Yes, their achievements may be world-class, but do their attitudes towards their sporting careers also fit the bill?
First – he was. Then he wasn’t. Then he was. Now he definitely, most certainly didn’t. So went the furore surrounding Novak Djokovic and the Australian Open. His court battle with the Australian government was more fractious geopolitics than strawberries and cream, yet there was a sense that this is what the pandemic world has brought us to: a weary slanging match where there are no real winners, just muddied reputations and angry leering on all sides of the snarling societal spectrum. However, whatever we may think of Djokovic’s decision not to be jabbed, his decision to bypass the vital concoction us mere mortals have been juicing up on for the last twelve months raises questions about sports, sportspeople, and the context of wider society. How far is the sportsperson to be judged on their sport alone? What is this definitive “thing” that makes them great?
As a youngster of 14 or 15 years old, I was rather into golf. I was pretty terrible at it – I didn’t have the patience to refine my swing to a smooth, mechanical rhythm – but I enjoyed the odd hack nonetheless. This was around the time that Tiger Woods was in his high imperial phase, conquering all that came before him like a metronomic pneumatic drill. Augusta became his backyard – a place he toyed with. He would frolic as you or I might if we put up a paddling pool in our gardens in the searing heat of mid-July Glasgow. It was quite some sight to watch him tear down fairway after Georgian fairway as if it were the local driving range. And yet, the point here is not that Tiger was perhaps the second greatest, if not the greatest, golfer of all time. It’s that he wasn’t a particularly nice man. He was, I’m afraid to say, isolated on tour, lacking the geniality of Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson, the wittiness of Bernard Langer. He was rude. Selfish. Arrogant. He was though – above all else – a blinkered, obsessive winner. He had steeled himself in the art of winning, encountering from a young age the kind of latent country club racism that seems so prominent in America post-Donald Trump. So, are we to blame Tiger for his single-mindedness? Are we to say: “You’ve destroyed the Masters at -17 par, but please be kinder to your fellow competitors?”
Another example to really drive this point home is Michael Jordan. I read a remarkable book many years ago by David Halberstam, entitled Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World he Made. The mainstream media painted Jordan as a shimmering, God-like human who blessed all that came before him. According to Halberstam, this was not the case. Jordan quite literally ground his way to the top. He fought, he scrapped, he barked, he bullied. Most of all, he was a vicious, vicious competitor. He had to deal with a father who often fell quite far short of what may seem like common decency. So too, Jordan had to grow up in an America – in its treatment of black people – that also fell far short of those same standards. This, perhaps, puts the spotlight on the subject. The job of an elite sportsperson is not to be nice. Their job is to win. And win at all costs, which all of Djokovic, Woods and Jordan have done, time and time again.
The case of Djokovic comes down to the murky world of right and wrong, of rules and freedom, of respect and disrespect. What elite athletes might like to think is right for them is not perhaps what’s right for the global public. But, the thing is, elite sport exists outside of the normal parameters of you and I. As far as I can see, it’s about endless hotels, sponsor emblazoned clothing, wellness gurus, 3% body fat, running until you vomit, jets, 12 hours in one country, 12 hours in another, vegan-rabbit-food diets, injuries, recoveries, wins, and lots and lots of losses. It’s a world very much detached from public judgement; a world isolated in its own hyper-performance bubble.
This isn’t to defend Djokovic, rather to set the sportsperson in an elevated pantheon of their own – which is possibly where the world needs them to be. The Australian Open was no doubt worse for Djokovic’s ban. Yet where does the Serb go from here? That will largely depend on future court battles and costly legal teams, but whatever happens it will be a messy, tarnishing struggle. History already shines favourably on the likes of Woods and Jordan; but one can’t help but think that this whole sludgy affair between Djokovic, the pandemic, and the beleaguered Aussie public might take some of the sparkling iridescence off those 21 grand slams. The sportsperson here is no longer just the sport; they are a figurehead for something with potential real-world danger and influence. The modern-day sports star has the capability of affecting real change, yet this often becomes a twisted concept, shrouded in manipulation and superiority. While we, as fans and viewers, immerse ourselves in their world and do our best to both celebrate their victory and pity their losses, the whole entity of the sportstar itself continues to be an inaccessible and almost foregin concept, one that we are still far from comprehending.