Why the Olympian/Footballer debate is a Red Herring
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.