Why is it so shocking to us when sports stars do bad things? We find ourselves searching for answers, wondering why such and such a successful sports star would break the rules or the law (spoiler alert: it's almost always money). Claire Byrne spoke to sports broadcaster Gráinne McElwain and journalist Peter Sweeney about some high-profile sports stars who ruined their reputations.
Gráinne gave Claire an overview of the whole 'sports star X let us down’ aspect of our thinking:
"They are celebrities, so we expect there’s going to be a massive level of mystery and their lives are so different from ours – it's glamorous, lavish lifestyles. And then when we hear these accusations and these demons that they have, we realise actually, there’s no mystery, they’re very similar to the rest of us. They have their own challenges, their own demons; they have this massive, obvious talent that has been nurtured from a very young age, that has made them very different from their peers and from the rest of their group."
And that very difference may have contributed to the behaviour of some sports people, many of whom have been elevated from a very young age:
"They’ve probably been surrounded by people who have constantly flattered to them and have said, you know, ‘You’re brilliant, you’re amazing,’ and then suddenly they realise maybe they have demons that they hadn’t expected before and I think that’s what shocks us, that they are not as different as the rest of us."
The stages at which sports stars lose their sheen was outlined by Peter:
"You can divide these falls from graces into two broad categories. One is the what they do in sport, whether that be cheating, or taking drugs or something like that and then, there’s the outside sport, which would be, you know, tax evasion, all sorts of other crimes."
In the case of Boris Becker, who was released from a prison in the UK in December, having served eight months for hiding assets from creditors after declaring bankruptcy, Peter believes his fall was something that might have been predicted:
"The fall from grace came a couple of years after he’d finished playing, but he was still very much a household name, very popular. He was a popular player, but, I suppose in this country in particular, we saw him for a fortnight every summer at Wimbledon, he was on TV doing the TV coverage, he was very popular at that point. If you delve a little deeper, this fall from grace, you know, was signposted in a lot of ways. He had quite a chaotic life, if you look at it."
Everybody inside and outside of the cycling world knew that Lance Armstrong was doping, but the seven-time Tour de France winner always denied it. Gráinne was a big fan and she believes people unconnected to cycling had a lot of admiration for Armstrong as well – it would be hard not to, in fairness:
"He was an unbelievable person in what he had come through and he did so much for the awareness and being a cancer survivor and you know he was a real feel-good story, he was the underdog we were all rooting for every time that he cycled. And that unbelievable achievement, winning seven straight Tour de France races from 1999 to 2005, like we really got behind him."
But when Armstrong finally admitted – in a famous interview with Oprah – that he had indeed been doping, the scale of his deception became clear and it undermined not only his career achievements, but also his charity work:
"And then you started hearing all these allegations and I think everybody was suspecting him of taking drugs and he kept denying it, denying it and denying it. And then when he finally admitted it, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you know, you’re actually maybe something that so many people suspected for so long and you’ve told a lie to the world and you’ve done a disservice to so many different people."
Then Gráinne and Peter shifted their focus to Tonya Harding. The American figure skater was never as successful as Becker or Armstrong, but the scandal she was involved in seemed designed to be perfect tabloid-fodder, even though Harding always protested her innocence. Gráinne labelled the Tonya Harding saga "an unbelievable story":
"It’s all human emotions as well, it’s you know, jealousy and envy and it’s the seven deadly sins through all these fallen stars from grace. But I think it was, like, like 6 or 7 weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics, this attack happened. And it turned out it was her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who was behind this. And basically, Nancy Kerrigan had been rivals on the skating area and basically, they were going to be going for a gold medal at the Winter Olympics that year."
Harding’s ex-husband organised an attack on Nancy Kerrigan as a way of getting – as he saw it – a rival out of Tonya’s way. Kerrigan was injured, but she recovered in time to compete in the Olympics, winning a silver medal. Harding came eighth. In 2018, Harding admitted on a TV interview that she knew something was going on before the attack, but she didn’t approve of any attempt to injure any competitors. Peter believes Tonya Harding didn’t fall from grace because she was never there in the first place. Harsh? Possibly.
But what about Mike Tyson? Oscar Pistorius? They’ll just have to wait for a second instalment of When Sports Stars Go Bad...
If you’d like to hear Claire’s full conversation with Gráinne and Peter, direct your pointing device here.