I’ve been a little scarce of late. This is because I am in the process of trying to become gainfully employed. This is not a process that I find particularly settling, so if anyone has been thinking of sending me a small fortune (or a large one; beggars can’t be choosers and all that), now would be the time.
This has not meant that my mind has been quiet; just the part that allows me to hurl its contents down onto a keyboard. Something has been bothering me a little lately, and today, it was thrust to the fore. By Vanessa Mae.
Remember her? She was the girl who inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin.
There are, no doubt, some uncharitable people out there who might say she inspired an interest in classical music in an entire generation of young men by virtue of the skill and passion with which she played the violin without too many clothes on. They might just be onto something. She was rather startlingly attractive. But the truth is that she would never have become famous if she hadn’t been quite good at playing the violin.
That skill was not an easy thing to come by. She started playing the piano at the age of three. At the age of three, my children were still trying to master the complex set of challenges involved in eating with a spoon. She started the violin at five. That’s when I’m planning on introducing my daughter to knives and forks (she should have started earlier, I know, but we have been delaying for as long as possible since the world is going to be a frightening place once she is fully armed).
Ms Mae’s fame was at its zenith in the 90’s. The world moved on, as it does. And so, it would seem, did Ms Mae. They were talking about her on the radio this morning. No, she has not released a new album called “The Bikini Fiddler; Vamping to the Classics”. She has, instead, just taken part in the Winter Olympics. And not as a performer in the opening ceremony.
Yup. Not content with being a former child prodigy, the good Ms Mae decided to go off and become an Olympic athlete. It’s all a bit much, really. My greatest achievement so far is managing to balance three golf balls on top of each other. The magnitude of her achievement was only slightly diminished by the news that she was representing Thailand at skiing, which is kind of like representing Greenland at beach volleyball.
But I only learned that later. When I heard that she was an Olympian, she coalesced a couple of ideas in my mind. Something, as I said, has been bothering me. Something to do with sporting superstars, children, and the sort of parents who would make a three-year old learn the piano.
I’ve been thinking about these things for a reason. I am, you see, teaching my son and heir to snorkel. This involves hauling him off to the local gym a couple of times a week, strapping various pieces of rubber and glass onto him, and watching him bob around cheerfully while trying to stop him from vocalising the sound effects that accompany whatever snorkelling-based fantasy is playing out in his head (it appears to involve lasers and robot sharks).
It’s all quite fun. For us. We have lasers and robot sharks. What set me off the other day was the boy next to us. He wasn’t having much fun. He was young, not much older than my own nine-year-old. But he was not there to bob around making “peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo” noises through a bent plastic tube. He was there to work.
I noticed him as we arrived, slicing through the water like a fish, and remember thinking that he was a remarkable swimmer for a boy so young. We soon realised why. Shortly after we got into the water, he grabbed hold of the side of the pool and looked plaintively over at a grim-looking woman sitting on a bench nearby. “Can I stop now, mom? I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“No,” was the rather curt reply. “You’re doing a hundred lengths. 16 more to go.”
And that was that. He turned and ploughed his way back down the Olympic sized pool. But he suddenly looked more like a robot than a fish. Fish are free.
Normally, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. There have always been people who have pushed their kids like this. Without them, classical music would be brought to its knees, and sport would be more than a little duller.
To create the sort of people who excel at these things, you need to make them put in the hours. And you need to make them put in the hours at an age when they would rather be making robot-shark laser noises. It’s not something that I would choose to do (I have a hard enough time getting the boy to do his shoelaces up. 18 hours a week of balalaika practice would simply be beyond us), but I have never really been concerned when others choose differently. Maybe I should have been. Something has changed. Because of this guy.
When I was growing up, South Africa was separated from the world because of apartheid. Most of our greatest sporting heroes were amateurs. Those who weren’t did OK financially. Some even did quite well. But sport and money were not what they are now. There were still parents out there driving their kids to excel at sports, but their motivations were different. They were after status. Bragging rights. They wanted their kids to be the best in their schools. They wanted them to make the national side. They wanted them to get rugby scholarships. They wanted to live out their own unachieved dreams through their children. They did not, however, want a billion dollars.
Tiger Woods got a billion dollars. There’s a reason for this. His dad wasn’t content to wait ‘til he turned three. He started playing golf when he was two. It paid off. He is, rather simply put, one of the greatest sportsmen ever to have lived.
But you don’t get a billion dollars for that. No. Tiger Woods is a money pump. He sells. He sells golf shirts and golf club memberships and computer games and television rights and cars and credit cards and watches and razors and sports drinks. He earns every cent of his billion dollars.
