Andrew Butterfield questions the obsession in the media over athletes as heros.

The world is way too obsessed with sport. I mean, yes of course I enjoy sports; and watching the Olympics has really increased my respect for the amount of work and effort that athletes have to put in to reach the pinnacle of their sport. I can even see how televised sport has a positive effect on society as a whole, encouraging physical fitness, healthy living, encouraging teamwork and of course entertainment etc. etc. etc. Yes, I see the advantages. I still wonder what’s so special about it all.

Athletes are raised to the heights of demi-gods and near worshiped by millions for being born with good spatial-awareness, and the potential for speed and/or strength.  Not that all their training and all the hard graft that these people have gone through isn’t both impressive and laudable; but so is that required to become a quantum physicist.

Now I know what you’re thinking: that quantum physics has about as much to do with football as Brussels sprouts have to do with baking. But when it comes right down to it, the only difference for the spectator sport culture is that watching a quantum physicist work isn’t exactly thrilling. That implies that our sporting heroes are just there to put on a display, to entertain us. Are they really just performing for our benefit? I hope not, as that’s a question that whispers many subtle insinuations of match-fixing. But just think about it: there are actors and singers who are as (or more) highly thought of – and they are most definitely performing for us. And then there was that scandal in the Olympics where badminton players were disqualified for trying to lose a match in order to have a better chance of winning later on. Were they disqualified for not playing well? No, playing to win the tournament is no crime; they were disqualified for not putting on a good enough show.

But surely sports are above that. Just think of Andy Murray: he’s a superstar, a household name – talk to anyone in Scotland and you will be hard pressed to find a single person who will say that they even dislike him. Most of them will have barely heard the man speak three words, and they still love him. Hell, even I love the man. No mere performer can claim that. But what makes athletes different? What gives them that extra something that makes them better? I deliberated on it and to be honest couldn’t really think of anything. Anything. They seem to me, nothing but glorified entertainers.

It’s frankly disturbing if the entire Olympics – for which the whole world paid attention, and the entire country worked to make happen – was all just a reality show for our entertainment. And yet I can’t find any other answer, despite how uncomfortable it makes me feel. Stadiums packed out, hundreds of thousands staring avidly at TV screens. It all just boils down to freaking entertainment.

But despite this we still think sport is somehow special. For example, where are the Olympic break-dancing teams? Personally I’d find that incredibly entertaining. An Olympic choir tournament? Olympic slam poetry? We put sport on this idealistic podium – it’s practically a religion – and it’s seen as somehow apart from all other things, above them even. But if you take the idealised concepts of sport (those of competition and seemingly of exertion) then extend them logically… where is the Great British Olympic Quantum Physics team? I have worked eleven hour shifts waiting tables at incredibly busy events – not being allowed to stand still for more than a few seconds at a time – and still have not been half as exhausted as I have been when working academically for a solid five.

I am left with the lonely and unpalatable fact that, not only are athletes just entertainers whose job is simply to put on a good show so that an audience leaves happy, but that they are worshipped for no better reason than they always have been. And when you have come to that conclusion it is not exactly surprising that the industry is so corrupt. Or that allegations of match-fixing crop up every other week.

Now before you think I’ve spiralled into a pit of despair over the existence of sport – and despite all of my ranting – I just want you to know that I do actually still like athletes and I still respect all that they do. It’s just that I don’t think that they’re in any way better than my favourite comedian… well, except for Andy Murray. You go Murray.


Andrew Butterfield

Image by Moazzam Brohi