What’s the point?

2012-04-28 00:00

I WAS asked the other day about the thing that peeves me most about modern sport. My immediate response was to lament the increasing prevalence of tattoos on the bodies of male athletes. I was brought up by a generation of parents who believed tattoos were to be seen only on the bodies of merchant seamen and convicted criminals.

In the case of sailors one supposed that visits to the man with the blue needle took place in order to alleviate the tedium of long hours spent at sea. There was no cultural connotation attached to having tattoos and most of them were of such a banal nature that even the best could not be called decorative.

Tattoo parlours scarcely existed in the middle of the last century and in any case sailors were prone to spending shore leave in the most convenient bars and brothels.

Among the criminal classes tattoos have always been common for the simple reason that it identifies to which prison gangs the tattooed convict can claim an affiliation. This has always been an essential part of the self-preservation strategies that criminals are forced to make during incarceration. For them tattoos represent a lifebelt of sorts and are not symbols of artistic expression.

For these reasons it was believed that tattoos were “worn” only by the lowest of the low and were completely frowned upon by those with a minimal amount of brain matter.

Accordingly it required very little persuasion on the part of parents to dissuade their offspring from permanently disfiguring themselves.

Modern parents now have a much more difficult task to prevent young Sophie or Jack from sneaking off on Saturday afternoons to the local tattoo parlour. Many of the icons of today’s teenagers have body art that comprehensively wraps round limbs and torso in a manner that suggests the wearer will be fit for hanging in a boutique art gallery once his or her days on stage, screen, television or playing field are over.

The list of sportsmen so decorated is now so long that, for example’s sake, it is only necessary to mention the most obvious of them. David Beckham is probably the most famous and certainly the man who promoted the habit of acquiring tattoos into the tiny minds of those athletes who wished to tread the Beckham path to über celebrity status and the consequent licence to print ones own currency — tattoos and all.

Kevin Petersen is clearly the cricketer with the strongest ambition to follow the Beckham yellow brick road to stardom and wealth, so it was no surprise when his upper arm appeared in the red, white and blue flag of his adopted country, with other bits of needlework too hideous to identify.

When KP returned from his first visit to the needle man none of us blinked too hard. It merely confirmed that the former College schoolboy was no longer one of us and so much the better, we thought, if his absurd demonstration of new found patriotism was going to make it more awkward for him to return to live in the land of his birth.

Then along comes Dale Steyn with a peculiar reptile unwinding itself from armpit to elbow. What kind of brain fade compelled the number one fast bowler in the world to do such a thing? Did he think that his pectorial display would bring extra venom into his bowling? If so, he has been sadly mistaken. Over-exposure of his arm work to opposing batsmen has reduced his menace.

Familiarity and amusement have replaced fear. The wickets have begun to dry up, though to be fair to him the great Vernon Philander’s recent plunder has left few for any one else.

One of the members of my Johannesburg golf club, a man not unknown in the sporting world, has his entire upper torso, back and front, covered in an awesome spread of birds, reptiles and other strange symbols. He is built like the proverbial and is rumoured not to tolerate being stared at as he strolls about the change room in his much altered birthday suit though why this should be so is difficult to fathom. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” is the old saying.

The story goes that one of the chippier members of the club once asked the tattooed hulk to stand in front of him for five minutes while he performed his morning constitutional on the grounds that he had nothing else to read.

The continued existence of the perpetrator of this remark does not add much credibility to the tale.

Female athletes seem more or less immune from the desire to tattoo themselves, although the odd discreet rose, butterfly or other such symbol of love adds to rather than detracts from their allure.

The wall-to-wall paintings of the kind favoured by the Pacific Island rugby players has not found much favour with athletes of the fairer sex.

It is strange that that sport’s tattoo fashonistas should not have looked first at the likes of Roger Federer, Daniel Carter, Luke Donald, Sebastian Vettel and others of the really top athletes in the world whose skins never have and probably never will come into contact with the small pricks of tattoo artists. These surely are the proper role models for aspiring sportsmen.

Fashions, of course, are transient trends and hopefully future generations of athletes will see tattooing for what it is — a mindless spoiling of the human form which may give the wearer a few years of peacockish pleasure, but is more likely to result in several decades of lasting regret.

Oh and by the way, did I mention that my beloved youngest daughter and her lovely husband have joined this wayward club? It is strange how the abhorrent behaviour of others seems merely quaint and even charming when perpetrated by those of our own. Maybe that is what tattooing is all about. It provides a litmus test of love.

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