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Home > Culture and Society

Sports personalities: Time to stop looking?

18 December 2004

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'oxymoron' as 'a word used as the basis for unfunny Victor Lewis Smith jokes, eg. "I keep a collection of oxymorons. But enough about my herd of educationally subnormal bovine mammals".'

But an equally good definition of oxymoron might well be 'sports personality'. This week Kelly Holmes became the latest BBC sports personality of the year, but it's still a concept we have trouble with, for the simple reason that most sportspeople don't appear to have personalities.

Sportspeople only really have one topic of conversation: sport. However, this is to overstate the breadth of their interests. The only thing they can talk about with any real knowledge or enthusiasm is their own sport, or, more specifically, their personal role in their own sport.

In a way it's unfair to expect sportsmen and women, when interviewed, to suddenly go off on a tangent about Proust. There are hardly any other jobs that require the same level of 24/7 commitment, except perhaps being a senior politician. And even politicians have more variety in their work than running in a straight line with the goal of shaving 0.000000000000001 seconds off your previous time.

Even the lives of footballers are tedious in some ways. However much you earn, you can't buy a deep and interesting personality, which might explain why even the 'colourful characters' of football have grimly predictable tastes: sports cars, golf, blondes and booze. Occasionally one or two venture into the thrillingly creative world of cocaine abuse, but on the whole they stick with what they know: the VIP sections of tacky nightclubs, boffing unheard-of models and yet more booze. Even when they retire you won't find them doing an Open University course, just playing more golf and opening a sports shop.

Given the obsessive nature of modern sport, it's little wonder that sportspeople don't develop personalities. (Or indeed anything above a purely functional vocabulary. When a sportsperson does manage to say something that rises about the usual 'The lads didn't done better than the other team, so the other team won' or 'The proof of the pudding's going to be Helsinki 2006' the public applauds as though they'd just discovered the new Einstein or a talking unicorn. Only a handful of British sportspersons have been awarded the accolade 'articulate': Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Daley Thompson. Annabel Croft seems to be able to talk without getting her tongue caught in her throat, but she cheated by being posh.)

All of this suggests we have to stop looking for sports 'personalities'. Let's have sportsperson of the year, by all means, but let's not cause them and us the distress of expecting them to have a personality. We could even drop the whole sports personality charade and just have The BBC Interesting Person of the Year. Stephen Fry would probably keep winning, but it'd be better than having to listen to yet more sports monomania, eg.

'I was 0.01 seconds below my personal best in Barcelona, but I'm hoping that 16 weeks of high altitude training and a new high-carb diet can cut 0.005 seconds off that by the time I get to Seoul. So it's a pretty interesting time for me right now.'



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