Why the Olympian/Footballer debate is a Red Herring

Posted by on August 16, 2012 in General | 4 comments

There’s a certain amount of navel gazing going on in football right now, a bit of introspection brought on by the stunning success of the British athletes at the Olympics as well as the success of the games themselves. It would have been hard not to get completely carried away with it all, success after success for humble athletes a world away from the overpaid, diving prima donnas we see on a weekly basis. But it went beyond that. The success of the games came in its celebration of athletes of all nations, of all colours and religions, and not just those who picked up medals at the end. Incredible feats of achievement, people pushing themselves to the limit, breaking personal bests, breaking barriers, breaking taboos. And the crowds that watched them in sold out stadiums and arenas (even if not all bodies were present at the time) were kind, sporting, exited to be there.

It throws into contrast the feast of football we get served for 9 months of the year, but to be honest, the main criticism of football at the expense of these noble Olympians doesn’t really hold. The charge at the beautiful game is that its players are the dishonest, greedy, money-loving crybabies who cheat, swear, are bad role models and more. Compare this to the modestly paid athletes of the Olympics (admittedly there are some incredibly wealthy stars, but also plenty who have standard day jobs and average (and in parts of the world far below average) wages).

For me, this is a disingenuous comparison that does disserve to plenty of decent professionals as well as misses the point about why the Olympics were different. You don’t have to look far to find examples of footballers who are outstanding role models and part of their community. Just a couple of weeks ago Russell Martin was part of an anti-racist event in Norwich, while every year you see clips and pictures of footballers doing the rounds of local hospitals. All clubs have charities they work with or are linked to, charities that do so much in local communities that helps keep kids active or provides education. Football players are the magnets in these charities, providing the pull to get kids and schools involved. On top of this there are examples of outstanding sportsmanship on the field, such as teams allowing a goal to be scored against them after a freak occurrence.

This is unfortunately drowned out by the self-serving idiocy of a lot of celebrity footballers; players like Terry and Bowyer who end up in courts, Suarez who has a rap sheet that spans countries and divers like Ashley Young. These players deserve a public kicking, a very clear demonstration that there are athletes and fans who will not put up with their nonsense. But it isn’t just footballers who fall into habits like this.

Third place in the Olympics blue ribbon event went to Justin Gatlin, a man who served a doping ban and refuses to admit guilt. You had ‘former’ drug cheats win prizes elsewhere too. You had badminton players trying to throw game, fencers refusing to accept defeat, and lets not even get started on the boxing judges, the only adjudicators in any Olympic sport who have to be breathalysed before starting work. If footballers suffered from any comparison it was to Team GB athletes, those names and faces we know much better and who, overwhelmingly, do not have the multi-million pound contracts and egos to go with them. The endearing quality about most of these athletes was their earnest hard work and utter dedication to their sport. There was no chance to accuse them of not earning their wage – it wasn’t about a wage.

But even still, this is not the comparison that really matters.

The difference between the Olympic games we have just witnessed and football we are used to is the experience of watching it and taking part. Here are a few things that you won’t have heard coming from the stands of the Olympic Stadium and other parts of London:

Oi! Dai Greene! Fuck off back to Wales you sheepshagger twat.

Gemili, what a FUCKING DONKEY, messing up that changeover. The overpaid twat doesn’t give a shit does he.

Oi Zac Purchase, why don’t you row a bit fucking faster mate? Don’t be such a lazy shit. I could row faster than that.

Michael Owen ruffled some feathers yesterday morning by pointing out it’s not just football players who need to change their behaviour and he’s right. Roy Hodgson said more or less the same thing. Footballers are in the spotlight and need to act the part, but it’s only part of the bargain. If you surround them with thirty thousand people who scream obscenities, there is only so far you can blame them for being detatched.

I detailed in this post, about why I was giving up my season ticket, some of the elements of fan culture that were becoming too much for me to carry on enjoying live games week in, week out. What we saw at the Olympics was a sport watching population removed from cynicism, negativity and abuse. Fans who adored British athletes whether they won or lost, but especially if they won. Who got behind ‘their team’ and applauded the full throttled effort of defeat. The experience of watching and being involved in the games was one of enjoyment and togetherness, not “I pay their wages so I’m entitled to say what I want.”

