Why should Beckham cough up his private life?

In our era of identity-through-suffering, David Beckham has shown heroic restraint by keeping his asthma private.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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David Beckham is famous for many things: for his love of a challenging haircut, for his love of clothes, for his love of withered, ex-Spice Girl wife Victoria. Yet strange as it might be to say it, given the amount of coverage and analysis his ‘fame’ has received over the years, he is most famous for playing and, just as importantly, loving football.

Any fan will know the signal moments of the beautiful one’s career. The sending-off against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup Finals for a sly kick aginast the loathsome Diego Simeone; scoring from a free kick against Greece to redeem both England’s 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign, and, ultimately, Beckham himself; and that accusatory look at a loose piece of turf having skied his penalty against Portugal at the 2006 European Championships. His club career has been equally momentous, winning loads while at Manchester United, winning less at Real Madrid, and winning nothing at both his current clubs Los Angeles Galaxy and AC Milan. Whatever the cynics say about Goldenballs, football is essential to who he is, not the tattoos, the hairstyles or the dresses.

Over the past few days, however, Beckham has been making the news precisely for something he’s not famous for: being an asthma sufferer. On Sunday evening, just before extra time in Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS Cup final defeat by Real Salt Lake on Sunday, Beckham was pictured using an inhaler. The grainy image quickly began to make the news. A report in the Hindustan Times implied past subterfuge: ‘Goldenboots let his guard down during the recent match where he was spotted with his inhaler.’ A similarly suspicious note was struck in the South African Independent: ‘The biggest secret of David Beckham’s career was revealed on Monday night when it emerged that the most high-profile footballer on the planet suffers from asthma.’ In the UK, media jaws dropped with equal surprise: ‘SHOCK! David Beckham suffers from asthma’ shouted Now magazine.

Such has been the fuss that Beckham’s agent felt the need to respond: ‘He has never sought to make [his asthma suffering] public but if it does inspire any sufferer to think they can achieve great things, like many other sportsmen have done, then so much the better. Some of the best athletes in the world suffer from asthma and there is no problem with his aerobic fitness.’

Too right. The sporting asthmatic is far from a rarity. Beckham’s ex-Manchester United teammate Paul Scholes, long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe, marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, former Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, former tennis player Justine Henin, Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard… the list goes on. In fact, of the 2004 British Olympic squad, 20 per cent were found to be asthmatic. As Dr John Moore-Gillon of the British Lung Foundation explained ‘plenty of elite athletes suffer from asthma without it affecting performance, particularly if it is well-controlled’.

Not only is it not uncommon to be a successful sportsperson despite suffering from asthma, it also shows that one needn’t be constrained by the condition (whether congenital or exercise-induced). But at the same time, neither should an affliction or condition be allowed to frame that achievement. If someone doesn’t want to submit to a triumph-over-adversity narrative, preferring the triumph bit by itself, then that is their prerogative.

Yet this seems to be the problem with Beckham’s discrete puff on his inhaler. There’s a suggestion that his mild but chronic lung condition should have framed his career. He should have come clean. He should have, at some point, called a press conference, in the style of ex-cokehead and Arsenal footballer Paul Merson, and said ‘yes, I am an asthma sufferer’. The belief that this most public of sportsmen had deliberately kept the fact of his asthma secret is seen as a betrayal, a deceit, a concealment of who Beckham really is.

In the words of one critic, ‘I think it’s very wrong – and indeed very selfish – that Becks has sought to hide his condition from the world, when he could have done a hell of a lot (see Paula Radcliffe) as an ambassador for the disease’. The critic then concludes by suggesting Beckham probably ‘thought such a revelation would in some way taint his golden boy image’.

It’s an accusation that doesn’t really hold in relation to Beckham. This, after all, is the man who claimed to be an Obsessive Compulsive, endlessly reordering and counting coke cans in his fridge before he could even begin to concentrate on the important matter of ensuring all his magazines were in straight lines. ‘I’ve got that problem [OCD]’, he said in 2006: ‘I’ll go into a hotel room. Before I can relax I have to move all the leaflets and all the books and put them in a drawer. Everything has to be perfect.’ Clearly, he is not averse to making private matters public. But, Beckham’s past admissions aside, why should anyone have to come out of the victim’s closet, and admit to a medical condition?

That some have made this demand rests on a rather degraded idea of identity. Today, who one is is defined not so much by what one does, by one’s achievement in life, but by something more passive and more static: by enduring, by suffering. One does not transcend one’s past, whether physical or emotional; rather one is trapped by it. It seems that so great is the public value currently accorded to suffering that to not frame one’s life in those terms is seen as an insult, an affront to morality. Beckham is effectively being accused of shame, of not feeling liberated enough to let it all hang out. That is his crime. The implication is that he should have sacrificed his desire for individual privacy at the altar of ‘raising public awareness’ about an ailment – which these days is seen as every celebrity’s responsibility.

It shouldn’t be though. Not giving away everything also reminds us that people do have more than a bit of a say in who they are. And more importantly, who they become.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Carlton Brick looked at the reaction to Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid. Tim Black traced the rise and tragic demise of Gazza and discussed Gazza as metaphor. After the death of George Best, Rob Lyons said grief shouldn’t be a national sport. John Dennen read a biography which ventured into the scrum of Jonny Wilkinson’s life. Duleep Allirajah wondered why British footballers have such naff nicknames. Or read more at spiked issue Sport

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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