A few years ago I wrote an article for my undergraduate student newspaper in which I argued that celebrities such as John Terry and Kate Moss should not be held up as role models for the young, and that they are is indicative of the fact that adults in general have abdicated their collective responsibility for raising and setting examples for the next generation. I argued that we should stop relying on singularly talented individuals to set standards for our young and, instead, recognise that we all have a duty to raise and nurture the youth and only we can be blamed if this goes wrong.
Predictably enough, I think that I had a pretty good argument, and, in any case, I am not generally in the business of backing down. But this summer’s London Olympics and Paralympics blows a bit of hole in my case. This is because, like everyone else, I spent the summer gushing about how great Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins and co were, and how inspired I was by them. Watching Team GB (and other teams) win medals in extraordinary ways really gave weight and meaning to what I previously thought was an empty slogan: Inspiring a generation. But if we shouldn’t look to singularly talented individuals – which Olympians obviously are – to set examples for the young, in what sense should they be inspired by them?
The answer to this question is revealed, I think, by reflecting on what kind of role model Usain Bolt, the most gifted athlete of his (and maybe any) generation, is for children. I would argue that in two key respects Bolt is a pretty terrible role model. First, his extraordinary talent is not simply innate but deployed effortlessly. The simple fact is that if you are not a natural athlete who is 6 foot 5 inches tall with a stride length of over 8 feet, who are very unlikely to embarrass the best sprinters in the world by breaking the world record while showboating 20 metres before the finish line, or be able to drag almost all of your fellow competitors below 10 seconds and therefore create the fastest 100 metre final in Olympic history (Asasfa Powell ruined it by pulling up injured half way through).
Bolt’s second great asset is his personality and charisma, and this is again something that you couldn’t hope to teach anyone that doesn’t already possess it. He has single-handedly changed the culture of men’s sprinting from one of over-serious, lip-licking machismo, to one where everyone now wants to join in with the pre-race clowning. The fact that most other sprinters are actually quite bad at pretending to be relaxed and playful only proves that they don’t have the charisma that has made Bolt one of the world’s most marketable athletes. The point is this: you can’t fake swagger, and so a young person without the easy-going temperament and natural talent of Bolt couldn’t really hope to emulate him. Usain Bolt’s talent and charisma is likely to inspire awe, but not much else.
I actually think that the Olympics and Paralympics were inspiring not because of the individual athletes’ talent but because of the stories that are contained within each achievement. The person who missed out last time but channelled that disappointment into renewed ambition; the person who’s personal story does so much to define the character of modern Britain and challenge prejudice; the person who through hard work and dedication battled against the odds to achieve. These are stories that are encapsulated in ordinary people’s lives everyday, and I think that we would be equally inspired by them if we bothered to look. The Olympics – and sport generally – embellishes and dramatizes these stories, and provides a stage onto which they are projected and played out. But in general it is the story, not the impossibly talented athlete, that is inspiring.
This also helps to make sense of the fact that many people found the Paralympics more inspiring than the Olympics, without descending into a patronising ‘aren’t they brave’ mindset that people too often have towards disabled people. Sport has always been about stories of heroes and battlers and underdogs and upsets. It just turns out that the story of a soldier who lost his legs and was pronounced dead in Afghanistan competing in the Olympic stadium is pretty damn compelling.