When the light goes off, the stars fade …

2009-08-08 00:00

EVER wondered what it is like to feel alone in a crowded room? Ask a celebrated leading sportsman who has been retired for a few years and most probably he’ll be able to explain.

In their pomp and prime, these exceptional individuals get accustomed to living under the most intense spotlight: every performance is relentlessly described, judged and usually lauded on the sports pages and, in some cases, the juicier details of their personal lives spill on to the front pages.

Typically they have emerged from the pack while at school, performing brilliantly, becoming the centre of attention among their friends and also among inevitably overshadowed siblings. Heads turn when they walk into a room; in fact, they don’t walk ... they begin to strut. A professional contract follows.

The provincial cap is then followed by an international debut. As their fame grows, so their wealth starts to grow and before long they are beginning to attract the attention of all the wrong kinds of people: manipulative agents brokering deals and contracts and claiming their 15% or even 20% commission; wealthy businessmen hungry to be associated with the big names; and groupies collecting celebrity notches on their bed posts.

The good times roll, and the star sportsman generally yields to temptation ... agreeing to any endorsement or appearance for a few thousand bucks, eagerly following in the slipstream of anybody worth a few million or more, and excitedly responding to almost any flirtatious wink from across a crowded bar.

At first glance, as the team wins more matches and lifts more trophies, the individual appears super-confident and super-assured. Instead, in fact, beyond the bravado and the headlines, he is often astonishingly insecure, constantly worrying how he is perceived and portrayed from match to match and day to day.

He becomes pitiably susceptible to flattery and vulnerable to even the most blatant conmen, chancers who appear out of the blue offering the hero “fantastic”, “one-off” investment opportunities in property, mining, diamonds etc., just because “he really likes him and really wants to help him”.

All too often the sportsman is all too easily seduced into investing his hard-earned millions because he finds it literally impossible to understand or even imagine how anybody would ever try to defraud him, the legendary, the famous, the universally beloved ... For the fraudster, it’s like clubbing seals.

So the band plays on. More triumphs, more adulation, more media requests, more appearances, more people claiming to be friends, more wide-eyed admirers clamouring for his time and attention combine to convince this still relatively young man that, contrary to the laws of science, the world actually does revolve around him. He becomes utterly self-centred and self-absorbed, spending less time with family and old friends. There appears no reason for him to consider the needs of anybody else in the world because everybody else seems obsessed with him.

Ultimately, inevitably and inescapably, the day dawns when he must retire from the game. The bright light bulb is abruptly switched off, and the encircling swarm of moths, flies and other insects disappear into the darkness. The agent doesn’t phone anymore, the wealthy businessman has changed his cell number and, as long as he didn’t end up marrying and then divorcing her, the groupie has long since dressed and left.

Suddenly, the hero finds himself feeling strangely alone in a crowded room. Almost everybody knows him, notices him in the shopping mall and remembers what he achieved on the field, but now nobody seems to care.

A famous South African sportsman, a true legend, a name certainly known to everybody sufficiently interested to be reading this column, has lived through some tough times.

He is asked: “Out of all your former team-mates and coaches, out of the tens of thousands of people who at one stage or another dropped your name and proudly claimed to be your friend ... out of all these, who has stood by you, phoned to find out how you are or offered any kind of support?”

The question seems to surprise him. He stands still, his instantly recognisable face frozen in a difficult moment of reflection as he considers his response.

“Two,” he eventually replies. “That’s all.”

* Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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