Football vs Olympics: a stupid comparison

It’s not the footballers who are overpaid, lazy and arrogant but the hacks passing judgement on them.

The post-Olympics hangover has finally abated as the Premiership season gets into full swing. The sporting talk is of goals, shock results and transfer gossip. But football returns to centre stage to be welcomed by feelings of scepticism, resentment and bitterness - ironically the same feelings inspired by London 2012 before Team GB actually started winning medals.

There is no doubt London 2012 was a success. Seb Coe and the rest of the LOCOG team pulled off a sporting festival where the actual sport did the talking rather than any blunders or major controversies. There were also countless great sporting moments from Usain Bolt and Mo Farah on the track through to Chris Hoy and Laura Trott in the velodrome. There was also a great feeling of positivity around London for the 17 days of sporting theatre; Londoners actually started talking to each other. It’s a shame it takes a massive sporting event that we will not host again in years – if ever – for that to happen.

But the success of London 2012 has led to various journalists welcoming the return of the Premiership with anger, declaring footballers overpaid, arrogant and lazy.

However, the comparison is flawed on several levels. Firstly, the Olympic Games is a tournament of many sports, all of which are very different in terms of rules and culture. There’s marathon running, water polo, archery, fencing - yes, even football. Secondly, there is a tendency in this country to have selective memories if we succeed. The English football team has failed relentlessly and so that gives all the football-bashers a huge stick to swing around. So the fact that Team GB was very successful, winning 29 gold medals, casts the footballers as losers.

But the Olympics are not like a football tournament, it’s a huge event with 204 countries taking part and over 10,000 athletes. The World Cup or the European Championships have, at most, 32 countries taking part and people only really remember the winners. While many people will remember Team GB’s achievements, the team actually came third overall. Third place in a World Cup would certainly be celebrated but it would not soothe those 46 years of hurt - and counting.

While there was success in cycling, there were also areas of disappointment and underachievement. For example, Team GB were poor in the swimming pool. Hannah Miley failed to win a medal and the whole team only took three medals - two of which were won by Rebecca Adlington. Even in the track-and-field events - with Mo Farah, Greg Rutherford and Jessica Ennis - the team won fewer medals than hoped for.

But these failures have largely been ignored. When an athlete underachieved at London 2012, the BBC had an infuriating habit of interviewing them seconds afterwards. When the disappointed competitor apologised to his or her family, coach, friends and so on, BBC presenters were ready to offer a consoling, even cringeworthy comment. But when England football captain Steven Gerrard said a similar thing in South Africa, there was a rather different response from the British media who wanted to crucify the failed footballers.

If we are going to compare Olympic athletes (as versatile as they are) to footballers, then let’s not ignore the obvious points. Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Guardian highlighted the recent bad behaviour of John Terry and Joey Barton as concrete evidence for the evil nature of Premier League footballers, although I doubt that dressage, sailing, archery and rowing were part of the PE curriculum at the schools Terry and Barton attended. Wheatcroft, like many journalists, ignores the clear class difference between footballers and the majority of Team GB’s athletes - or maybe the criticism of footballers is a coded way of pointing that out.

There’s also this idea that athletes are paragons fair play and morality while footballers are all diving cheats who never play fair. This idea ignores several dubious episodes during London 2012. There were the badminton players kicked out for not trying hard enough to win; the winner of the men’s steeplechase, Ezekiel Kemboi, is on bail for attempted murder; and sprinter Justin Gatlin, coming back from a drugs ban, has previously spat in Usain Bolt’s lane in order to gain an advantage. Even Team GB itself is not innocent. Cyclist Phillip Hindes stated that he purposely collapsed his bike after messing up his start (although his team later tried to suggest he was joking); Ben Ainslie’s sailing tactics were often ‘robust’ and we all ignored the fact that Dwain Chambers was allowed to run despite his previous drug ban. Triple jumper Phillips Idowu’s pre-Games behaviour was not only unprofessional but also stupid as it harmed his own chances of success. I dread to think how a footballer would be lampooned if he decided to go missing days before a major tournament.

There is also a lot of selective amnesia about the long battle Olympic sports have had with drugs, something which football (apart from the odd case) has more or less avoided. A number of high-profile athletes have been found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and there have been plenty of whispers about others. As a result, the whole sport has suffered. When Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer smashed a world record, some people insinuated it must have been achieved by illegal means instead of hailing it a great sporting moment. Usain Bolt has even fallen out with Carl Lewis after Lewis hinted drug testing for Jamaican athletes is not as vigorous as it is for everyone else.

So now the Premier League season has started, let’s welcome it with open arms. The comparison between footballers and athletes and between the London Olympics and the Premier League is a stupid one. If these writers are so enchanted with the qualities of these Olympic competitors, maybe it is time they started following them when their sports are not part of an Olympic Games on home soil.

Michael P Fitzpatrick is a former spiked intern.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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