Sports fans' idolatry makes monsters of heroes


The lives of many ordinary people are focused on sporting heroes, who act as their proxies. Although they do not know their idol personally, their devotion enables them to feel in some sense that they have themselves reached the hero's extremes of physical and mental endeavour. 

At its best, this delusion can have a positive social effect, in that it can make sports fans feel good about themselves, and infect their families and those around them with a positive outlook.

But essentially, many fantastic sporting achievements are just that. They are fantastic in the sense that what the hero has done is indeed great, but not well grounded in the reality of the give and take of human relationships and day to day activity in their lives.

The regrettable truth is that highly successful athletes are often deeply flawed human beings. Their success is frequently accompanied by a range of narcissistic and selfish behaviours that exploit and damage other people who are close to them in their personal and professional lives.

This appears to be the case with Oscar Pistorius, as it was with other sporting greats including Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Shane Warne. Australia's badly behaved swimmers from the 2012 London Olympics could well join them in the future.

With regard to Armstrong, it's possible to argue that his bullying, intimidation and misrepresentation of those around him — which was designed to protect his clean image — was a greater wrong than his use of the performance-enhancing drugs.

The paradox is that the activities of successful athletes off the sporting field often include establishing or helping charities, which are dedicated to helping those who are less fortunate. But, whether intentional or not, these activities can work to conceal the truth about the athlete's flawed record in their treatment of fellow human beings, and they also reinforce the damaging myth of his or her super-human greatness.

In seeking to curb the excessive behaviour of sporting heroes, we can call for greater regulation and surveillance. But we can also examine our own behaviour.

We should not discount the role the blindness of our own idolatry can have in fuelling the arrogance and inflated sense of self worth of these people. It's one thing to praise them for the mental rigour that facilitates their single-minded pursuit of particular goals on the sporting field, but another for us to continue to support them when it's clear that they have brought this single-mindedness to their abuse of people off the sporting field.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Oscar Postorius, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Shane Warne, sport.



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Existing comments

Much food for thought in this article Michael. I'd broadly agree with much you say. The headline "Sports fans' idolatry makes monsters of heroes" does bear some scrutiny though. We all have to take personal responsibility for our own choices, and sporting heroes who betray their responsibilities to themselves, and to people who may admire them, actually make 'monsters' of themselves. The 'publicity machines' can make sporting heroes appear invincible and above reproach and sports fans who swallow this hook, line and sinker may more accurately be described as "naive" rather than "idolatrous". Having said that, Australia may need to rethink its long history of obsession with all things sporting and spend more Saturday afternoons with landcare groups and/or book discussion groups!!

Pam | 23 February 2013  

Good article, Michael. On this track Karen Brooks wrote an excellent piece on this in last Thursday's Courier-Mail where she pointed out that it is basically a matter of being genetically blessed that makes you a top athlete and that the adulation afforded such athletes, who are often very normal otherwise, is ludicrous. We Australians love sport and we love betting. The coming together of these two can be disastrous as is the commodification of sport. Oh for the days of (amateur) Australian sports people of the Don Cordner; John Landy and Murray Rose variety. Class acts, all of them and they had real lives and real professions.

Edward F | 24 February 2013  

Among the most culpable promoters of sports people as role models are Catholic schools. On countless occasions I have witnessed school assemblies fawning in the presence of barely literate old boy sporting celebrities whose public lives represented the antithesis of the Christia values on which the school was founded.

grebo | 25 February 2013  

"What do you think this is, lad? - A game? " This is an old joke about the professional cricketer chiding a newcomer to the team over a dropped catch. It epitomises the growing over-emphasis on winning, rather than the enjoyment of participating in a game - win, lose or draw. Winning may, almost inevitably, be the main focus in professional spectator sports but it would be sad if it extends to Saturday-afternoon games which should be enjoyable whatever the scores or outcomes.

Bob Corcoran | 25 February 2013  

It seems to me that sport is about organising the exercise we need to keep functioning at more important levels, like work and study - end of story. It seems ludicrous to me to sit and watch someone else taking their exercise, and even more ludicrous to elevate those other people to the status of heroes. Am I missing something?

Peter Downie | 25 February 2013  

The confession from Lance Armstrong - long overdue, raised the issue of drugs in sport, not just in cycling but all sport. Since then we have had the AFL and NRL sagas and who knows what else lies beneath? The betting culture also demeans sport. Many thanks for the timely article. Money, drugs, sport, endorsements, fame & adulation,it is all most people dream about. Careful what you wish for.

