WINNING AT ALL COSTS: Sporting Gods and their Demons by Paul Gogarty and Ian Williamson
Tyson's lack of contrition shows demons still bite
When Mike Tyson was reunited with Evander Holyfield on Oprah Winfrey's public confessional recently, he could not bring himself to apologise for biting off Evander's ear in their 1997 fight in Las Vegas. Like many athletes, Tyson finds the act of contrition uncomfortable. Partly, he thinks it shows weakness; partly it is a refusal or inability to come to terms with issues much deeper than the mere winning of a fight. Someone who has a good take on the subject is Ian Williamson, an adolescent and child analyst in Harley Street who played rugby for and captained Blackheath for 15 years and had an England trial. Williamson and his friend of 30 years, the journalist and author Paul Gogarty, have written a book that touches more intelligently on the cerebral nature of sport than anything similar I have come across.
In Winning At All Costs, Sporting Gods And Their Demons, they point to Tyson's abuse when young as part of a complex package of events in his life which led inevitably to a form of self-destruction. "The truth is," they write "... that sporting success can feel the most impregnable place to defend against feelings of worthlessness, abandonment and other traumatic legends of childhood."
And 12 years on, Tyson still can't face the truth, still can't say sorry.
Respect our sporting heroes who suffer in the pursuit of excellence
What's so good about being a top sportsperson? Beneath the glory and the fame, what kind of life does it demand? And would you want it for yourself if you knew the real truth?
Well adjusted: Wimbledon champion Roger Federer is one of the few sporting icons who can combine high achievement with a healthy sense of perspective. That is the question posed by Paul Gogarty and Ian Williamson in their book Winning at All Costs. It is not a comfortable read. It reverses the popular theory that we can absorb lessons from the professional sports field and transfer them into ordinary life. Gogarty and Williamson think the opposite. Great athletes are simply wired differently – and you really don't want to be like them anyway.
Spending large chunks of their lives in agony is what a lot of top sportspeople have to do. The Tour de France has been described as a "contest in purposeless suffering". It's not just cycling. Sir Steve Redgrave has admitted that "training was never really enjoyable. It had to be done. Indeed, perhaps there was an element of masochism about it... that it was no good unless it hurt".
So why do people do it? Where does the obsessional drive to win at all costs come from? We often hear the clichés about grit and determination. But Williamson, who is a Harley Street psychologist, and Gogarty suggest that the answers lie in the deep recesses of childhood experience. Greatness is not a matter of choice; it is more a question of fate.
One of the most depressing strands of Winning at All Costs is the recurrent evidence of extreme parental pressure. We like to think that pushy, bullying parents don't ultimately bring up successful sporting children. But the unpleasant truth is that they do.
When she was seven, Maria Sharapova's father made the executive decision that they would relocate from Russia to Florida so she could attend a tennis academy. Sharapova's mother stayed behind, and mother and daughter spoke only once every six months.
Richard, father of Serena and Venus Williams, took pushiness to another level – it was not so much a father supporting his daughters' choices, but a father shoehorning his daughters' lives into his own dreams.
Lance Armstrong, perhaps the fiercest competitor of all, was beaten as a child by his stepfather. He claims not to reflect on it: "Athletes don't have much use for poking around in their childhoods, because introspection doesn't get you anywhere in a race." But he adds the deeper truth, "But it's all stoked down in there, fuel for the fire."
Many great sportspeople live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. Their hunger is never satiated. As Ayrton Senna put it: "Many times I find myself in a comfortable position and I don't feel happy about it. I feel it is right to slow down, but something inside of me, something very strong, pushes me on, makes me try to beat... myself. It is an enormous desire to go further and further, to travel beyond my own limits."
Senna, of course, died in that pursuit when he fatally crashed his Formula One car in 1994.
The question of obsession and mental health runs through Winning at All Costs. Jonny Wilkinson's capacity for self-punishment is legendary. "His obsession has taken him to the point of self-destruction. Endless hours of goal-kicking practice has damaged his groin, wrecked his back and torn muscles up and down his legs, requiring him to learn a whole new kicking technique."
Gogarty and Williamson go on to suggest how Wilkinson might have been 'treated' by the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. But suppose such a treatment had 'worked'? If Wilkinson had become a regular guy, England probably wouldn't have won the 2007 World Cup with his famous dropped goal. Without his chronic fear of letting people down, Wilkinson wouldn't have practised his kicking to the point of near perfection.
So it is hard, perhaps impossible, to untangle the obsession from the excellence. I find admitting that very difficult because I've always wanted to believe that you can become a top sportsperson within the context of living a healthy life. That is one of the reasons I've always greatly admired Roger Federer, who is not only gracious but also seems well-adjusted. Andrew Strauss is another who combines high achievement with a healthy sense of perspective.
But it is with great reluctance that I think Federer and Strauss are the exceptions. Many great champions lead tortured, unhappy lives. Not only should we not copy them, we simply cannot copy them. Their drive is beyond emulation.
Where does that leave the fan, watching his heroes pursue excellence beyond the point of sanity? Perhaps the best attitude is a respectful gratitude. Respect for the ambition that drives great sportspeople; gratitude that everyone does not share it.
F Scott Fitzgerald put it best: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."
In Brazil, as always, graveside tears will be shed because if the life of the man better known as Garrincha – "Little Bird" – was one of the greatest glories of football, away from the field it was also a tragedy that has few rivals in the history of the world's most popular game.
