Man at His Best

Opinion: The Deification Of Athletic Heroes

Nicholas Fang wants everyone to know the difference between blind patriotism and valid, objective criticism.

BY Nicholas Fang | Oct 3, 2016 | Culture

The mania surrounding Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold, thanks to Joseph Schooling, seems to have laid the groundwork for the deification of our athletes, as stories of how Team Singapore overcame adversity on their way to the most hallowed of global sporting competitions have been told and retold.

Media commentaries that dared to criticise less-than-sterling showings, or, gasp, athletes who declined to speak to reporters after a sub-par result, were roundly savaged on social media. Many of the detractors pointed out that the journalists had a) never qualified for an Olympic team; and b) never achieved an equivalent result, and hence, didn’t possess the right to comment on those who entered the sporting fray. Those with the temerity to criticise athletes’ performances were also labelled as “unpatriotic”.

If we agree with the logic of these arguments, then it would preclude anyone from being a journalist, unless he or she had personally achieved what his or her subjects had as well, making it really difficult to staff a newsroom. If we put aside that spurious argument, it would be worthwhile to examine the motivations for such a passionate defence of athletes at all costs.

I can understand how the country’s first gold medal has sparked fervent hopes that more could be on the way, and that all who toiled for that cause are worthy of our unconditional support.

Yet, it’s also important to remember that the point of sport is to compete hard and win. Admiration is usually reserved for superlative performances. If athletes try their best and fail, they deserve our support too. But that doesn’t preclude observers from calling it as it is, and pointing out sub-par performances.

Sport is, for the most part, objective, with benchmarks, standards, timings, distances and previous results offering a basis for comparison. Athletes shouldn’t shy away from such comparisons if they are truly sincere in their pursuit of excellence. After all, when they do well, they expect the media to report it as such, and they shouldn’t expect double standards when they fail to live up to expectations.

Fans who follow their favourite athletes on their respective journeys also want to know when they stumble, and hopefully pick themselves up and overcome the challenges to deliver a victory that is sweeter for the obstacles that were faced along the way.

Perhaps most importantly, athletes who pursue excellence at the highest levels must be aware that they will eventually be performing on a global stage, under the glare of bright lights, television cameras and with thousands watching eagerly. They will be expected to carry the weight of great expectations and still perform at the top of their game. Developing the maturity and the resilience to deal with the brickbats and the bouquets will be useful additions to their arsenal. And it would help if fans realise that this is something that goes with the territory of being a sporting hero, and that the media can, and should, call it as they see it.

From: Esquire Singapore's October 2016 issue.