This week in “Is It Just Me, Or…?”, we look at the phenomenon of international heights-scaling sports celebrities and their cosy relationship with hubris.
Is it just me, or is Usain Bolt rather proud of himself? To call Bolt ‘arrogant’ seems to be a rather unpopular notion, because, if you believe everything you read, he’s The Most Popular Athlete Ever. His character aside, he is a remarkably gifted and successful human being. Character, however, as we should all know by now, is everything.
My gut reaction to Bolt’s recent ignominious end was a curmudgeonly “that’ll teach him”. I don’t follow athletics, but you’d have to have been dead not to have noticed Usain Bolt over the last decade: an international celebrity of the highest (and fastest) order. All I’d ever noticed about him was his mouth.
Bolt has been bragging about himself almost since day one. It’s apparently why crowds adore him: his track achievements, his trademark lightning-bolt pose, his attitude, his invincibility, his braggadocio, his sheer untouchable-ness.
Why? Why has the human race always slavishly responded to unquenchable arrogance in sports? There is no such thing as a ‘charming athlete’. We abhor arrogance in the arts and in politics, and we love seeing the common-or-garden proud bastard finally levelled by a spectacular fall from grace. But we forgive sports stars a multitude of sins.
Maybe because deep down we know an actor’s arrogance is punishable by us not showing up at the box office. Likewise, we can just stop buying Kanye West albums. But sports? Unlike music or poetry, sports are a far more universally do-able human activity, and therefore if one of us is unquestionably better than the rest, we identify with the desire and actual ability to dominate. We end up worshiping at the Nike’d feet of human gods who display quantifiable, verifiable superhuman gifts; they do it on our behalf.
Sports psychologists will have figured this out. In fact, any psychologist worth the fee should be able to counsel us through our Athlete-Worship. But let’s be honest, we’d rather not know. It’s far more fun to just watch our heroes mop up the opposition, or in Justin Gatlin’s case, boo the loser.
Back to Usain Bolt: his self-belief is legendary, almost Muhammed Ali-legendary. Unfortunately for him, he can also back it up with accomplishments: not for nothing is he known as ‘The Fastest Man Alive’.
I say ‘unfortunately for him’ because there’s nothing worse for your own sense of humility than actually being as good as you think you are. It takes a special human being to downplay his or her obvious dominance in their chosen field, and Usain Bolt has proven himself to be all too human in this regard.
I wouldn’t say I’m a phenomenon, just a great athlete.
It’s what I came here to do. I’m now a legend. I’m also the greatest athlete to live.
The three-peat has never been attempted, ever, and for me, I think it will add to my legendary status. I want to become one of the greatest athletes ever to have competed in any sport, so for me, that’s what it means.
I am a living legend; bask in my glory.
People always say I’m a legend, but I’m not. Not until I’ve defended my Olympic titles. That’s when I’ve decided I’ll be a legend.
I like to entertain, because that’s what people come out and see. I try to make it different, this is why people love me so much.
These are the words of a human being used to winning, used to mass adoration, and fully convinced of his own press. A self-confessed non-reader, there is a case to be made for him simply being a good-natured savant who is just out enjoying life and not at all taking it too seriously. Part of me even believes that.
But still, crowing ‘I am the greatest’ from Mt. Olympus is just begging for a smack, isn’t it? And, inevitably, even the Living Legend finally got to re-learn what the second and third rung felt like.
Just after he was beaten last week, the Telegraph opined:
His brilliance has been meted out in 10secs and 20secs chunks, with a false start in 2011 in South Korea the only blemish. But in those bursts, spread across nine years, he has taken up permanent residence in the human imagination, as the embodiment of irresistible speed, packed into an endearing personality. His exuberance, and track devouring stride, have the been the biggest staging posts in world sport for almost a decade.
Just prior to the race, Bolt instructed journalists to describe him thus:
Unbeatable. For me, that would be the biggest headline. Unbeatable. Unstoppable. Hear that guys? Jot it down.
At 30, world champion for 9 years, why oh why did Bolt decide he needed one more moment? Was he cunningly deceived by that ancient human trickster, Hubris, into one last glorious shot? He certainly didn’t need it. He’s never had “L” (“lost”) at the end of his admittedly unbelievable string of results. Until this weekend.
Not one but two headline-grabbing crashes to earth. First, not only being pipped at the post by his long-time dope-fiend rival Justin Gatlin, but coming third. Then, as if that wasn’t humiliating enough, an even bigger shock: pulling up hurt in his last-ever race. A literal, picturesque fall from an extremely dizzy height.
Usain Bolt has taught this generation many things about winning. His recent disasters teach us two more arguably greater lessons: one, losing is inevitable, and two, hubris makes it more so. In other words, all things come to those who brag.
Granted, he seems to be a cheerful loser, a ‘good sport’. There are reports that he has been known to display signs of being an actual human being on occasion, so, good for him. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Usain Bolt chose to push his luck, and, as luck will have it, it pushed back.
Good, I say. It’s a relief for the rest of us to learn that our heroes are not gods after all.