It would be hard to find a category less suited to producing “role models” than the professional sportsperson. Plato thought so too. “Who is to lead us?” is Plato’s central preoccupation in The Republic, and the decathletes and wrestlers of Ancient Greece are never seriously considered.
Plato’s ideal leader was the Philosopher-King, who isn’t ready to lead until age 50, having spent the years to age 18 in basic training (physical and intellectual), followed by two years of military training, then 10 years of mathematics. At age 30, a 15 year apprenticeship follows, at which time the Philosopher-King will be ready to lead the Republic. In contrast, spending all your waking hours perfecting the skill of hitting a ball over a net seems a poor preparation. So why do we expect our sportspeople to be role models?
I started thinking about this on reading Anthony Tan’s consistently excellent column Tan Lines about Tony Martin’s stage four win in the Tour de France, which has been widely described as a “fairy tale” and “emotional”. Tan says it can be awkward for the writer and the subject when sports journalists try to invest the sportsperson with attributes that aren’t there, in order to feed the public’s need for a narrative. Martin has had his ups and downs as a cyclist (not uncommon in professional cycling) and is known for his focus and discipline (also common), but “Professional Cyclist Wins TDF Stage After Trying Really Hard for a Long time,” isn’t the story people want to read.
Lance Armstrong built an empire on our need to believe in fairy tales. He famously stood on the winner’s podium on the Champs Elysee and said he felt sorry for anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles. When Floyd Landis went on 60 Minutes to comprehensively dismantle his former team leader’s myth, he said “Look. At some point, people have to tell their kids that Santa Claus isn’t real. I hate to be the guy to do it, but it’s just not real.”
Nick Kyrgios is an exciting player to watch. He is young and has years to improve and mature. His on-court antics can be annoying, but whatever. No more so than the young John McEnroe, now an elder-statesmen of the game. It’s ridiculous to expect humility, maturity and calm from a 20-year-old whose every move is being scrutinised, often in slow motion close up, by a televised audience of millions, when his every waking hour has been spent training for this moment. And there’s an extra expectation on non-white athletes that they be non-threatening and self-deprecating. Role model squared.
I think all of this was packed into Dawn Fraser’s short rant. The “go back to where your parents came from” is somewhat ingenious if disingenuous. Forty-eight percent of Australians are immigrants or have a foreign born parent, the third highest in the OECD, which opens up whole new vistas of invective for the home-grown racist. And Dawn Fraser is a former athlete. Her own youthful antics got her banned from international swimming for 10 years. But we forget we were all young once – youth is a foreign country.
Generally speaking, professional road cyclists are a monkish lot who don’t easily conform to role model expectations. Armstrong was different – brash, intelligent, articulate and with a social conscience – a role model. It was all a lie. Fausto Coppi, Il Campionissimo, five-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and double Tour de France winner in the 1940s and early 50s, was also articulate, well dressed and urbane. He revolutionised the sport of cycling with modern ideas of training, recovery and nutrition (and doping, famously saying if a cyclist didn’t take amphetamines to improve performance, he wasn’t serious). Witty and debonair, with a Milanese cool, he was as often in the social pages as the sports pages.
Gino Bartali was Coppi’s greatest rival, also two-time winner of the Tour de France (he still holds the record for the longest gap between TDF wins – 10 years) and three-time winner of the Giro. From a modest, rural background, simply spoken and deeply religious, he was nicknamed “Gino the Pious,” not always without sarcasm. Bartali came to racing by apprenticing in a bike shop at the age of 13.
While Coppi is still revered today, Bartali is little talked about. He was, however, briefly in the news in 2013, when he was awarded the “Righteous Among Nations” medal by world holocaust research centre Yad Vashem for his efforts to save Jews during WWII. It emerged in 2010 that Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his cellar during the war. He had worked for the Italian Resistance, transmitting messages and documents rolled up in his bike frame on long “training rides”. In this manner, he also assisted Italian Jews with false documentation, working with a Jewish group responsible for smuggling an estimated 800 Jews to safety. The Italian secret service and their German allies in Italy considered him untouchable because of his status as a sportsman.
All of this emerged a full 10 years after Bartali’s death in 2000. He was an unassuming man, and difficult to interview. Unlike Coppi, he talked little about his accomplishments and anyone expecting a unifying narrative from him would have come away disappointed. When Bartali was eventually brought before the secret service, he said simply, “I do what I feel in my heart.”
After the war, he resumed training without falsified identity documents hidden in his top tube. He went on to win the Tour de France a second time at the age of 35. He wrote no memoir, told no one about his heroism. No one emulated Bartali – he wasn’t a role model.
To read more about Gino Bartali’s wartime activities: Road To Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon.
Thank you for a factual and dispassionate commentary on an issue which has been presented so emotively in the media.