Over the half term break I was thinking a fair amount about the notion of loyalty and loyalty towards one’s school. Before you label me a saddo, this was prompted by the fact that I attended the birthday party of an old school friend. I guess – or at least hope – that whilst you are at RHS, all of you enjoy school pride: it gives us a chance to celebrate our successes, both individually and collectively. The last few days before the half term break saw the School come together to support the Talent Show and the wonderful School Play – this is as good an opportunity as any to publically thank Mr Kerr, the cast, and all those involved in what was an absolute triumph. It is great moments like these that really remind us of what a special place RHS is.
But are there risks here, too? Surely; it is one thing for us to declare ourselves a good school; it is quite another for us to declare another school inferior. Positive pride? Excessive arrogance? Although I think we have handled this well for the most part, the line can get murky. In my job, I struggle with this constantly. As you know, I spend a fair amount of time marketing the School and meeting with prospective parents. I am constantly talking about RHS. On the one hand, I want to speak proudly of the School and what you pupils and staff have accomplished. But how far do I go? Here is a personal confession. I often talk and refer to RHS as a “good” school. I use the word “good” because I like the moral connotation; I want RHS, most importantly, to be a place of good people. But I try not to use the word “great.” That is not because I do not have strong positive feelings about this place. It’s because declaring one’s school “great” makes me nervous.
Moving from school, to an individual level, these questions arise. Am I allowed to feel proud of the “A*” I just got in a recent examination? Can I share my good news with my friends? How can I be proud of getting the lead in the play, or the leadership post in my house or sports team, without coming across as acting arrogant and self-serving? There is an expression that many of us have heard frequently: one may feel “justifiably proud” of having accomplished something. Do I have to justify my pride?
Here’s another reason I struggle with this notion of pride. As I watch some of the most accomplished people in our society, they often come across as arrogant.
Not surprisingly, some of the clearest examples come from the world of sports. Back in the 1980’s the most exciting and feared batsman in the world was the West Indian, Vivian Richards. Hugh McIlvanney, of The Observer, once wrote: “standing at an inch under 6 feet and weighing upwards of 13 stone [Richards] might be expected to look bulky, perhaps ponderously solid, but in him grace is as basic as breathing. Just watching him walk slowly to the wicket can be more of a thrill than seeing other famous sportsmen at the height of their performances”.
Richards carried himself in a way that said, “I am simply better than anyone else. The hard realization I came to after years of watching him was that he needed to have a certain measure of arrogance to perform as well as he did; he needed to believe he was better than anyone else. I think this is true for any elite athlete. The margin of talent among these top performers is so thin that they cannot afford to be kind or gracious.
So, how does that translate to you all? Given the School’s values, does it seem right for a team or an individual to walk onto a sports arena and expect to win?
My answer is absolutely yes. I would hope you would be able to celebrate appropriately what you have achieved. Indeed, I think that is only human. We would be in a sad state of affairs if we could not take joy in what we have accomplished in life. In fact, we can even fail and still feel proud of our efforts. Not everyone can make the team or get the lead part in the School …this is part of life. But if you have made a good, honest effort, you should be able to keep your head up high.
Turning to one of the top news stories over the past few days: Oscar Pistorius, the “bladerunner” and idol to millions, has been arrested and charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The South African double amputee is the most famous disabled athlete in the world. Thousands of children facing a future of disability would have felt a little less limited and a little more inspired thanks to his amazing example on the track. It just seems impossible that he could have picked up a gun and shot someone.
He has pleaded “not guilty” to premeditated murder but he does admit that he fired the gun thinking intruders were in the house. The scenes in the courthouse in Pretoria with Pistorius sobbing uncontrollably as his defence lawyer explained he had no intention of killing Steenkamp and that it was all a terrible accident, are inconceivable and shocking to anyone who had seen him competing.
It was also difficult to believe the stories that emerged the second the news broke; stories that depicted Pistorius as an adrenaline junkie who loved guns, a man with a hot temper and a pugnacious nature lurking beneath his diplomatic surface. In the terrible story of Pistorius, there is not only the shock of the act itself, but of the revelations that someone people thought they knew, was not quite as they seemed.
In this way, and this way alone, it echoes other less tragic tales of sportsmen once placed on a pedestal who have shown their feet of clay. People thought Tiger Woods was a God, until he crashed his car into a tree late at night after an argument with his then wife, and the façade of the perfect family man cracked to reveal the serial adulterer. Ryan Giggs looked like the perfect role model and spent a great deal of money protecting that image through the courts to stop the emergence of his affairs, including one with his sister-in-law. The most terrifying allegations about Lance Armstrong are not simply his use of his performance-enhancing drugs to make him the best, but the bullying and intimidation he used to preserve his super clean, super cool image. Those stories are hard to square with his previous public image as a cancer survivor intent on doing good. No wonder his Foundation no longer bears his name.
I am not suggesting that having an affair is the same as cheating at sport, or that either is equivalent to a murder charge, but in their different ways, each revelation shows how little we know about these men whom we endow not only with super human sporting ability, but extraordinary personal qualities. Yet these figures in the public eye are ultimately flawed and unknowable. They show us only what they want us to see.
Despite numerous post-match interviews, their intimate thoughts, their vulnerabilities, their ugliness, are all hidden from view.
What fools we are to put such faith in them. As I have already said, the nature of sporting success requires a high degree of confidence and arrogance, an inflated sense of your own worth and a single-minded pursuit of your goals. Indeed, it requires many of the qualities that actually work against goodness, kindness and being nice and loyal to the people closest to you. This does not make all sportsmen and women bad. Still less does it make them likely to shoot someone, but it is a salutary reminder that we should not necessarily admire them for anything more than what we know they can do in sporting terms. We should praise their single-mindedness, natural ability and talent, but it is stupid and unreasonable to expect that they should somehow reward us for our devotion by leading blameless lives.
We should always be shocked by a murder charge, but not by the fallibility of our heroes; indeed if we could get their achievements and their value into some kind of perspective, then the world of sport might be a saner and better place.