by Stephen White
It is happening right now in parks and streets around the world: Kids scoring goals only to run for joy and hold arms aloft to the thousands of adoring fans in their minds’ eye.
And who hasn’t fantasised about the glitz and glamour that come with being a sports hero? Who wouldn’t want to experience the heady thrill of world fame while earning the same wage as the collective population of a small EU member state?
But less thought is given to the more profound lifestyle changes that happen to those who turn sporting dreams into reality. Today, if few make it big, then even fewer would-be heroes are prepared for the sword of Damocles that awaits them at the highest level.
Consider American sprinter, Marion Jones. After the 2000 Sydney Olympics she had the athletic world in one palm, five medals in the other, and a string of records to her name. But beneath the winning smile and ability to run like lightning ran a murky undercurrent of deceit and steroid abuse.
Following the 2004 Olympics Jones was linked to a major drugs scandal when Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), claimed he had given the athlete performance enhancing drugs before and after the 2000 Games. Finally, in 2007, the Californian was stripped of her medals, banned from the following year’s Olympics in Beijing and sentenced to six months in prison.
Then there’s Oscar Pistorius. Born without shin bones, he became familiar with using prosthetic leg attachments from an early age. He earned the nickname ‘Blade Runner’ when he debuted at the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004 and won gold in the 200m sprint, breaking a world record in the process.
On Valentine’s Day 2013, world news broke that the star had shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. In September 2014, he was acquitted of murder but convicted of culpable homicide for the attack on the model and law-graduate girlfriend.
The fall from grace endured by American football star and actor, OJ Simpson, was as equally high profile as the Pistorius case. Simpson was put on trial after his ex-wife Nicole Brown and friend, Ronald Goldman, were found stabbed to death outside Brown’s Los Angeles home in June 1994.
In the ensuing drama of Hollywood proportions, former film-star OJ ‘The Juice’ Simpson, was cast in the unfamiliar role of super-villain in what became known as the “Trial of the Century”. Ultimately, Simpson was acquitted but the damage to his reputation as a public figure was irreparable. He was later found liable for the killings in a civil court and ordered to pay $33.5 million to the families of the victims.
Clearly, homicide is a world apart from steroid abuse, but each of the above cases shocked their respective worlds. Fans shook their heads as they saw their former heroes rushed through packs of flashbulb-wielding paparazzi, as though by virtue of their elevated status a sports-star should be immune to losing their way, or their mind for that matter.
Most of us could never imagine the dangers that lie in wait for top-level athletes, but more pointedly, would we really want to know? Would it spoil our illusions to be more informed about just how vulnerable those are who we’ve built up as invincible?
The media certainly couldn’t care what happens, so long as a story sells. The public shaming of our heroes gives us the green light to cast thunderbolts of judgement at the telly while getting soothed by a big hit of schadenfreude.
Ultimately, more needs to be done to put the dangers of top-level sport on a higher keel than the glories it brings. The sooner this is done, the sooner systems can be put in place to help prevent athletes and those around them from going off rails. As for the average sports fan, we have to start by wanting to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that fame and fortune are as much a curse as a blessing.