tick.

The recent evidence of how a shamelessly self-perpetuating political class, in thrall to the busted flush of a business elite and a morally vacuous religious establishment, absolved itself of real leadership might reasonably have reminded everyone that paragons of virtue are few and far between. And the consequences of that continue to be a lot more far-reaching than a jockey maybe putting a recreational drug up his nose.

But it’s still there. Sport is a trivial example, but an example none the less because too many people care for it to be irrelevant. Maybe it’s disillusionment with the social pillars that encourages us to search for the admirable elsewhere. But asking sportspeople to behave like saints away from their chosen arena is as unfair as it is unrealistic.

“Just ’cos I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” was Barkley’s succinct summation of his refusal to assume the mantle of role-model. For his troubles he got slapped around by the “controversy” machine, the one that never fails to churn a headline even with the most straight-forward of statements.

Not long afterwards, another American star, Barry Bonds, claimed everyone in society should be a role model, admirable on the face of it, and was duly ‘woo-hooed’ by the faithful, but fatally compromised by the baseball star’s subsequent revelation as a steroid-user.

Hostages to fortune

That’s the thing with those purporting to set an example: they’re making themselves hostages to fortune. This is so obvious that anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness steers well clear of the idea, usually leaving only those either with an agenda, or a larger than normal hubris quotient, to fulfil the role.

Henry Shefflin might just be the most perfect hurler any of us will ever see, possessed of all the skills, and yet devoted to using them for the good of the team. So in terms of what happens on the pitch, describing him as a role model is perfectly reasonable.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for some. Thus we are treated to treatises about how his blameless off-the-field lifestyle is an ideal to be emulated by kids; how he is an example to be piked up on a totem-poll of sporting purity. And that his hurling prowess must be rooted in some off-the-field personal uniqueness.

Shefflin of course has never come out with such stuff, probably because he knows perfectly well he is unique for his hurling talent alone and that peering deep into the rest of his inner-psyche most probably reveals an interior no more interesting than anyone else’s.

Crucially Dettori doesn’t appear to have ever conspicuously played the role model card, despite how “Brand Dettori” revolves around the madcap, flying dismount, smiley-happy jockey image.

Complex character

Those who know him well speak of a much more introspective and complex character than the tabloid cartoon might suggest. And the suggestion he might have ingested a couple of months ago, nearly 20 years after an earlier run-in with cocaine, indicates there might be something to that.

Certainly being racing’s poster-boy has attracted more than the usual attention to his current predicament. But to suggest he has somehow let an entire sport down is ludicrous. Dettori is a role-model on the back of a horse: off it he is vulnerable as anyone else, susceptible to temptation and as prone to stupid decisions as anyone. And it’s not as if it’s a performance enhancing substance he is in trouble for. Ultimately he hasn’t cheated anyone, except, crucially, himself.

No, for a real cheat you only have to find the ultimate sporting role-model – “Brand Lance”.

Armstrong sold himself as a semi-messianic figure, and in the process sold the world a pup. Practically everything he said was rubbish.

But it was carefully orchestrated rubbish and the image glistened like the shine on a great-looking fake. The great and the good queued up to buy into the lie, and there’s a good chance by the end Lance maybe even started to believe his own bull.

That’s the thing with self-elected role models: the conceit that convinces them they’re worthy of such a role is their fundamental flaw. Most of us have neither the opportunity, but more importantly the arrogance, to try and paddle anyone else’s canoe but our own.

In the saddle, Dettori ranks with the best in history. Off it, he is as prone to error as anyone, except of course those raising other people’s children.

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