Tuesday 12 November 2019

Football's toxic truth falls short of Olympic standards

Richard Sadlier

Manteo Mitchell ran his leg of the 4x400m relay heat on Thursday with what was later found to be a broken leg. He snapped his left fibula bone at the 200m point but kept running. He completed his lap only a second slower than his target time, and the USA team went on to reach the final. Contrast this with countless images of footballers lying on the ground, supposedly in pain, as the direct result of nobody touching them. The backlash is under way.

With so much humility, honesty, dedication and pride on show throughout London 2012, I've been asked a question a number of times in the past fortnight: why can't footballers be more like Olympians? The answer, as you'd expect, is far from straightforward. I don't disagree with the premise of the question, but the conditions in which both operate are entirely different.

Olympians seem genuinely appreciative of the support they receive from the crowd and rarely pass an opportunity to express it. It's an endearing quality which connects them further to those who follow them. In contrast, it's not uncommon for footballers to leave the field head-bowed without even acknowledging the fans or even mentioning them afterwards to the press. But football fans are markedly different to those who follow athletics once every four years.

Crowds will rarely ever jeer an athlete or members of their family, but footballers have come to expect it. It's an entirely different experience which requires different behaviour. The less known about you or your personal life, the better. For example, when Liverpool fans learned John Terry's mother had dated a man from Liverpool, they sang 'John Terry's mum, she loves a Scouse cock'. I doubt there will ever be a song that comes close to that during an Olympic Games, other than perhaps at a football match. Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, for example, was booed by British fans while representing Uruguay at London 2012.

Olympians seem much more accessible, while the opposite is the case in professional football. While athletes are required to be that way to boost their own profile and that of their sport, players are mocked if they do likewise. In fact, the few footballers who do allow magazines a glimpse of their personal lives are accused of getting sidetracked by the trappings of fame and fortune. It is hard to invite photographers into your multi-million pound home without the appearance of brashness, so it's best not to do it at all.

Olympians engage far more openly with the media in ways footballers rarely do, but they are interviewed in ways footballers never are. In addition to praise and encouragement, questions don't come much more probing than 'well, how was that for you?' Phil Jones of the BBC, for example, spent a lot of the tournament practically hugging his interviewees. Even those who were disappointed with their performances were reminded of the watching children they have inspired and told to take pride in all they have achieved. Football reporters don't say those things.

Sections of the media are hostile to footballers in ways the majority of athletes will never experience, so a degree of guardedness and cynicism is inevitable. Media training reduces their input to bland and meaningless platitudes. This can be frustrating, sometimes insulting, but it's necessary. The demand for stories is constant, and players are only ever a clumsy turn of phrase away from making headlines everywhere. Most Olympians, for the majority of their careers, are beyond the interest of sports editors and enjoy attention from the press when it arrives. For example, after winning the 3,000m steeplechase in London last week, Kenyan athlete Ezekiel Kemboi said "a crowd of journalists

makes me happy". In terms of the media and the public, Olympians

and footballers are playing different games which require different rules.

But that's not all. One has money thrown at them at the first glimpse of potential, while the other can be the best in the world and need sponsorship to continue to train. That's because of the interest shown by the public to each sport.

As incredible as Manteo Mitchell's story is, it taught me nothing new about the behaviour of many footballers. I knew before London 2012 that many cheat and many dive. Many are motivated primarily by money and some have no appreciation whatsoever for the help they have received or for the support they currently enjoy. It doesn't take the performances of Katie Taylor, particularly outside the ring, to know professional football has set the bar pretty low regarding the standards it demands from its players. But there is room for improvement among fans and media also.

It's wrong, however, to tarnish all players in this way, and I know there are athletes who cheat and take drugs and there are sections of the football media who are interested only in what happens on the field. There are fans who show no disrespect to opposing players and give nothing but support to their own. In the main, though, professional football is about the furthest it could possibly be from the stated ideals of the Olympic movement. And we've all had a role in that.


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