Clodagh Finn: Making elite athletes our role models serves none of us well

'We accord professional athletes role-model status, but perhaps we should take a step back and ask if their lifestyle is to be admired rather than emulated.'
Clodagh Finn: Making elite athletes our role models serves none of us well

Poland's Iga Swiatek celebrates after winning the final match against Turkey's Ons Jabeur at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome.

Every year, it’s the same. I lose all sense of perspective and think that (insert name of tennis player of the tournament here) should run for high office based on her of his exceptional performance at the French Open. That might be a slight exaggeration, but surely anybody who can end a rally with a drop shot like that should be embraced as some kind of universal role model.

It is the most understandable urge. Witness, say, Rafael Nadal at his best or Iga Swiatek winning her 32nd game in a row, as she did on Monday, and you can’t help but think that skill of such calibre could be useful elsewhere.

Excellence on the court must surely translate into something magnificent in the everyday world, right?

At least that is what we tend to think when we see the result of years of commitment, dedication, and dogged determination play out in spectacular form on the clay court at Roland Garros in Paris. Or at least I do.

Every time. I see the finesse and grace of a well-played match and leap to two deeply flawed conclusions:

  • 1. That wearing a similarly branded T-shirt is going to improve my backhand;
  • 2. That brilliance on the court is a transferrable skill.

The first assumption is never the case, alas, unlike the second. It is true to say that an elite athlete with a global profile has a lot of power, and many great athletes, of all hues, use it for good. They start academies for young people, back campaigns for fitness, go into schools and tell young people about the benefits of sport. All wonderful, laudable things — but isn’t it too much to expect them to be role models as well?

A role model, to use one dictionary definition, “is a person that people admire and try to copy”.

Martina Navratilova is arguably one of the best tennis players of all time.
Martina Navratilova is arguably one of the best tennis players of all time.

There is no issue with admiring an elite sportsperson. I can’t say enough about Martina Navratilova, possibly the greatest player of all time, for example. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she spoke openly about dealing with the shock of seeing her life change in a nanosecond.

She spoke, too, of the need to guard your positive energy and your time.

“Don’t ever feel bad about doing what is good for you,” she said in an uplifting video message that still resonates widely.

She is also inspiring on ageing (“the ball doesn’t know how old I am”); has excellent anecdotes (she learned to play bridge during the rain breaks at Wimbledon); and speaks out frequently against discrimination. For instance, she has called to have the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne renamed as the Evonne Goolagong Arena.

Courting controversy

The controversy over the Margaret Court Arena is a perfect example of the difficulty in turning sports stars into role models. The Australian player, a former world number 1, was an exceptional tennis player but she has drawn angry criticism for her opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights.

On her website, Navratilova explains why the arena should be renamed after Evonne Goolagong.

Evonne is the embodiment of what a role model or hero truly is. Her heritage, her success against the odds, her Hall-of-Fame career, and her exemplary life off court, in which she has given so much of herself to so many causes, are all attributes we can celebrate wholeheartedly

Nobody will dispute that, but the counter-argument goes something like this; the arena celebrates Margaret Court’s tennis, rather than her life and her views.

As we are in Melbourne, recall how Novak Djokovic was turned into some sort of posterboy for anti-vaccination campaigners when he was deported from Australia earlier this year after the government cancelled his visa in a row over his vaccine status. 

Novak Djokovic insists he does not hold anti-vaccination views.
Novak Djokovic insists he does not hold anti-vaccination views.

The tennis star said later that he was never against vaccination, having been vaccinated as a child, but believed a person should have the right to choose what they put in their body.

He also said that he should not be associated with the anti-vax movement.

If we are to learn anything from this, it is that conflating tennis genius with public health, politics, or social movements is a risky business. Remember, too, that tennis players have feet of clay. How sad to see the fall of Boris Becker, sentenced to two and a half years in jail in April for several offences relating to his 2017 bankruptcy.

Even if all tennis players led exemplary off-court lives, we should still question the wisdom of turning them into role models. Yes, it’s 100% positive to see a young person motivated to try a new sport, and to see much more diversity in tennis and elsewhere, but should we not sound at least a note of warning?

In tennis, something like 0.01% make it to the top and they do so by leading disciplined, focused, and often cosseted lives that are almost exclusively devoted to their sport. I was particularly struck by an interview with a former professional footballer a few years ago who described being unable to make a doctor’s appointment after he retired.

Life on the circuit

The life of a professional athlete is not exactly an exemplar when it comes to work/life balance. It is not one always covered with glory either. I always wonder what happens to those players who are knocked out in round one of tennis tournaments. US player Brittany Collens (International Tennis Federation ranking: 309) offered a really telling insight into life on the tennis circuit in an article in Global Sport Matters, republished in The Guardian this week under the headline: ‘Bedbugs, anxiety and friendships: the ups and downs of life on tennis’ lower rungs.’

“Trying to make it in tennis is anything but glamorous,” she writes. 

Tennis pros have a need to be understood when expressing how lonely, how unrelatable, and, for players ranked outside the top 250 or so, just how scrappy our lives are. And that need is often unmet

She talks of returning from life on the circuit to find her nieces and nephews impossibly bigger, the period of readjustment necessary to fit back into ordinary life, and then, just as she is starting to feel comfortable, the depression and anxiety that creep in when it’s time to leave again.

It’s an eye-opening read that describes travelling alone, forging deep but not necessarily lasting friendships, and ending up in a hotel with bed bugs the night before a big match. An hour into sleep, she writes of waking up with her body on fire and covered in a rash but summoning the mental strength not to let that ruin her state of mind for the following day’s game.

“The mental challenges that come from trying to make it as a professional tennis player are severely underrated... It’s not about groundstrokes and serves. Everyone on tour can play. It’s about being mentally strong. It’s about having some good fortune. And it’s about who can stick it out in the end.”

Little wonder we accord professional athletes role-model status, but perhaps we should take a step back and ask if their lifestyle is to be admired rather than emulated.

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