Brian Viner: Closer our idols fly to the sun, more we enjoy their falls

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Sir Ian Botham, as perhaps you read, refused to commentate on the second one-day cricket international between New Zealand and England this week, after arriving at Seddon Park in Hamilton to find that the Sky Sports commentary box was actually a Portakabin mounted on high scaffolding. "I don't do heights," he said. "I'll go in helicopters and planes but they're meant to fly. Commentary boxes aren't."

It was interesting to see the way in which this minor story was presented by different newspapers. For some it was a faintly amusing item and nothing more.

In a gesture of support, Nasser Hussain was quoted as saying that the commentary box really did sway in the wind, and that it wasn't much fun up there. Others, however, made a big deal of Botham's record of bravery – aggressively taking on the world's most fearsome pace bowlers without so much as a helmet – and contrasted it with his lily-livered, knock-kneed, yellow-bellied (they didn't use those phrases but the implication was clear enough) refusal to climb up a ladder.

My sympathies in this relatively piffling matter are entirely with Botham. I wouldn't have clambered up there, either, and I don't have the redeeming boast of a sporting career which really began in earnest on 12 June, 1974 in Taunton, when the 18-year-old IT Botham came in to bat for Somerset with his team struggling at 113 for seven against Hampshire, and promptly tried to hook a vicious bouncer by Andy Roberts, who at the time was probably the fastest bowler in the world.

Unsurprisingly, the youngster mistimed the stroke. He took the full impact of the ball directly in the mouth, and reluctantly received medical assistance while he spat blood, and two teeth, onto the Taunton square. He then angrily refused to retire hurt, continued to take Roberts on, and hit two towering sixes in an innings of 45 not out, securing a one-wicket victory for his team. He can be excused a bit of vertigo.

Besides, show me the fearless hero who does not have some area of vulnerability, and I'll be looking at the pages of a comic book. Even Achilles had his heel, while Muhammad Ali is said to have been nervous about flying, and reportedly always refused to do up his seat belt because being buckled in made him feel less rather than more safe, at least until he came up against the one stewardess prepared to give the man from Louisville some of his own lip. "Superman don't need no seat belt," he told her. "Superman don't need no airplane, either," she said, "now strap yourself in."

In 1967, in Houston, Texas, Ali exposed himself to a more visceral charge of cowardice, by refusing three times to step forward after his name had been called out by a US Army drafting officer. For declining to join the army his licence to box was revoked, and he was stripped of his title as world heavyweight boxing champion.

These days, Ali's stance against the Vietnam War is seen as heroism rather than cowardice, his famous observation that "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong, they ain't never called me nigger", rightly celebrated as a rallying-call against racial prejudice.

But I can remember even as a child, even an ocean away, being aware of the slur that Ali was a chicken for shirking his patriotic duty to do some real fighting. "Idol with feet of Clay", is how The Sun might have put it. The truth, perhaps, is that we like to find evidence of weakness in our sporting heroes, even where weaknesses don't really exist, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. The subtext of the sneers is that I might not be able to play cricket like Botham could, but at least I'm not scared of heights; I might look like half the man that Ali was in his prime, but at least I don't mind flying.

A related phenomenon is the manifest glee with which we greet the perceived failures of sporting colossi whose talent and charisma illuminated the arenas in which they operated as performers.

A couple of days ago, Bryan Robson was relieved of his duties as manager of Sheffield United. The inspirational player once known as Captain Marvel is now widely regarded as a managerial Mickey Mouse, even by some of the West Bromwich Albion fans who, on "Survival Sunday" in May 2005, would gladly have worshipped at his feet. Trawl the internet for 10 minutes and you will find numerous examples of anti-Robson schadenfreude, and it seems to me no coincidence that he has assumed the mantle of another man who once graced the England midfield like few others have done, yet whose managerial failings came almost to define him, the late Alan Ball. The closer they fly to the sun, the harder we like to watch them fall, and staying on the ground will do nothing to protect Ian Botham from that peculiarly English trait.