With Michael Schumacher contemplating life outside of Formula One, some motor racing fans will say good riddance, citing his “cheating” this year in Monaco, his sideswiping of Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, and his infamous crash with Damon Hill in the 1994 Australian Grand Prix as evidence of an ungracious winner and a poor sportsman.
Others, like me, are prepared to look past those incidents and celebrate one of the truly great sportspeople of any era. You don’t have to like the man to appreciate his achievements, nor do you have to respect him to acknowledge his ability to take the skill (or science or art) of driving a car very fast to unforeseen heights. He is a living legend.
The fact is, few are the sportspeople who have taken their chosen sport beyond the merely great while keeping their relationship with the wider world set permanently to cosy.
Sport at the highest level is too competitive and the stakes too high to say “please” and “thankyou” and “I like your shoes” all the way to world domination. It takes mongrel to become the world’s best – some people just manage to hide it better than others. Formula One, thanks to the money involved and the competition for a drive, takes an altogether higher breed of mongrel to reach the top than many other sports.
Feel free to write in with examples of sportspeople who were simultaneously brilliant, world-beating AND popular – Roger Federer is one, Kelly Slater may be another, and there’s also Tiger Woods. But for every Federer, Slater and Woods, there are a number of Schumachers to balance out the ledger.
Lance Armstrong never put a pleasing public image ahead of grinding his way to another Tour de France win on his list of priorities. Shane Warne, though almost universally adored by cricket-lovers, is also universally acknowledged as a dubious character off the field, not least because of his drug ban. Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, though not malicious, were personality-free zones, and Australia’s most iconic sportsman, Don Bradman, while the living embodiment of everything good and gentlemanly about cricket, was, according to Ian Chappell at least, a tyrant off the park.
Does it matter? Not really. We admired them for their talent with a racquet, a bat, a ball or a bike. Though you may not hold Schumacher up as an example of how to play nice with the other children, he deserves his place among the great champions of world sport.