He’s got those sporting parents rubbing their hands together. It’s not about bragging rights anymore. Sport is about money. Big money. Enough money to make them forget just one small detail. Tiger Woods is a dick.
While the world was cheering him on for hitting a little white ball around really, really well, he was having a bit of a ball himself, working his way through a football team of lingerie models, porn-stars and cocktail waitresses. This was not infidelity. This was contempt. Contempt for what the world thought. Contempt for what his wife felt. Indifference to the message he was sending his little boy, and his little girl, about the value of women and the value of their mother. And it really was contempt, because he simply cannot have been dumb enough to think this wouldn’t all come out.
He must have known it would. Cocktail waitresses and porn stars and lingerie models are not well known for their discretion. But what the hell. He’s Tiger Woods. When the world gives you a billion dollars for hitting a little ball around, you must come round to thinking that you are entitled to take whatever you want from the world.
And here’s the thing; he was right. He’s back. He did take a little time off to say he was sorry, and did the obligatory rehab sessions for sex addiction that have replaced accountability for celebrities caught with their pants down, but he hasn’t really lost anything. He’s still hitting his ball around, and raking in the advertising money. He did, to be fair, lose his wife, but judging by the value he evidently placed on his relationship with her, that was no great loss.
But whether he rose from the ashes or not is immaterial. We’re getting used to sportsmen falling from grace. OJ. Lance Armstrong. Michael Vick. Tonya Harding. Barry Bonds. Mike Tyson. Some rise from the ashes, some don’t.
And it doesn’t matter. Somewhere along the line, we stopped thinking that we should admire these people for their skill, or their dedication, or their sportsmanship, and instead started admiring them for their Bentleys and their weekly salaries. And when you’re caught rogering a stripper with five syringes full of horse steroids in your pocket in the bathroom of a nightclub, they don’t take away your Bentley.
We’re about to watch another quite spectacular fall from grace. We’re all gearing up for the Oscar Pistorius trial. It’s started already. The court will decide if he’s a murderer. But day by day, evidence is emerging that Oscar Pistorius is a bit of a dick. There are stories of small arsenals being ordered, of guns being fired in crowded restaurants, of assaults on women at parties.
I suspect that by the time we’re done here, we will all have received a rather powerful reminder that the steely determination required to become a top athlete, and the almost unbelievable grit required for a man with no legs to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, do not necessarily make someone an admirable person. Just a rich one.
Which brings me to what’s really been bothering me. A girl. You see, Oscar’s trial isn’t the only one that’s been in the news. There’s been another one, too. A little one. A quiet one. A blink-and-you-would-miss-it one. A couple from a place called Bloemfontein went out to a dam in the countryside, and set up a couple of chairs on the bank. And then they made their daughter go for a swim. For hours. Until she got tired. And staggered out. And asked to be allowed to stop. At which point they, in the cold, official language of the court, assaulted her, and drove her back into the water. She is ten years old.
Someone called the police. The charming pair were arrested. They’ve been charged with attempted murder. And the girl has been placed with a foster family.
And here’s the thing that’s been tugging away at the back of my mind as I watched small boys begging to go home and play with Lego rather than swim for miles; is she happy there? Does she lie in bed at night thanking god that she doesn’t have to drag herself endlessly through the murky waters of that dam anymore? Does she heave a sigh of relief when she remembers she won’t be beaten if she doesn’t shave a millisecond or two off last-weeks’ time?
Or is she lying there in the dark, nails digging into her palms, teeth gritted, wishing that she had been just that little bit tougher? Wishing she had powered on, setting aside her ten-year old frailty to keep her parents out of jail? Hoping she could get to a swimming pool soon so that she could make her new family love her? And as she drifts off into the sweet release of sleep, does she dream of the day she can swim a shiny new Bentley for mommy and daddy, and fix the mess she has made with her despicable weakness?
I hope not. I hope she stumbles across a bunch of people who can teach her that her value isn’t measured on a stopwatch. I hope she finds someone who teaches her the difference between enthusiastic encouragement and attempted murder. I hope she finds someone who can remind her that being ten isn’t a brutal push for the finish line. I hope someone teaches her that the limits of her sporting career should be defined by the limits of her own ambition, no-one else’s.
I hope, most of all, that when she is old and grey and looks back on her life, be it one of Olympic glory, corporate drudgery or domestic bliss, that she can remember a time, long, long ago, when she understood that there wasn’t a Bentley in the world worth as much to an adult as a laser-shooting robot shark is to a child. Just saying. Peeeooo peeeooo peeeooo.