Picking your sporting heroes is a serious business.
It’s not, after all, like passing your finger down a itemised newspaper spread, as you might pick a runner at the national. For one thing, idolisation and admiration require something deeper than a lightly amusing name, as evidenced by the dearth of fan clubs dedicated to Hulk, Rod Fanni and Stefan Kuntz.
If you were to cast around for an equivalent, it’s more akin to picking an older kid to idolise. Only without the risk of them shattering your hero worship by unexpectedly kegging you on the school field. Although admittedly you wouldn’t put it completely past Maradona.
So what does our choice of hero say about us though?
Well, one thing it does do is complicate our idea of hard work
Which is problematic, because societally, we place grit and effort on a pedestal.
Stalin, Your mum, Ne Yo. What does this sample group have in common? Well, the first two would probably concur that you buy too much pointless crap. More important though is the ethic espoused by all three. A exhortation to work hard. Whether it’s at our mothers knee, as part of a grand soviet directive, or over the kind of eurotrash that is always, somewhere, playing at 3am in an emptying nightclub, the rallying cry for hard work is a constant.
And it really is everywhere. Take the struggle and the montages out of Rocky, and essentially just left with two scenes: the protagonist flirting in a pet shop and the later pulverisation of his facial features. Which better resembles one of the looser Monty Python skits than it does the template for the Great American Sports Movie.
And yet it is in sport, the medium in which you can barely move for exhortations to ‘just do it’ and ‘give 110%’, that our valuation of effort surprisingly wavers. At least at the most stratified peaks. Just look, for instance, at the Messi-Ronaldo dichotomy.
Both have their Ballon d’Ors and supporters, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the diminutive argentine has the upper hand in mass opinion, particularly in the UK. Which is kind of surprising, because ours is a footballing culture built around power, stamina and will. Historically, it didn’t matter if your first touch was more adhesive than Arsene Wenger’s zip, if you werent prepared to take a boot to the solar plexus in the warm-up, then you weren’t getting on the team, sonny. Ronaldo even received much of his footballing education here, so you might think some residual tribalism would see him hold a special place in British hearts. That he does not suggests one of two things. The first being that many football fans find the statues, the sulks and the insistence on being ‘CR7’ fairly objectionable. Which is undoubtedly true, but that is to ignore his charity work, and the tax avoidance of his rival.
The alternative possibility is that we love Messi because he makes it all seem so effortless. Each individual moment of brilliance is simply played out in a different key to those of his rivals. He just seems to find it all so obscenely easy. It’s accentuated, too, by how unlikely a megastar he looks, particularly when he first shuffled onto the scene under a mousy mullet. He strikes the world as a man cut close from the close cycle of effort and reward. A man who just is fantastic.
Spread the net a little further. Federer and Nadal/DjokovicMurray, for example.
Again, the natural talent of a master, and just how easy he makes it look, can run roughshod over even our traditional values of empathising with a countryman. A fair number of die-hard britons delight in the Swiss’ destruction of the island’s own Andy Murray. He also, for that matter, defies our uber-modern mentality of quickly getting bored with things and wishing change on for change’s sake. No one is ushering him offstage .
Or consider Kohli and Smith. The former is all swishing blade, the crown prince of the indian cricketing dynasty, while the latter, dismissed and dropped after an initial struggle to adapt, has worked his way to the top of the world rankings. How? Thanks to an unorthodox technique that centres on a step across his stumps before each delivery. Often it is said that the best sportsmen look like their playing a different sport to everyone else. Smith looks to only remember that he’s paying test cricket a millisecond before each ball’s release. And yet despite his hard work, and his proven statistical dominance, the neutral will always choose to watch thentalent just flow out of Kohli.
It’s not just sport. Jay Z’s recent output has been pretty pedestrian, but for many he is still held in higher esteem than the more sonically interesting Kanye West. Could it be because Jay’s flow is so natural, so unforced, while Kanye just seems to be working so damn hard?
So what to draw from this? Does this point to a crack in cultural foundations? An underlying rank hypocrisy?
An alternative view. There also exists the possibility that no one seriously thinks Messi, Federer, Kohli or Jay Z aren’t working hard. In fact, everyone comprehends that they are. Maybe what they represent to the world is the ultimate consummation of a lifetime’s effort and drive: the transcendent state at which everything just clicks, the point at which all that determination just boils over into some indescribable element that flows through your veins as the world stands and applauses.