Leading Article: Sporting heroes under pressure

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TO THE irritation of some and the delight of many, sport seems to be taking over the world. It happens only every four years, when football's zenith, the World Cup, coincides with the most ancient and famous of tennis championships, at Wimbledon. Both events are now reaching their peak, and there is no shortage of additional sporting material, be it the saga of O J Simpson, the American footballer turned actor charged with the grisly murder of his former wife and her friend, or the imminent return of Nigel Mansell - one of England's outstanding sportsmen - to Formula One racing.

Even those to whom all sport is tedious can scarcely deny its astonishing universality. Among team games, football has become much the most universal. The reasons for this seem clear. Its rules are beautifully simple, and it requires only a round ball and something indicating a goal. It can be played anywhere, even (unlike its much more physical rugby equivalent) on hard surfaces such as the nearest street. At its best it provides scope for skill, even artistry, athleticism, tactics and strategy. Loyalty to local or national teams provides an outlet for a modern form of tribalism, and for nationalism of the least threatening kind.

Being a football fan has been made much less hazardous by the gentrification of the game - in this country at least - since hooliganism reached its dreadfully logical conclusion in the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985. To sport a team's colours is no longer to risk being waylaid and beaten up by those of the other side. Parents can now once again take their children to matches without fearing for their safety. There are some anxieties that this process is being taken too far: that all-seat stadiums will price the poor out of watching the game live, even as competition for television coverage reduces the game's visibility on the main channels.

If football is, even though enlivened by individual stars, the team game par excellence, tennis is not only more expensive to play and more obviously middle class but is a supreme test of solo skill, stamina and temperament. No other sport tests these three attributes so publicly and simultaneously. Even the most gifted player will fail without steely nerves and a virtually unflagging will to win. The danger is that the development of these qualities eliminates more human characteristics. That is why the fans attach so much importance to signs of originality: witness their attachment to John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. It also helps to explain widespread admiration for a stayer like Martina Navratilova, who today takes part in her 12th Wimbledon singles final, aged 37. In the field of 'transportation' sports (derived from Greek and Roman chariot-racing), Nigel Mansell, 41 next month, benefits from a similar nostalgia- tinged sympathy and admiration.

All this is part of the hero-worship that is an essential ingredient of human nature - and of the appeal of sport. Latterly the creation of heroes has been accelerated by commercialisation: sporting giants have become vehicles for product promotion, a process that not only enriches but spreads and inflates the reputations of those at the top. Many have crumpled under the combined pressures that result. O J Simpson is merely the latest in a long line that includes not just Maradona but footballers, athletes and boxers of yesteryear.

For the majority of ordinary sports fans, struggling with mortgages and tedious jobs, the problems of handling money and fame on an heroic scale may seem enviable. Yet to be admired across the world is no easy fate. The strains and temptations to which outstanding sports stars are subjected are enough to test

the sternest character. No wonder some crack up. To them, as to all those who survive the rarefied high peaks of achievement, the world owes considerable gratitude. Without them, our lives would be drabber, and competitive instincts would find less desirable outlets.