The thing about sport is that it is just about the most powerful truth serum there is. Young sportsmen find themselves surrounded by all kinds of helpers, from agents to PR executives, all of whom are on hand to try to polish a certain image and act as a buffer between the sportsman as he is and the sportsman as others would like to see him. But out in the arena, you are on your own, every move watched by dozens of intrusive cameras and millions of prying eyes. Sport delivers, time and again, a brutal truth and a sportsman’s essential nature will out – like it or not.
There have been enough examples already in Lewis Hamilton’s brief career to know that behind the polished smiles, the PR guff and the copy-approved interviews is a ruthless operator. His long-running feud with Fernando Alonso, which included wilfully overriding team orders in Hungary in 2007, should have told us everything we needed to know about him.
Those who line up to crucify Hamilton are doing so not because he has failed to live up to his own standards but because he has failed to live up to the expectations of others that have been created for him by a pushy father, an agency keen to milk the holy cow for all it is worth and a Formula One team for whom disappointment is measured in millions of dollars rather than the tarnishing of an image. Everything that Hamilton has done on the racetrack has projected a different image, so the reaction to the events in Australia says more about our gullibility than it does about him.
What is it with the British and our sportsmen? It is a curious nation that falls in love with Andrew Flintoff and despises Kevin Pietersen. One, a good cricketer who has produced the odd great moment, whose popularity soared after a post-match hug with an opponent and didn’t diminish despite a whitewash in Australia and an episode with a pedalo; the other a great cricketer, whose preparations are never less than perfect, but who is damned for a few ill-chosen comments and a perception that, like Hamilton, he puts himself before the rest. But bat – or wheel – in hand, you’re on your own so you’d better make damn well sure that you are prepared for everything that will be thrown your way.
There is a deeply moral thread running through our attitudes to our sportsmen. It is not enough to win or to try to win, everything must be seen to be completely above board as well, even though everybody who has played sport knows that rules, laws or conventions are pushed to the limit and often beyond. This morality is a hangover from the days of empire, when sport was seen as essential to the building of moral character, which was, in turn, seen as essential to empire-building. The biggest crime of all is not losing but not playing fair.
For a short period in 1994, accused of ball-tampering and fined, not for ball-tampering, but for lying to the match referee, I felt exactly how Hamilton is feeling right now: embarrassed, hurt, foolish, hunted and on my own. There are some similarities between the episodes: an initial mistake – Hamilton allowing Jarno Trulli to pass, me keeping one side of the ball dry by using dust from an old pitch; the confession – Hamilton in an immediate post-match interview, me in the dressing-room at teatime; then the panic – how do we get out of this one?; the cover-up – Hamilton to the stewards, me to Peter Burge, the match referee; the punishment and then the press conference.
The last bit was probably the hardest. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the small chamber in the inner sanctum at Lord’s that doubled for the press conference room on that sweaty, humid Sunday evening 15 years ago. What I did not know then, amazingly because nobody had bothered to tell me, was that the conference was going out live and what theatre it must have been to those watching: a young, hitherto untarnished sportsman as uncomfortable as he could have possibly been, with Jonathan Agnew clambering all over me and Fleet Street lapping it up.
It was an episode that had a permanent effect on me. Pursued for two weeks afterwards with the kind of intrusion usually reserved for corrupt politicians, I was never trusting or open in front of the media again. I did not worry about the effect on my image – unlike the Hamilton camp now, by all accounts – because I had, in my own mind, no image to speak of at all, or certainly not one that had been carefully manicured. But I knew that it would be a permanent stain on my career and an inevitable chapter in my sporting obituary.
Do I worry about that now? Not one bit. Nor should Hamilton because there is nothing he can do about it. I look back now at an immature 26-year-old who made a mistake (albeit hardly a heinous one), who paid a small penalty in financial terms but a bigger one as regards reputation, who then endured some ferocious criticism, handled it badly and went and scored 99 in his next Test innings under extreme pressure. I learnt a lot about myself during those two weeks.
Given a chance to reflect, Hamilton will have learnt a lot about himself this week, too. And us? The Australian Grand Prix told us nothing we did not already know about him if we had bothered to look carefully enough at his actions on the track and beyond the spin. It told us, once again, that he is a genius of a driver and that he is a flawed human being. It is only the first bit that sets him apart from the rest of humanity. The Times, 4 April 2009