As every tiger knows, it’s a jungle out there. You only have to change TV channels to see that.
One minute you’re watching a couple of stags tangle antlers on some frozen steppe, wondering what the camera crew do with their luncheon vouchers. Flick the remote, and you are nearly guaranteed a variation of the same ritual, as adapted by our own species – whether it’s some superannuated pop star eating grubs, University Challenge, or Match of the Day.
In token of our status, as higher than the animals, our alpha males ostensibly undergo more sophisticated tests for natural selection. Instead of assaulting each other – though obviously this remains a default option in many – they kick, throw and hit balls. Instead of preening peacock feathers, they exhibit homo sapiens at the apogee of his evolution: they sing or dance or make movies or give lectures or run for office. They win us over with charisma, with a selfless determination to make the world a better place. And then they get laid.
To your average male, of course – and, when you get down to it, alpha ones are just extra-average – there is no more efficient way of making the world a better place. As in so many other respects, however, the headlong pace of human “development” is bound to create painful dislocation within those we identify as pack leaders. And that’s why Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn deserve something they haven’t had, since formally acknowledging their relationship this week: compassion.
On the one hand, we won’t let Woods just be a great golfer. Our disproportionate esteem must be matched not only by material rewards, but also by impertinent expectations. That’s where Darwinian process has taken us: the survival of the fatuous. Yet we cannot, as a species, shed overnight the priorities learned in ageless experience.
Among all celebrities, it is the athlete who requires the shortest conceptual leap from stags measuring their prowess before the herd. Woods would hardly be the first to allow admiration to go to his head, and sundry parts else. Somewhere along the line, however, he discovered that fame and glamour were double-edged. Now, too late perhaps, he wants to be treated as a normal human being again. He seems unlikely to be indulged, judging from the sanctimony and malice infecting the media this week. Woods finds himself condemned as cynical and manipulative; in the same breath, he is asked how he could be so artless as to pick another blonde.
A very different view commends itself, however, to those of us who have followed Vonn’s career more closely than we ever did that of her new companion. There have been times when Vonn has herself been so superior in her own field that she should, so to speak, really have started from a back tee. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that her request to contest a men’s downhill was declined. But she never won greater admiration than in admitting a history of depression – this bulletproof superwoman, whose daily hurtles along the margin of an abyss are so terrifying that a wheelchair waits at the bottom.
In midwinter, Vonn disappeared from the tour with an intestinal illness. She returned in time to find her feet again before the World Championships at Schladming. The first race, the Super-G, was staged in fading light after prolonged fog delays. Vonn was right on top of the fastest splits when she wiped out. She was airlifted to hospital, with ripped knee ligaments and a fractured tibia.
Consider the balance struck between motivation and risk by this woman, who has been treated for a disease that so annihilates the human spirit. You can only respect Vonn the champion if you also respect Vonn the woman, complex and human and vulnerable. Who could presume to deny her privacy and dignity, in making her own decisions in her own life?
There is more than one way to be a fallen idol. In the end, perhaps that’s why these bionic couples gravitate towards each other – Woods and Vonn, McIlroy and Wozniacki, Graf and Agassi. In Nascar, they’ve even got a pair as liable to kill each other on the track as kiss off it, in Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Like Vonn, in demanding to race against men, Patrick rebukes the bovine delusions of the 21st century male, alpha or otherwise. But where they find true parity, these putative paragons, is in our ludicrous expectations. They have to find sanctuary in each other, because the rest of us could only ever be disappointed.