I imagine that most countries have their sporting heroes; individuals who inspire, entertain and often amaze with their outstanding skills. Sportsmen and women can have a dramatic impact upon the lives of those who watch them, whether in packed stadia or on the television. Children often aspire to follow the example of their sporting idols, and even sensible adults can become quite irrational in their efforts to emulate elite athletes. Take for example the London Marathon, run annually around the streets of the English capital, past many of the city’s major landmarks, and along roads lined with cheering fans. In the past, the marathon was an event for supremely fit and competitive runners, but the inspiration of the London event, and other similar races around the world has had the result of encouraging thousands of individuals to train for months in order to have their own personal moment of glory.
For many years when visiting India I came to accept that images of one of the world’s finest cricketers Sachin Tendulkar would be seen on billboards on every main street. I would imagine that similar exposure is currently being experienced by Richie McCaw the captain of the triumphant All Blacks rugby team in New Zealand, just as may have been the case with Pele many years ago in Brazil and Roger Federer more recently in Switzerland.
Having been involved in playing sport, albeit at a very basic level, for most of my life, I too have had my sporting heroes, and I still find myself in awe of the achievements of Beryl Burton, a sporting personality probably unknown to the majority of the British public, unless they have a particular affinity with riding a bicycle. Her courage and determination was typical of the characteristics that have inspired generations of amateur sportsmen and women everywhere. Whilst I know I could never hope to ride like the inimitable Yorkshire woman, I can still draw inspiration from her example.
Children are undoubtedly influenced by sports personalities. I am sure that there are many young boys who have been encouraged to play football after watching David Beckham, to hit a tennis ball like Andy Murray, or race bicycles in imitation of Bradley Wiggins’ exploits in the Tour de France and Olympics. I am equally aware of girls who wish to emulate the athletic accomplishments of Paula Radcliffe, to swim like Rebecca Adlington, or balance on a beam like Beth Tweddle. Such role models can encourage children to aim high and achieve great things; even those who may struggle with more academic activities.
It is therefore with great sadness that I have of late found both the back pages of newspapers, traditionally the location for sporting news, and the front pages reserved for more serious issues, reporting matters of sporting corruption and cheating. The bullying behaviour of the drug cheat Lance Armstrong, match fixing by long established professional cricketers, corrupt football officials, and over the last few days the reporting of doping scandals in Russian athletics, and probably in other countries as well, has done unimaginable damage to the image of sport.
There have been many occasions during my teaching career when I have had conversations with children who have difficulties coming to terms with the challenges of formal learning, but who have been able to demonstrate their skills with a football or cricket ball, on a bicycle or simply through the freedom of running. Often these young people have found inspiration from their sporting heroes and have looked to them as examples of excellence and sportsmanship. In schools we have seen sport as providing opportunities for encouraging team work, promoting fair play and the understanding of rules, and for the development of collaboration.
Those individuals and groups who have made sporting news of late for all the wrong reasons, have done a grave disservice to children who look to athletes for an example of excellence and achievement. This is a sad time for sports fans wherever they may be, and I fear that it may take some time before the trust that has been so severely damaged can be re-established, and children of all ages can once again attempt to emulate their sporting heroes.