Poster Child

We started putting pictures up in the kids’ rooms this weekend. For now, we’re still getting away with paintings and world maps on Kid A’s wall, but the pop star poster years can’t be far off.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with the pop star poster years; far from it. I think they’re critical to helping children develop their own identity and express choices. NB: you may want to remind me of this sentence in a couple of years.)

That, and a few news stories dominating the headlines this week, got me reflecting about role models and the kinds of people we should be hoping our kids will look up to.

* * *

The week began with Family Little City back watching competitive swimming again, for the first time since the Olympics.

We were at the FINA Word Cup meet, which was taking place in the boat-shaped surroundings of the Hamad Aquatic Centre. Four tickets to the final session set us back a little over seven quid (total), so it seemed rude not to go.

Back in the summer, Kid A had a revelation as she watched Michael Phelps swim, (Twenty Quid) – so the question of role models was rumbling around my head again as we watched some phenomenal performances, led by Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (whose evening basically flipped back and forth between races and medal ceremonies) and South Africa’s Chad Le Clos.

(I mention Chad partly because his talent, charm and looks are going to make him a major global star, but also so I can share Clare Balding’s interview with his dad Bert at the Olympics. This is what parental pride looks like, the culmination of a dream. My Olympic days are behind me now, but I would love a moment like this one day in my future. So, come the Doha meet, I was possibly more excited about seeing father than son…)

But even as these fantastic sportsmen and women were busy enhancing their reputations, others were having theirs torn to shreds.

Like Lance Armstrong.

This week the USADA published its damning indictment of the way he bullied, lied and cheated his way to seven Tour de France titles, not to mention the prize money, status and lifestyle they brought with them. The scale and organisation of the deceit is almost beyond comprehension.

I had Armstrong’s book on the wrong shelf. Have now fixed that. It really wasn’t about the bike, was it?

I find it especially sad as I have been a staunch defender of Armstrong’s over the years. Like millions of others, I wanted to believe his amazing story – not just overcoming life-threatening cancer; not just getting back on his bike, not just winning the Tour de France, but doing so repeatedly.

Who isn’t seduced by that kind of narrative? (At least one person; so to my brother: You were right and I was wrong.)

There are those who will say that Armstrong never failed a dope test.

The USADA evidence draws out a number of reasons for this, including explicit collusion by team mates to obfuscate travel plans (so testers physically couldn’t test riders), provide tip offs regarding the whereabouts of testers and so on.

There is also a view held by some that the UCI (cycling’s governing body) set the testing bar artificially high and didn’t push too hard to catch out a man who was their milkiest of cash cows.

Meanwhile, Britain has been in a collective sense of shock this week over the revelations concerning DJ and TV presenter Jimmy Savile, a man whose posthumous reputation has taken the furthest, fastest descent I think I’ve ever seen in British public life.

From adored national treasure and icon to multiple generations, to reviled abuser – almost literally overnight.

I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It (basically Make a Wish for healthy kids). Mrs LC wrote to him several times. You probably wrote to him, too, if you grew up in Britain in the 70s or 80s. (That said, Mrs LC always maintained that she wouldn’t sit on his knee if she appeared on the show. It was the glasses that scared her.)

The accusation which has been levelled at Savile’s employer, the BBC, this week regarding their treatment or otherwise of him mirrors that of the UCI and Armstrong: that if they didn’t explicitly condone his activity, they at least turned a blind eye to it.

Worse still, there’s another shared connection in that Armstrong’s and Savile’s extensive charitable work proved so effective a smokescreen – with both of them raising tens of millions over the years – that perhaps no one really wanted to see what was really going on.

Turns out “He does a lot of good work for charity” is quite the get-out-of-jail-free card.

The problem with what Armstrong, and the others banned this week have done, is that they cast a shadow of doubt on every other competitor, every achievement, every record broken. Like spoilt brats, they ruin it for everyone else.

Katinka Hosszu’s triple-gold medal winning swim the other night? What about Michael Phelps? The Jamaican sprint team? The sad result might be that we now look and wonder, if only for a nanosecond.

And that’s without thinking about the effect on the honest sportsmen and women who either tried and failed to make it past the cheats, or gave up without starting in the first place. What about them?

In short, it’s left me wondering where to look. Who can we point our children to and say, you want to know what courage, or bravery, or determination, or overcoming the odds looks like? (And I’m well aware that this may be more of an adult projection rather than an explicitly stated desire of a child, but still; they need inspiration, examples, people to look at, up to, and proud of.)

What about 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai – shot in the head this week by the Taliban in Pakistan, for speaking out against them and attending school.

An act so heinous the whole of Pakistan – not to mention the rest of the world – is united in revulsion. If the Arab Spring reminded us of anything, it’s the capacity for global change can still lie in the hand of an individual.

Or what about nine-year-old Martha Payne, who started off blogging about the terrible school dinners she was being served at her Scottish primary school, and whose story went viral after a ridiculous ban was put on her by the embarrassed council responsible.

As a result of the attention, she’s raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity, directly changing children’s lives in Malawi as a result. It’s an astonishing achievement for anyone, let alone a nine-year-old.

We may not all be able to change the world, but our children might. That’s why we need to encourage them in whatever endeavours they choose to pursue – be it political activism, blogging or swimming.

So when the maps and the paintings come down, I wonder who’ll be taking their place?

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One thought on “Poster Child

  1. Christine October 15, 2012 / 6:58 am

    For positive role models I’d look away from professional athletes. They are primarily entertainers and advertising billboards. I don’t say that with malice, just respect for reality. Televisions are the same and I hold no (or only little) malice towards them but certainly no expectation as a role model. Perhaps amateur sports is a more appropriate place to look for role models.

    My daughter is squarely in the pop star years. Conversations revolving around, “exactly what do you like about Shakira” are quite revealing.

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