The World Cup in Brazil might once be remembered as the beginning of the end of traditional sport heroism.
Read the script of my short introdcution given at this year’s Battle of Ideas in the workshop „What makes a sporting leader?“
What struck me about the German team is that they didn’t have any hero at all. During the tournament, the German players and the manager were heavily criticised, the tabloid press even called their game “disgraceful”. Only a few minutes before Mario Götze scored in the World Cup final, the German TV commentator called him the greatest German disappointment of the whole tournament.
I am not saying that Germany won because they didn’t have any heroes. But I do think that Germany won because all other heroes failed: Ronaldo, Balotelli, Iniesta, Messi, Julio Cesar, Rooney…
The case of Neymar was particularly interesting to me: It was not that he himself failed, but after he got injured not only his team but the whole country literally collapsed. It seemed as if Brazilians saw him like a religious saviour who unfortunately left his team alone to be burnt alive by the Germans.
Maybe this is what happens to proper heroes these days. They seem to be so alien to ordinary life that people find it increasingly difficult to relate to them in a positive way: Heroes are either seen as more or less god-like or as complete idiots.
What is the problem with heroes today? The problem is that modern society does not like ambitious people. A hero self-consciously sticks out, he strives for excellence by challenging the ordinary and he wants to give a lead. Can you image the moral pressure you experience when you say that in public?
If you want to be a hero today, you do not only have to dominate your competitors. You also have to stand up against the zeitgeist of mediocrity and defend the very idea of human excellence, elitism and ambition. So be prepared to be unpopular. When I say unpopular, I don’t mean that people envy you. As it happens, envy encapsulates a positive outlook: If someone envies you, then he has the ambition to be at least as good as you.
Today, unfortunately, envy is slowly being replaced by a profound disdain for ambition. The winner is not criticised for being the best, but for having been determined to win in the first place. This character trait is seen as one of the main sources of personal, social and political decay – not to talk about the unsustainability of “higher faster further”. Just as wealth is supposed to destroy a person’s character, so is ambition.
This is why modern society does not trust successful people. Just take Usain Bolt: Everyone expects him to collect world records like flowers, but as soon as he does precisely that, the public begins to question him.
Just to get that right: Criticising the ambition to win has nothing to do with being friendly, caring and anti-elitist; on the contrary, it is anti-people and anti-human: There is nothing more backward than telling the second best of a race that participation is everything.
But today’s climate not only doubts winners, it also praises the ability to fail and to suffer as a central quality of modern role models. Following this logic, you are not what you are living for but what you have been going through. Whereas past successes get forgotten, past sufferings and failures seem to determine your future.
Let me give you a prominent example for this: The German formula one driver and former champion Michael Schumacher has always been very popular. But there has also been cynicism and suspicion in wide sections of the public and the media only waiting to come out. And so it happened: One day after his horrible ski accident, media experts honestly discussed whether Schumacher finally became a victim of his own speed and risk addiction.
The worst thing about this is that now, as Schumacher’s life is determined by physical and probably mental damage, he is finally turned into a hero. What does that mean? It means: Never mind the titles you’ve won, what makes you a 21th century star is what you have been going through and what you have suffered from.
Today’s Zeitgeist does not worship achievements; it prefers modesty, surviving skills and the preparedness to fail. But once surviving and failing is celebrated as heroic, stagnation is turned into progress and heroism becomes the antidote to humanness. Let’s not give up on winners, let’s praise humanity by celebrating the excellence of heroes.
(Introduction given at the Battle of Ideas 2014 in the workshop „What makes a sporting leader?“)