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The worship of athletes as heroes dates back to the Ancient Greek athletic festivals, beginning with the religiously based Olympic Games in 776BCE. One legend states that the mythological figure Heracles inaugurated the games after completing his twelve labours, giving us a hint as to why athletes achieved such a heroic status (The Greek word for Hero, Hieros, is etymologically related to Heracles).
Athletes who won events at Olympia actually transcended humanity and became demi-gods, worshiped in their home city-states but also across the Ancient Greek world. Theagenes of Thasos, winner of the Boxing (480BCE) and Pankration (476BCE), was worshipped as a healer and his home city of Thasos fell under a terrible drought due to the patrons throwing his statue in the sea for falling on and killing one his rivals (Yes, the statue was put on trial for murder, found guilty, and then tossed in the sea). It’s safe to say we don’t hold our athletes to quite that high a standard, but maybe not by much.
Over the past weekend, Tiger Woods completed perhaps the greatest comeback in professional sports history by winning golf’s most prestigious tournament, The Masters. What makes Woods’s, aged 43, triumph at Augusta National Golf Course impressive is both his physical and personal redemption. Woods’ body broke down to the point where he required spinal fusion surgery, his fourth back surgery, in 2017 and was simply hoping to recover to have a normal life. Playing at the highest level was unthinkable for someone who could not sit or lie down without excruciating pain less than two years ago. At age 41, to put in the work to be able to compete against competitors 15-20 years younger is incredible enough, but Wood’s redemption only begins there.
In early 2017, Wood’s was found hunched over the steering wheel of his car, incapacitated by painkillers prescribed to help with his debilitating back injury. It was a public humiliation and a symbol that his comeback might never materialize. Worse, it harkened back to Tiger’s public fall from grace a decade ago in 2009, when the world learned that the clean image Tiger so effectively maintained for his career turned out to be smoke and mirrors.
He was caught having extra marital affairs with multiple women. It was the systemic nature of his affairs that led many to question his moral stature, and he lost major endorsements. Two days after the scandal broke, the scene was similar, Tiger was found in his car, this time he had crashed into a fire hydrant, trees, and hedges after his then wife Elin chased him with his own golf clubs, physically damaging his car as he fled.
While many have looked at Tiger’s win as physical redemption, his moral failings are still remembered. This SE Cupp Tweet shows us the problem today we have as a society in forgiving past transgressions.
Tiger Woods was never charged with a crime and by all accounts has been a tremendous father to his children. We should applaud people who get back up from their mistakes, we shouldn’t look to knock them back down. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with that tweet. Last year when asked about his relationship with President Trump, the two are good friends, after a golf tournament, Tiger famously declined to comment on the matter.
The media wanted the standard anti-Trump sound byte, but Tiger didn’t oblige. For this crime, we must now forget that Tiger has acted to better himself and learn from his past mistakes. For people like SE, we should bring up his past transgressions, try him in the present, and disregard the ten years that have passed.
In some ways, Tiger is the victim of his own success. He created an image of himself that wasn’t genuine and when that was revealed, he suffered. But the reason we love sports, and indeed seek to make heroes of our athletes, is because they show us both the fallible and the ability to overcome them to achieve perfection, at least in a narrow athletic sense. But objective perfection, whether that be a hole in one, a perfectly ridden wave, or the game winning basket, is why we are drawn to sports in the first place.
The reasons the Greek’s worshipped their athletes, moral failings and all, was because they set our sights to what humans could achieve. Even athletes who transgressed morally were upheld as heroes. Cleomedes was stripped of his Olympic title in 492BCE for unfair play and in a fit of rage, he returned to his home city of Astypalaea and destroyed the boys training school, killing dozens of young boys. He found refuge in the Temple of Athens as the townspeople came to stone him for his crimes, but he hid in chest and when the mob opened it, he disappeared. The Astypaleans appealed to the Oracle at Delphi who returned this message “Last of heroes is Cleomedes of Astypalaea; Honor him with sacrifices as being no longer a mortal.” Even Cleomedes deserved honour and was worshipped as Hero.
The larger lesson here is simple. There are some triumphs that should transcend politics and personal failings. Sometimes the people who do great inspiring things are not themselves the model to uphold. Sometimes we do need to separate the art from the artist, the athletic feat from the athlete. For Tiger Woods, there is so much positive to see in his return to the winners podium, especially in the biggest tournament of the year. Yet all some focus on is how to look past the achievement and focus on past transgressions.
This misses the importance of athletics and why they inspire us and why so many cheered on Tiger, with full knowledge of his past moral shortcomings. We need the athlete to show us that perfection can be attainable, even if for just a fleeting moment, as we saw that when Tiger flung his hands in the air in jubilation sinking that final putt on Sunday. Let’s not tarnish that accomplishment needlessly to try and make some pedantic political point.