Example still the best teacher: Icons move towards the shadows

Every generation has a tiny coterie of sportsmen or women whose career is a persistent exercise in dominance.

Example still the best teacher: Icons move towards the shadows

Every generation has a tiny coterie of sportsmen or women whose career is a persistent exercise in dominance.

Those careers celebrate exceptional natural talents and, more often than not, the huge effort needed to realise and sustain the opportunity rare gifts confer. Nicklaus, Piggott, Nadal, Ali, McCoy, Schumacher, Bolt, Navratilova, and Shefflin populate that pantheon. First names are superfluous, the serial champions’ achievements are so off the scale they assume a relevance outside their chosen sphere. They attract cliches as they accumulate victories: Icon, once-off, genius, unsurpassable, unbeatable, benchmark and, probably most of all, an example to those who dream to follow in their footsteps.

Serena Williams, the greatest woman tennis player of her age, ticks all of those boxes and maybe more. She has, ever since at the age of 17 when she won the 1999 US Open, seemed a force of nature, beautiful and fearsome. She long ago achieved iconic status, especially because her backstory is so very different from the standard-issue, middle-class tennis champion’s. She had to do far, far more than win on the court.

The 23-time grand slam winner’s attack on the US Open final umpire and especially her “thief” accusation showed another side of her character. She criticised sexism in tennis and many in the game supported her but, just as was the case with Roy Keane in Saipan, others were circumspect.

Opinion will be divided not on the issues but rather how she dealt with them. It would be very wrong to judge a stellar career stretching over two decades because of a momentary lapse but her preeminence imposes expectations, maybe unfairly, that she did not meet. Such are the almost impossible burdens of greatness. Her status as a role model will certainly, and justifiably, endure, but maybe not as absolutely as before.

Williams was not the only exemplar to step towards the shadows this weekend. On Sunday 17.6% of Swedes voted for the right-wing Sweden Democrats (SD). The anti-immigrant party is likely to take 63 seats in the new parliament, leading Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven to call on all “decent” parties to unite to stymie the SD’s nativism.

Sweden, and the other Scandanavian countries have represented a social democratic ideal almost since the end of WWII. Their health, education and family support systems, their officially-sanctioned life-work balance and very real environmental responsibility all seem enviable. Their ease with subjects that once caused consternation in this society was an eyeopener for Irish people of a certain age. Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg’s response to the 2011 Utøya attack which left 76 people dead — “more democracy, more openness” — exemplified this Scandi ideal which still eludes most European societies.

There is a fine line between sychopancy and admiration but when the White House is called “Crazytown” and the Vatican all too often seems a collaborator with paedophiles, and as the world marks the 10th anniversary of the financial collapse brought about by greed, we need to cherish those who exemplify high ideals and practise all the more — and accept that that commitment is indeed a heavy cross to bear.

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