Jenny Esots | 25 February 2013  

"The regrettable truth is that highly successful human beings are often deeply flawed human beings" would be a more accurate statement. Why just pick on the sports plonkers? I have to admit that I am sportisitic, and cannot understand, or stand, the far too elevated position sport and sporting 'stars' get in Australia, or elsewhere. But far more pathetic than the sports starts are the people who invest so much emotion in following 'their team' and living vicariously through the actions of a few dysfunctional people. Time to get a life, perhaps to go and play some sport even at the amateur level instead of being a slave to the big business of pretend sport? What we see these days is not 'sport' but a highly organised business, increasingly there just for the gambling industry and for bad politicians to feign an interest in, in their perpetual rounds of 'bread and circuses' flimflam.

janice wallace | 25 February 2013  

Why is Oscar Pistorius included when he has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him in South africa? He is entitled to the presumption of innocence unless found guilty by a properly constituted court. That article should be corrected immediately.

jl trew | 25 February 2013  

This is a very sexist and exclusive article. I mean, I agree with it, but where is the mention of female athletes in these situations? Why do you mention only male sporting idols and their misdemeanours? And, Grebo, what about fawning Old Girls? Wait on - after a few microseconds of mature reflection, I realize that maybe this is a Male Thing after all....I take it back, Michael. You're right after all.

Joan Seymour | 25 February 2013  

I agree with the sentiment of this article. However, the same article could be written about the Australian media industry, the Hollywood film industry and the Australian TV industry. The image of celebrity sports people and other celebrities are used in our capitalist society to promote consumer spending and as most Australian people are intellectual morons and cultural philistines, they are gullible enough to base their spending decision on the image of a Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Roger Federer and the shareholders of companies such as Nike are laughing all the way to the bank.

Mark Doyle | 25 February 2013  

"The regrettable truth is that highly successful athletes are often deeply flawed human beings." ************************* People seem to have a remarkable ability to see a flawed material approximation and rise above it to form an idealistic conception of it such as warrants something akin to idolisation. This happens not only with athletes, but with talented people in many spheres of activity, entertainers, war heroes,and even successful politicians. It can extend to religious organisations,and helps to explain why many people are prepared to live and die for religions that seem to outsiders to be the very antithesis of what their devotees see in it. Christianity, for example, began by proclaiming universal love and compassion, but later, when esteem for its message was transferred to the organisation itself, moved to burning the writings of anyone who pointed out its faults, and later still to burning the writers as well. We need to keep in mind just what it is we esteem, and not be carried away so as to extend our esteem to features merely associated with it.

Robert Liddy | 25 February 2013  

Are they really heroes? Aren't they just super-determined people who pursue their own dream of self at whatever cost to others?

hilary | 25 February 2013  

Good one Michael! Many of the local heroes of whom you write I see as exploited youths. They are not valued for themselves,their flaws, successes and failures but as paid gladiators on whom to stick slogans and link their image to some product; until they stuff up that is. Have you ever noticed the sheer number of adverts at a sporting event, these days? And the poor unfortunate underdeveloped youngsters are naturally swayed especially as they do not have the personality structure to deal with the adulation and the money. But as several of your respondents imply the punters desirous of touching the hem of the garments are as gormless. Ben Quilty, Archibald Prize winner, lives down the road from me and he pointed out that the nation spends heaps on training athletes but not so for artists.

Michael D. Breen | 25 February 2013  

Great article. Mostly because it doesn't go down the road of vilifying sport, just making a comment regarding both us and sportspeople. As a long time competitive (before Armstrong) cyclist I have never watched sport for the individuals. I do love the spectacle though and I agree with Mark Doyle. This is equally applicable to other fields. Consequently we shouldn't get hung up on our musicians,just enjoy the music

geoff Duke | 01 March 2013  

I particularly like the phrase "the blindness of our own idolatry". Right on. Here in Canada it relates to our treatment of star hockey players who can do no wrong, but need to be over 6 feet tall and can crash other players into the boards.

Bob Shank | 01 March 2013  

isn't it about time we looked at people who qualify for the Institute of Sport (if that is what it is called) & pay no fees when scholars are burdened with Uni fees. I know who I admire more

rosemary west | 02 March 2013  

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