Garrincha was folklore long before he died 26 years ago in an alcoholic coma and the streets of Rio were filled with mourners as his funeral cortege wended from the Maracana Stadium back to his first wild roots. But when the flowers go down on Wednesday and an old banner reading "Obrigado, Garrincha, por voce ter vivido – Thank you Garrincha for having lived" is lifted once again, his tortured denouement will indeed be raised as a caution against the future of the most glittering and contemporary of his successors.
For Ronaldo this is not a gypsy warning – but the considered opinion of a Harley Street psychoanalyst. In a new book, Winning at All Costs, Ian Williamson and his co-author Paul Gogarty assert that Ronaldo, so resplendent in his self-belief as he takes over the hero's role with Real Madrid, is the prime candidate for the experience of a Garrincha, a George Best, a Paul Gascoigne or the man who is currently teetering most publicly on the edge of breakdown, Diego Maradona.
You may say the theory is custom-made for a batch of book-selling headlines, but what cannot be denied is that circumstances in the lives of Garrincha and Best, who both had alcoholic parents, bear some striking comparison with those of Ronaldo, who according to his mother had a father whose great ambition seemed to be to drink himself to death.
According to the authors, now that Ronaldo has broken with his "surrogate father" Sir Alex Ferguson and is suffering a rare bout of injury: "In Madrid, he may claim the adolescence he has up to now been denied in the same manner Maradona did in Barcelona. The question is whether Cristiano seeks similar consolations to those employed by Maradona [who suffered brutal attention when he arrived in the Spanish League as a teenager and suffered one three-month lay off] to stave off depression."
While the authors explore the broader question of the two halves of a great footballer's life, the fulfilment of supreme achievement in the first, the potential void of the second – and we know there are no guarantees in this matter among even the most stable of professionals – the suspicion here has to be that Ronaldo may well be buttressed against the worst possibilities.
If, like Best and Garrincha he had a parent who suffered alcoholism, he shows little sign of inherited vulnerability. Indeed, there are rare occasions when he displays even a hint of reluctance to take on the world. Those of us who railed against his often poor sense of team discipline could never begin to doubt the authority of his talent – or the serenity of his belief that it was the equal to any challenge.
What happens when the talent is spent? Some men need only the merest intimation of their greatness to make it a life-long possession. Ronaldo surely elected himself to their number some time ago. Pele is another, a man who is always fashionably late in the certainty that the world will wait for him all these years after the peak of his glory.
Maradona, for all the supreme ability that in 1986 took him closer than any other footballer, even Pele, to winning a World Cup single-handedly, never displayed such self-assurance off the field. He strutted, as Ronaldo does of course, but he always carried a certain tension along with an ever-lengthening entourage. At Barcelona it was estimated his hired cronies numbered as many as 19, including a personal barber and confessor. When Gascoigne entered his long and tragic decline his manager at Tottenham Terry Venables recalled how many times his haunted expression reminded him of the Maradona he inherited at Barça.
"I feared for Gazza as I had feared for Maradona," Venables said. "The only times they are truly at peace with themselves is when they have a ball at their feet. Football is easy. It was the other part of life that was difficult, and you had to fear for both of them when they could no longer do the thing they did best."
But if fears for Ronaldo are exaggerated when compared to the flawed natures of Maradona and Gascoigne – and the fact that Best's own compulsive nature was beginning to take hold at a time in his life when Ronaldo still seems to have a great reservoir of achievement stretching out before him – they are most extreme when set against the hand the Little Bird was served.
Ronaldo was born strong and beautiful. Garrincha was small and had crooked legs, one six centimetres longer than the other, and a deformed spine. He was such an unlikely star he did not sign professional forms with Botafogo until he was 20, by which time he had acquired a wife and the first of an estimated 14 children. Yet when he played he was mesmerising and a brilliant dribbling star of the World Cups of 1958 and 1962 and was variously known as the "Little Bird", the "Joy of the People" and the "Angel with Bent Legs".
He had a child-like nature and drank Brazilian rum as ferociously as his father had done before him, along the way marrying again, a samba dancer. His first half was dazzling, Fifa declared him the best Brazilian player after Pele, while some of his compatriots rated him, in terms of natural talent, even higher. His second half was the hopeless void which is one theme in the book that casts doubts about the ability of Ronaldo, for all his gifts and the buoyancy of his nature, to ride home free of the demons that have beset so many of the game's most luminous figures.
What is indisputable is the extraordinary nature of the journeys made so often by the greatest of footballers from backgrounds of grinding poverty and personal despair. Certainly few can argue with Gogarty and Williamson when they declare: "The threatening emotions they (the football magicians) feel trapped by off the field are transcended on the field where their weakness is transformed into their strength.
"Football, with its simple rules and physical boundary, becomes a kind of containing parent for the magicians. Here they find clarity between on- and offside, a clear role in the extended family of the team, and with their massively over-developed compensatory physical skills, they also discover they can express themselves like nowhere else."
It is a compelling and thought- provoking read, a challenge to the time-worn and widely accepted amateur psychology that is applied to sport.
This groundbreaking book grapples with one of sport’s great conundrums: what raises outstanding champions above their rivals? What Gogarty and Williamson discover on their journey through the stadium of the mind is that greatness is indeed both a blessing and a curse.