Sport Sport Focus Narcissists are us: Why sports stars behave badly
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Narcissists are us: Why sports stars behave badly

Like many athletes, Luis Suarez did not take responsibility for his actions.
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Sport brings out the best – and the worst – in us. It is always about so much more than the physical skills displayed. It is about honour, struggle and the strength of the human spirit. We cherish it because in witnessing great sporting feats, we come to know more about not just about the sporting hero, but about ourselves. Our sense of awe entirely depends upon our faith in the integrity of an honest contest.

Yet, precisely because it means so much – and now brings in so much money – sport can bring out a dark side. While Germany justly celebrates their victory in the World Cup, there are less happy moments to consider.

Like when Uruguay star striker Luis Suarez bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Luis Suarez after chomping on Italian Giorgio Chiellini (R). Photo: Getty
Luis Suarez (R) after chomping on Italian Giorgio Chiellini. Photo: Getty

But like many celebrity sport stars, Suarez was ready with an excuse to dodge his four month ban: “I simply lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent…I hit my face against the player …”

Which is one way of describing flying into a rage and sinking your teeth into your opponent’s shoulder. Shockingly bad sportsmanship is the other.

Such behaviour is not an isolated instance, but an example from sport of a growing psychological phenomenon – narcissism. In the US for example, between 1979 and 2006, narcissism grew amongst college students by 30 per cent.

It got worse during the noughties. From rising rates of plastic surgery and public incivility, through our obsession with making it and constant pursuit of attention on social media, to road rage and cheating in sport, we can see narcissism’s ugly fingerprint.

Narcissism is not just ordinary selfishness. It is a whole unpleasant package, marked by a grandiose, inflated perception of self as special and superior to others. Given how ‘special’ they are, no wonder ordinary rules don’t seem to apply to them.

The narcissist has an overweening sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit others and a lack of empathy. But there is fragility too; a wild rage when thwarted or criticised.

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Narcissists in the psychology lab have been shown to be far more willing than other folk to give an electric shock or blast of loud aversive noise if they are criticised. Narcissists invariably blame others for their failings; their life is like the line from Love Story, “You never have to say you are sorry”.

The parenting of Narcissus, studies show, is a strange mixture of coldness and over indulgence. The child is treated not just as special, but as better than any other child. They must be a star, so the parent can bask in reflected glory.

The child is raised in a mania of praise, based on wrongheaded ideas that the holy grail of childhood is high self-esteem.

A better idea is raising a self-respecting child who also respects the rights and needs of others. The word respect carries with it the sober truth that we need to earn it, by behaving decently.

In contrast the word ‘esteem’ means to admire – yet studies show that problems abound when people think too highly of themselves.

Narcissism has been found to be especially high amongst the celebrities we worship – and that includes sports stars. You might even say it is an occupational hazard of the red carpet treatment we give them.

Take the most telling example of all, Lance Armstrong, whose childhood had both the elements of coldness and permissiveness.

Abandoned by his biological father, brutally beaten by his step father, nonetheless he was placed on a throne by his adoring mother, worshipped and treated with total indulgence. He became the seven time winner of the legendary Tour De France, perhaps the greatest marathon challenge in the world. Hailed as a Citizen Saint after he overcame testicular cancer and won 7 Tours De France, Armstrong was finally exposed as villain. He was a doper, cheat, bully, liar and quintessential narcissist.

Armstrong’s cancer, it turned out, was likely a result of steroid misuse. When he recovered and returned to road racing he went back to doping and cheating with a vengeance. He had learned nothing. He took blood manipulation to new heights with the help of Michele Ferrari, a sports doctor nicknamed Dr Evil. He used a cocktail of ‘supplements’ like testosterone and the banned substance EPO which boosts oxygen in the blood.

Lance Armstrong: Variously abandones, beaten and placed on a throne.
Lance Armstrong: Variously abandoned, beaten and placed on a throne.

Then when testing for EPO was getting too rigorous, Armstrong and Ferrari turned to blood transfusions. Many other young riders in the US Postal Team, like Tyler Hamilton, felt under pressure to take the substances or have the transfusions. Mid tour, as all the riders began to feel exhausted, US Postal riders would lie in a hotel room with swollen red bags of fresh oxygen rich blood dripping into their veins.

It had been extracted when they were at their peak, just before the Tour. During the height of Armstrong’s dominance and doping, the speed of the Tour increased by 20 per cent. Armstrong powered up mountains with his mouth closed, while the clean riders panted and fell by the wayside.

Armstrong’s philosophy according to Hamilton was simple. “Whatever you’re doing, those other f——s are doing more.” The winner takes all.

And for a while Armstrong did just that. He threatened with law suits or defamed anyone who told the truth about his doping, did whatever it took to shut them up. But like most narcissists, his gains were short term.

In the end he was found out, disgraced and lost everything. He went from the Red Carpet A list where he was befriended by presidents, bedded by celebrities like singer Sheryl Crow, from being worth $100 million at the height of his career, losing all sponsorship, being stripped of his Tour victories and admitting the shameful truth on Oprah.

Armstrong corrupted the greatest race of all. His exposure was the result of courageous journalists like David Walsh from The Sunday Times, and dogged pursuit by the American version of ASADA. As we ponder the supplements scandal of the Essendon Football Club, there is good reason to feel grateful that our Australian ASADA has cracked down before we see a wholesale corruption of this wonderful game.

Sport is play, but it is serious too, carrying with it a deeper intimation of meeting life’s challenges, struggling and overcoming. That is why we care about it. If anyone subverts that underlying moral code, by cheating, they have debased the coinage.

Anne Manne is the author of The Life of I: the new culture of narcissismMelbourne University Press. 2014

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