Sport has become a vehicle for hyperbole and heaven help the performer who doesn't come up to expectations

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The Independent Online
After Oliver McCall knocked out Lennox Lewis in September 1994 to become the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, he spoke about the benefits of improved behaviour. He related advancement in the ring to being a better person.

Subsequent events have shown that McCall was no closer to redemption than he had ever been. In a wild-eyed loss to Frank Bruno at Wembley and then the bizarre performance he gave when back in the ring with Lewis for the vacant title, there was worrying evidence of derangement.

Following fresh outbursts of violence that are thought to be drug related, McCall was admitted this week to a mental institution.

As this coincided with the news that the 1995 Open golf champion, John Daly, has entered the Betty Ford clinic in an attempt to overcome his chronic drink problem, you may think it a good time to wonder about what is going on out there.

In consideration of more hazardous professions, I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of pressure in sport. Nevertheless, it exists and some people cope with it better than others. What we are talking about here is individual temperament, and probably genetic weakness. Invoking the wrath of authority does not get us anywhere.

Sport is taken too seriously on the one hand and not seriously enough on the other. For example, very little account is paid by television and mass circulation newspapers to the fact that boys go into professional football straight from school and receive very little guidance in social development.

The supporter, who probably is raising a similar type beneath his own roof, sees sports stars and their contemporary lifestyles moving closer to what was once considered revolutionary or immoral. Not a damn is given as long as the team wins, and attitudes have changed anyway.

Due to expanding interest across the airwaves and in newspapers, the focus on performance and behaviour intensifies. Moderation no longer comes into it. Sport has become a vehicle for hyperbole. And God help the performer who doesn't come up to expectations.

All sports hold the prospect of disappointment and the daunting inevitability of anticlimax. The message that filters through in time becomes all too clear. Along with the urge to succeed comes the realisation that, in most cases, and in most sports, it will soon be over.

Was it the disappointment of being left out of England's 1966 World Cup winning team that caused Jimmy Greaves to become an alcoholic? Did Manchester United's decline after winning the European Cup in 1968 trigger George Best's sad plight? Nobody can be sure of this, but I was brought up to believe that most things in life come at a price.

In an interview Nick Faldo gave this week to Martin Hardy of the Daily Express, he said: "Every time you play you wonder when the next win is going to come. When it does, you say "great, lovely", and then go off in search of the next. That's the game."

Most of the pressure in sport stems from distorted values. How can it be that a football manager is less than the success he was, simply because of one bad season?

Bombarded with games and analysis on television, the supporter begins to think himself sophisticated to the point where absolute judgements can be made. The novelty of simply having a game to look at is no longer enough to command attention.

The inescapable conclusion is that sports performers of the future will get an even tougher ride. There is no magic elixir that separates winners from losers. You can't buy it at the chemist. You don't pour it on your cereal. All you have is what you were born with.

One thing we should remember is that the majority who succeed in sport are quite ordinary people. For every one who falls about in nightclubs, there are 20 pushing trolleys around supermarkets.

The there is innocence, too. Sport isn't the real world. Once, over dinner, a prominent golfer was asked whether he thought the United States was right to drop bombs on Libya. Interrupted in his thoughts, he remarked on the degree of difficulty imposed by a par three at Pebble Beach. That's pressure for you.

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