Fan culture is not what it was in the eighties, but it’s a different kind of problem these days. Celebrity footballers living remote lives become targets for people blowing off steam in a way they wouldn’t do at other sporting events, let alone the ‘real world’. Football fan culture exists in a bubble where abuse is dressed up as banter and it’s acceptable to shout swearwords at people playing a game.

Many people have asked how we’d keep the spirit of the Olympics going after it finishes. Here’s an idea to start; stop being abusive. Drop the cynicism about highly paid athletes and recognise it for what it is; a choice we each make to put money into a club with zero guarantee of getting anything out of it. A choice. It’s always a choice.


  1. I agree. Great article. What can footballers take from the Olympics and some other sports, rugby and cricket to name two, is attitude and language toward each other and officials. It needs to start there, but you’re right fans need to change too, the reality is most fans have neither the vocabulary, intellect or will to do do.

  2. Spot on.

    Unfortunately, the drones will see it as “banta”.

  3. Agree – although it’s necessary to be able to vent anger, there’s no inherent right to target others as part of that and turn it into hate.

  4. So did you or did you not renew your season ticket, the quite-a-few-hundred-quid question?

    I agree that this is both a silly ‘debate’ – serious drug abuse continues in most Olympic sports, there is no more corrupt or venal outfit in the world than the International Olympic Committee, and it’s only a matter of time before the media narrative on London 2012 turns from ‘global party’ to ‘national hangover’ – but also quite a profound one, mainly because of the bout of shame-faced soul-searching it’s prompted in football.

    Like you, I love watching football (and in my day loved playing it too). I’ve been doing it for more than 50 years, the only constant thread through a varied and much-traveled life. But for most of those 50 years, I’ve followed football with a semi-permanent cringe, mainly because of the idiots we have to sit amongst and associate with. That feeling of constant embarrassment has, if anything, increased in the last few years of regular attendance at Carrow Road, and makes it harder every year to justify the considerable layout of time and money involved to ‘normal’, sensible football-phobes like my wife.

    When I started watching Norwich in the early-90s, it was a refreshing change from the racist lowlife associated with my hometown club, Leeds United (still there, only fat and bald and fifty, swearing and spitting at kids on their most recent visits to Carrow Road). I remember an amazing game here, won 5-4 by Southampton, and an old man saying afterwards ‘Never mind, they need the points more than we do…’

    That kind of comment is unimaginable now, even in the posh seats in the City Stand, where (at considerable extra cost – my seat costs £815!) I fled the morons in the Jarrold Stand last season. It wasn’t that what they bellowed was offensive, which it often was, it was more that they plainly hadn’t a clue what they were watching, and were just there for the goals and the reflected glory. This in turn fuels the hype and hysteria associated with the Premier League circus, perhaps the most blatant example of manipulation and exploitation ever in British public life.

    And like you I have got fed up with the anger, often excused as ‘passion’, which so many of these idiots go to football to vent. Like so much else, football hooliganism has simply been privatised and internalised, so that you get 10,000 individual seething cauldrons of teeth-grinding male rage, rather than the old-fashioned, organised ‘firms’ documented in books like Bill Buford’s ‘Among the Thugs’ and many subsequent lesser works. But even in the posh seats, I often find myself wondering why most of these people are there – and now, like you, what I’m doing there…

    I approach this coming season with less real interest and excitement than ever before- for one reason or another I just feel like I’ve had enough, and that it’s finally time to grow up and out of professional football. If, as David Conn argues consistently in the Guardian, it (and the companies, no longer ‘clubs’, that it consists of) constitutes a business not a sport, then I have to ask myself whether my grand a year might buy me more genuinely satisfying and wholesome pleasure elsewhere (even taking up some other more genuine and less downright annoying sport). I will go this season, mainly because I renewed early in a fit of early-Spring euphoria and old-fashioned Yorkshire stinginess, but (regardless of whether or not City struggle, which I suspect they will) I don’t think I will next year. I have just had enough of paying lots of money to surround myself with fools.

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