Andrew Cotter: That moment your sporting heroes become… normal people


In his latest column for TG, Andrew Cotter talks about why his view has changed with age about the men and women he once idolised.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I stopped believing. More precisely, I stopped believing in the magic of sports stars, no longer idolising them as I did. Because as a child that’s certainly the way it is. 

Famous sports people are godlike creatures, seen on TV and stuck upon bedroom walls. Firmly Blu-Tacked above my bed was a cut-out double-page photo from a golf magazine of the 1987 Ryder Cup team, taken on the 18th green of Muirfield Village, not long after Olazabal’s graceful samba/uncle-at-a-wedding dance. 

Yes, I realise that I was 14 at the time and probably should have been affixing posters of Lamborghinis or scantily-clad women, rather than Howard Clark and Gordon Brand Junior. But I loved golf and these men were superheroes to me.

And then it changed. It wasn’t a sudden thing, an epiphany, more a gradual erosion – but over the next few years, and fairly rapidly once my working life began, my viewpoint altered.

I think this is a perfectly normal progression as you mature – to let go of childish things and instead watch sport and its participants through a more critical eye. Indeed, now if I see a fully-grown adult asking for an autograph I tend to think that it is either heading for eBay or that the person is in breach of a restraining order. 

These thoughts came again to my mind after the victory of Patrick Reed at The Masters. Only because as a winner he was not – how to put it – overwhelmingly popular. He has a reputation which means that he is never going to top a poll of fan favourites.

Two things to note about this. Firstly, are we entitled to write or read about his history and his personal life? Mostly people say the stories shouldn’t be told, or that it’s none of our business because they feel that a private life – everything off  the course – should remain off-limits.

What are we entitled to know of our golfing stars? Is this not just the kind of prurience that you would find in tabloids or in the murky clickbait of the online world?

Well – not really. As soon as someone has success in a public domain, they become a public figure. It would be very odd indeed if people did not then report other things that have occurred in that person’s life, good or bad.

Back stories can be both interesting and relevant. They make us invest more in the players we see. Make us pick our favourite and support them or secretly root against another – that is a perfectly natural and acceptable thing in the following of sport. Otherwise we are all just watching different coloured shirts wandering round a course, some taking fewer shots than others. 

Likewise the latest book on the life of Tiger Woods. Scandalous gossip and hearsay for some; fascinating, thoroughly researched and pertinent say others. 

Secondly, why should we be surprised when we discover that our sporting champions are not perfect anyway? It’s the same phenomenon which leads us to give more credence to the opinion of a Hollywood actor on any number of subjects. 

You should never meet your heroes, as the saying goes. You meet sports people and find them… normal. And of course, why should they not be? Some are interesting, others are dull. Some have done strange and silly things, others have led saintly lives helping puppies across the road and giving old ladies a tickle behind the ear.

Certainly some players that I once looked up to I have later found to be ill-informed, or have questionable opinions on a range of topics. Yet people listen to them, and perhaps give their opinions more validity because they won a Major, or shot 63 in a tournament, getting up and down from a bush on the last.

But of course they are clearly human like the rest of us – with flaws as we all have. Maybe it is because golf – and sport in general – is pure escapism that we don’t want to consider that those who do it so well and make us marvel at their skill, are just as attached to lowly reality as the rest of us. We want them to remain part of the perfect fantasy and don’t want to sully it with mundane matters.

True, part of the nature of the job I do means that you never really see sport as a fan any more – always watching instead as the objective critic. Yet naive innocence would probably make it far more enjoyable. Everybody has to grow up at some point, but how much nicer would it be to still have just a little bit of that childish wonder?

And to still believe in superheroes.

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