Children worship athletes as heroes, but when they grow up they realize that only few of them are actual heroes.
To pass as heroes, athletes must defeat something larger than the rival across the court.
Jesse Owens was one such hero not because he won four gold medals in one Olympiad, but because in doing so he defied Adolf Hitler, who left the stadium seething at the display of black excellence.
Similarly, Israeli combat pilot Noam Gershony is a heroic athlete not because he won the London Paralympics tennis gold medal, but because his victory arrived six years after he was retrieved from his fallen helicopter severely wounded in all four limbs.
Such heroism is difficult to find among most professional athletes, who are basically pampered entertainers earning obscene sums of money while exposed to a level of publicity that some of them are not built to shoulder.
Some athletes emerged as moral caricatures, like golfer Tiger Woods, the first athlete to accumulate more than $1 billion, and possibly also the first husband to have simultaneously hopped between about a dozen mistresses.
Other athletes became moral tragedies, like baseball’s Denny McLain and Pete Rose, who were ruined by gambling scandals; not to mention football’s O.J.
Simpson, who did time for robbery after having been controversially acquitted of a separate murder case.
Such extreme athletic immorality is, of course, rare – if we set aside countless athletes’ dishonesty in doping – but even so, most athletes are not fit to play moral guides. Yet the moral pretension is there, and it becomes altogether unbearable when an athlete emerges not only as a cheat but as a coward.
An athletic coward is a guy like Argentine soccer player Diego Armando Maradona, who in the 1986 World Cup scored with his hand the quarterfinal goal that sent arch rival England home, where its cheated players saw his cheating hand lift the trophy out of which he had swindled them.
A brave athlete would have gone to the referee and admitted what millions saw on TV – that the goal he scored was illegal.
But Maradona was a coward, who placed vainglory above values, as he burst in a gladiatorial victory dash, celebrating a goal that was obtained as illegally as the cocaine that later became part of his diet.
The Argentine soccer idol is not our subject, to be sure. His country, however, is, along with the cowardice it tends to periodically produce, and the operatic scandals in which it tends to star.
THERE WAS plenty of Israeli idiocy behind Wednesday’s cancellation of the national team’s exhibition game with Argentina’s fabled squad.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s barging into a privately organized event, by demanding that it be relocated in Jerusalem, was a political busybody’s shot in the foot.
No, Regev’s damage to her country is not on the scale of that inflicted on Argentina by Juan Peron, who led one of the world’s richest lands to economic ruin by nationalizing industries and inflating wages. She did, however, tinker with a diplomatically delicate affair that was just fine without her elephantine involvement before producing a major-league public relations disaster.
Even so, the Israeli side of this scandal is about one hyperactive politician whose damage will be contained, albeit at an effort.
Argentina’s side, by contrast, is an emblem of the tragedy and farce with which Argentine history is laced.
The first absurdity in the Argentine move is that no one in Buenos Aires decided about what was done in its name. Like a platoon stranded in a jungle after having lost radio connectivity with its commanders, the players decided on their own to cancel their trip to Israel from Spain, where they are preparing for the World Cup in Russia.
Even more bizarrely, it turns out that the team that is ostensibly a national institution is actually run by its star, Lionel Messi, and his father. It was that un-appointed duo that first initiated the trip and then surrendered to the players’ demand that it be canceled.
Then there was the incoherence of the Argentineans’ explanation of their own decision.
Endorsing the decision taken by the players in disregard of his outfit, Argentine Soccer Federation vice president Hugo Moyano said “the right thing was done” because “in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can’t accept that in any way.”
It is not clear whether Moyano, a veteran Peronist and union leader, thinks Argentineans must shun a place “where they [who?] kill so many people [how many?]” because it is immoral or because it is unsafe.
However, if his problem is the morality of Israel’s killing in recent weeks of a hundred Palestinians, then why is his team traveling to Russia, whose air force has killed thousands of Syrians? And if his impression is that there is generally too much killing in Israel, where the annual murder rate is 1.36 per 100,000 people, why play in Argentina, where it is 6.53? Indeed, team member Gonzalo Higuaín’s explanation – that he and his teammates were guided not by ideology but by “health” – is more convincing, though it remains unclear what aspect of their health was at stake: the effort of an added journey and exhibition game, or terrorist threats on their lives.
If it is the added journey, then Argentina’s soccer players are lazy, and thus contributed to their countrymen’s stereotype as passive people unworthy of the rich land they inhabit.
And if it is the threatened violence, then Argentina’s soccer stars are cowards; like the Argentinean fascists who kidnapped and sedated dissidents, before throwing them from helicopters into the ocean; like the Argentinean generals who attacked a remote British island, only to surrender 10 weeks on; like the Argentinean politicians who covered up Iran’s mass murder of Jews in Buenos Aires; and like Maradona, whose quip that what he did was “the hand of God” encapsulated all that is ill about his country’s relationship with truth, courage and fair play.