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What do we want?

August 3, 2010

In Belfast yesterday, they came out in their thousands for Alex Higgins. Known to the sporting world as snooker’s ‘Hurricane’, to the people of East Belfast, he was also one of their own , a Sandy Row hero, born there and died there. A number of snooker stars have appeared in the media since his untimely death at the age of 61, mostly to pay tribute to him. Their words have tended away from the articulate because, as is well known, Alex wasn’t an easy guy to like, not when he was wired up and on a roll. And yet – nobody wants to speak ill of the dead – especially when they’ve excelled at part of their life – sport, the arts, politics.

For Belfast, of course, there were uncomfortable echoes of their last big sporting funeral – the passing of Georgie Best – and the echoes were not just to be found in the crowds lining the streets, either. You couldn’t help wondering if a few folk in Gateshead shared a prescient shudder as they pondered on the future path of their own local hero, Gazza.

It seems, unfortunately, that many of our sporting heroes don’t cope too well with fame and fortune; they pay a dreadful personal price for living out our dreams on the football park or snooker parlour. In Scotland, Slim Jim Baxter comes to mind, and how inappropriate his unfortunate lifestyle made that soubriquet, long before the end of his career, and before him, boxer Benny Lynch and any amount of minor heroes for whom time, opportunity and resources combined with public adulation to guide them down an unwelcome path to addiction of one kind or another.

You could say, of course, that a certain percentage of the population is cursed with addictive tendencies and that sports heroes figure no more highly in that direction than ordinary members of the public. That may well be true, but how difficult it must be to attempt to fight those particular demons in the full glare of public attention and while trying to maintain a certain level of fitness and wellbeing.

There is also, whisper it, an awful suspicion that somehow, as fans, we are fascinated by those who fly close to the burning flames of boozing or gambling. Is it a kind of schadenfreude? You may be brilliant with a ball at your feet or a cue in your hand, but look where it got you?

Certainly those sports heroes who have tackled addiction successfully – Jimmy Greaves, Tony Adams, Paul Merson  – seem to garner far less attention than those who continue to struggle in a  downward direction. The periodic reports of Paul Gascoigne’s troubles – much like those of celebrity equivalent Lindsey Lohan – are food and drink to the tabloids and shift vast numbers of papers and magazines.

Maybe we do get a kind of shameful thrill when the fates punish those whom they have first setup to be idolised for their extra special talents. Certainly during Bestie’s sojourn in Edinburgh with Hibernian there was no shortage of ‘fans’ who were happy to ply him with drink and then spend the next weeks and months recounting ‘what a state he was in’. I’m sure it was the same, or even worse for Higgins, operating as he did in a world filled with sponsorship from tobacco and alcohol concerns. And how ironic that the businesses who donated his prize money also contributed to his troubled life and premature end.

Clearly there are always those with addictive personalities – and maybe that helps drive them to sporting success – the need to keep going at something till they can do no more, harnessed with an inability to tell when they have gone too far. Such commitment leads to records broken, mountains climbed and personal bests, but also to families wrecked and personal lows.

I wonder at the role we, as fans, play in our heroes’  fall from grace. In an age when we demand that our stars are not just superbly talented at their chosen sport but also celebrity heroes in every area of their life, do we ask too much from individuals who have already dedicated their lives from a young age into fulfilling vicariously for us the dreams we can never achieve?

The sports fan’s appetite for heroes is voracious and for every new star on the block there is a forgotten idol coming to terms with the price of fame, alone and outwith the spotlight.

It is common today to opine that sport stars are well rewarded for their talent and dedication. How ironic, then, that those rewards can also lead to their downfall.

When Euripides wrote, 500 years before Christ: “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad”, he may just as well have written ‘They first make supremely talented”.

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