One small voice: Today cheers, tomorrow boos

2008-09-05 00:00

Ask any group of boys what they want to be when they grow up and the chances are you will hear them shout out “pop star”, “fireman” and, maybe loudest of all, “professional sportsman”.

Up and down the country, hundreds of thousands of eager, innocent and blissfully naive youngsters dream of battering through the All Black defence like Schalk Burger, scoring four tries at Ellis Park like Jongi Nokwe and making a big century to win a Test match against England like AB de Villiers.

The sporting life appears lucrative, exciting and glamourous; and it can be, maybe one percent of the time for maybe one percent of the individuals who decide to pursue elite sport as their profession. For 99% of these people for 99% of the time, their choice of career brings only immense sacrifices and intense pressure.

Addressing a classroom full of 14-year-olds this week, I explained how I had helped Ian Woosnam write his autobiography in 2004. “Hands up if you want to be like Woosie,” I said. “He has been playing professional golf for around 40 weeks of each of the past 26 years. If you add up his prize money, endorsements and other income all together, he has probably earned a total of something like £28 million.”

“Wow,” the teenagers cooed, and every hand shot straight up.

“All right,” I continued, “there is something else you must consider. By his own admission, over the period of those 26 years, playing in tournament after tournament from Tuesday to Sunday, Tuesday to Sunday, Tuesday to Sunday, he has missed almost all the major events in the lives of his three children. Bearing that in mind, thinking of the family time you will have to sacrifice, who still wants to be like Woosie?”

Hands started to come down.

Ancient Romans appear to have had significantly less difficulty in understanding the full reality of a sporting life than we do almost two thousand years later. For them, sportsmen were not cricketers or footballers or rugby players; they were called gladiators, and they were men trained to fight each other, and wild animals, in various formats, often to the death, delighting capacity crowds at the Coliseum.

The most successful gladiators were pampered and adored, but they did not drive fast cars — or even fast chariots. Almost without exception, they were classified as slaves, recruited from across the empire and brought to Rome in chains. Their reward for victory in the Coliseum was not a fat cheque, or a lucrative endorsement, or even a silver trophy. It was no more and no less than simple freedom.

Much has changed, you might think. Or has it?

Perhaps, for all their wealth and celebrity, today’s sports idols are also slaves. They accept travel schedules that the most dedicated businessman would not even contemplate, and they endure the mind-numbing monotony of airport-hotel-training-hotel-match-hotel-airport-hotel-training-hotel ad infinitum.

Why? They will speak about honour and pride in the badge on their chest — and there was a time when elite sport was the preserve of the wealthy — but today, more often than not, modern day sportsmen ply their trade for the cause of freedom, financial freedom, freedom from worrying about the bills.

So they perform for us week after week. They win at Carisbrook and Edgbaston, and we cheer.

They lose at King’s Park and the Oval, and we jeer. One day, they are feted as world champions.

Seemingly the next day, they are derided as “not fit to wear the colours”. Still they continue to strive for victory, in pursuit of their modern brand of freedom, ever on the road, every move subjected to ruthless scrutiny.

Pity the child that realises his ambition and becomes a professional sportsman. Pity the child that grows up and subjects himself to the fickle winds of selection and the subjective judgments of media and supporters. Pity the child whose talent and commitment leads him into a life in sport.

Pity him, or maybe just show a little more compassion. Nobody ever wins all the time, not Roger Federer or Tiger Woods, not the Springboks or the Proteas, not even Bafana Bafana. So, when our gladiators do lose, please don’t boo … just support.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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