Idols without idolatry

I started writing a comment on sidvee‘s thought-provoking post on sportsmen, idols and heroes but this is something close to my heart and merit a longer musing.

Lance Armstrong’s Baumgartner-like fall from grace shook the world of cycling and I daresay, all of his fans. The man had beaten cancer, started a foundation to battle it, won seven TDF titles and had done so against seemingly unsurmountable odds. To learn that he’d doped and coerced teammates into complicity must’ve been a devastating revelation for those who idolized him.


i·dol [ahyd-l]

an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed.

any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion

a mere image or semblance of something, visible but without substance, as a phantom.

a figment of the mind; fantasy

The articles linked in sidvee’s post tackle the last two definitions. A substance-less fantasy, a mere image which isn’t true. We make it true because we seek guidance and inspiration. We build them up to be something they’re not. When they reveal their almost innate human flaws, we feel betrayed. Doesn’t the fault lie with us for deceiving ourselves? For investing our blind faith in men and women who aren’t even aware of its, and our, existence?

Not completely.

It’s important to understand why this happens so readily with sportsmen. Some sportsmen exhibit the gold standard of performance. In doing so, they automatically embody values like hard work, diligence, excellence and focus. This, to me, is inescapable. It makes no sense to say Felix Baumgartner is actually a coward but if you launch him into near-space with a parachute he suddenly comes into his own. I assume he’d be the same courageous daredevil in other aspects of his life.

At the same time, it’s also true values exhibit during sport need not apply to all real-life situations. As sidvee points out, why shouldn’t Sachin Tendulkar search for every loophole to save tax on his gargantuan income? Well, what matters here isn’t the exemptions Tendulkar sought, but the manner in which he sought them. Claiming part of his income as an actor to save taxes is perfectly justifiable from a pecuniary standpoint but also signals the desperation with which he pursues his income. Desperation in this case being the opposite of proportionate and large-hearted. Of course, there’s no right or wrong in such cases, merely the lack of congruence with personal values. (Re-hashing an old topic, a reasonable response is “if Tendulkar should pay higher taxes because he earns a lot, why do you haggle with autorickshaws and yet think nothing of spending 100 Rs on a cup of coffee?” There’s no end to this argument, it’s a personal thing).

Then there’s self-awareness. A circus of endorsements and glorification is readily available and in some cases becomes a vicious cycle which validates a sportsman’s achievements making him or her seek out more of that validation until they start living those corporate lies. I always think of Rahul Dravid’s carefully cultivated image of a thorough, self-effacing gentleman. He endorsed products but did so with the shy diffidence that made him the country’s sweetheart. Even at forums trumpeting his abilities he was able to look like the awkward, slightly embarrassed but sincere guy soaking in the adulation but aware that all glory is fleeting. I’d be very surprised if that image were a front. Contrast that with the smash and grab endorsement deals of young cricket players who haven’t achieved anything yet, but drink the corporate kool-aid with abandon. It’s unsavory, but again a question of congruence with personal values. There’s no right or wrong.

I’m still a huge fan of Michael Schumacher, not just for his incredible driving but his ability to set goals and set about achieving them with a single-minded focus. The turnaround he achieved at Ferrari is a triumph of these values but also of a Machiavelian ruthlessness with which he relegated his teammate to a subservient position in the team. It was difficult for me to come to terms with this devious streak in a personal hero. I rationalized it by believing it was all for a good cause – the resurgence of Ferrari the team and with it, the glory of Michael Schumacher. I may not be completely right and I’ll never know for sure but it’s always been a struggle for me to reconcile traits like ruthlessness with the more wholesome connotations of being an idol.

The point is, some (not all) of us need idols because they’re a beacon of what’s possible. Sport offers a plethora of idols because of its ability to manifest visceral genius frequently. Perhaps it’s necessary to tone down those expectations, appreciate them only for what they do on the field and live by the values we see, instead of expecting them to live our lives for us.

We’re human after all. Even the superhumans.


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  1. Idols without idolatry « TheUNIREVERSE - November 4, 2012

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