As published in Inside Sport, April 2008
Lillee, Walters, Newcombe, Brereton, Trevino, Ali… All oozed charisma, but what brought them to life will ensure we will never see their kind again.
At the risk of basking in a reflective glow of the ‘good old days’, the daggy and gloriously imperfect 70’s and 80’s saw sport imitate life in a way that hadn’t been seen before and too rarely since. As an improvised theatre we enjoyed a warts and all smorgasbord of tantrums, macho boorishness and controversial incidents that would have today’s moral crusaders in a flap. Winning was still important, but there was greater room for playfulness and licence to express joy and frustration with impulsive abandon. Heroes and villains ensured even the most lop-sided contest threatened to entertain at some level.
From Connors and Nastase to Andre and Goran at the end of the line, the possibility of what these passionate extroverts might do kept tennis fans glued. What now sends crowds into titters would render Kingswood Country a comedy classic by comparison. McEnroe may have been ‘Superbrat’ but he demanded a reaction and at least a grudging respect. A guilty pleasure, his best lines are as oft quoted as Seinfeld – and who can forget the backhand he gave that drinks tray?
Meanwhile, the VFL boasted ‘the Dipper’, ‘BT’ and ‘Jacko’ among a Ben Hur cast of unhinged vaudeville acts, League had the likes of ‘King Wally’ and ‘Sterlo’. The Shark and the Golden Bear stalked the fairways with a magnetic power and the likes of Wayne Riley and Bob Shearer knew how to have a good time.
Calypso cricket was in its heyday, ‘Beefy’ Botham, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee had presence to match their talent. Derek Randall played the eccentric loon and not to be outdone, Pascoe, Walker, Hookes, Chappelli and co were characters before their idiosyncrasies were immortalised as an unofficial national anthem.
What qualifies as a sporting character these days? Tattoo, piercing and outrageous haircut trends make statements but we’re just not sure what they are. John Daly stands out among a mundane field but more so as a tragic cautionary tale. Hewitt, Mundine and Akermanis are latter day champions of special extroverted qualities but their abrasive and divisive capacities are no laughing matter and do little to win friends or influence people.
Reflecting a pervasive and destructive celebrity culture, the likes of Beckham have become the 21st Century’s mega-stars. Manufactured marketing tools (in every sense) donning designer clothes dolling out dial-a-clichés with obligatory female decoration in tow isn’t what sport needs though. Good luck to those making the most of their time in the sun but wealthy extravagance and glamour is not in itself interesting to anyone but those consumed in sports’ vacuous periphery.
It’s evident that it’s not the athletes’ fault that charisma and personality has gone the way of moustaches, beers and fags in the change rooms after the game.
Forget C’mon Aussie, today’s leading cricketers march to the tune of CricketAustralia’s ‘Spirit of Cricket’ doctrine. Most sports espouse similar codes of conduct as politically correct cure-alls but it’s another dose of mogadon for the athletes and spectators. The lawyer who coined the phrase ‘bringing the game into disrepute’ certainly earned their fee.
The increasing pressure to conform has shut down the release valves on and off the field and arguably contributed to more athletes losing the plot. Lunatics that push the envelope off the field are not the showmen we are crying out for but it’s all the media is interested in. Their sensationalist bent and prurient interest in the latest player caught on a bender or bending Joe Public’s nose (no matter how warranted) has only pushed clubs into closing ranks and tightly controlling their athletes’ image. The by-product is too many abnormally normal athletes but in a sense different and untouchable at the same time.
Part of the allure of sportspeople from bygone days was that people identified with them. They could just as easily be sitting on the hill sledging the opposition with them. Today’s ‘polished media performers’ move product but they say little of great consequence.
Warnie has left a massive hole for cricket’s marketeers to fill, much as Lillee and Marsh did 25 years ago. His cricketing skills were matched by an ability to find all manner of strife but on the field he also had the X-factor. That the admen are still dragging out Boonie, Merv, Lillee and Thommo highlights the greater affinity people had with our cricketers of yesteryear. Even then, we have Merv giving us a serve about behaving ourselves at the cricket.
Once, whatever happened stayed within the confines of the memories of those who bore witness. Incidents may have been related in the newspapers or captured on TV but essentially anything provocative was done and dusted in a thrice. More than anything, technology and the way sport is covered with multitudes of camera angles, mikes and endless super slo-mo replays have ensured EVERYTHING is milked for more than it’s worth. As ear-wax fancier cum Prime Minister Kevin Rudd can attest, the idiot box is a ruthless beast. Anything out of the ordinary is replayed ad nauseum to the point where inquisitions are demanded on a regular basis, ironically highlighting the very incidents the administrators don’t want kids to see.
High definition televisions the width of Eddie Hemmings might be the rage but don’t expect the combatants to provide any colour enhancements. The unlimited possibilities of digital TV may seem a bonanza for fans but for athletes there are concerns. They might reap substantial commercially funded rewards but for a camera to be trained solely on them or a microphone capture every utterance seems uncomfortably like stalking. What athlete in their right mind wouldn’t undergo a degree of self conscious behavioural modification?
Most athletes, except the accidental heroes hauled in by talent identification, began playing their sport for fun. As slaves to schedules beholden to sponsors’ contractual demands, for many at the elite level it’s just hard slog. It is a little tougher to whistle while you work and display an infectious enthusiasm when physically and mentally drained or battling injury. The focus on winning and conforming to team rules and scientific tactics has consigned more flamboyant, ‘agricultural’ methods to the scrap heap. Skinfolds, beep tests and innumerable other physical fitness regimens have also contributed to the athlete production line syndrome.
Bermuda cricketer Dwayne Leverock, famous for his World Cup ‘speccy’ fielding at first and second slip, appeals to everyone for he is a non-athlete made good. Fans also associate with stuff-ups that the average hack knows only too well. In that respect, modern professionalism sees few D Grade performances or sub-standard players. Enclosed stadiums impervious to weather and other technical advancements have created sterile, too-perfect environments. The only occasions golf is interesting these days is when the spoiled pros suffer the indignities that foul weather or a three foot Carnoustie rough induce.
No one is asking for NIDA or clown school graduates, or the contrived touchdown celebrations of America’s NFL. Sadly there seems to be few athletes nowadays willing or capable of letting it all hang out. For too many, sport has become at best a job, at worst a chore.