I have never given much currency to the idea that sports people can serve as role models for the young or anyone else. The wasted talents and truncated lives of the likes of football legend George Best have always seemed to provide ample evidence that a modicum of talent expressed with a ball at your feet is no guarantee of anything in the way of strength of character.
This week though a unassuming young man made his way the centre stage of our nation’s sporting life who seems to be the exception that proves this sad rule, his name is Lewis Hamilton and last Sunday he won the Formula 1 championship.
His story is as simple as it is inspiring, born of ‘humble’ origins in Stevenage his triumph against all odds has been based on old fashioned values such as family loyalty and hard work. How refreshingly different from the here today, forgotten tomorrow celebrities of the reality television age thrust into the limelight as moral exemplars for the young.
The reaction to his success has though been rather more complex, last Monday the national press and many of the phone in shows that are now a staple of the radio network were filled by hymns of praise to his victory and vicious attacks on his status as a tax exile in Switzerland, often delivered by the same person.
Much of this, of course, is another round in the war staged by the British public against anyone who has the nerve to be successful. In general we prefer our sporting heroes cut from the cloth of one time Wimbledon hopeful Tim Henman, plucky types who know above all else how to lose with dignity.
Encountering someone like Hamilton who manages to win with dignity tends to throw us, not least because it is a reminder that we might not be an island of hopeless amateurs after all, we might actually have the capacity to cut a dash in the world, if only we were a little less complacent and tried a lot harder.
I have not, until now, mentioned Lewis Hamilton’s race, not least because like most Britons I feel it neither helped nor hindered his eventual success.
I say most Britons think like this , but there are, of course, some painful exceptions, take for example Formula 1 Chief Bernie Ecclestone who claimed that the Spanish fans who blacked up to mock Hamilton earlier this year were merely making a joke at his expense and everyone should stop making a politically correct mountain out of a Spanish molehill.
He was wrong, the Spanish fans knew their actions were liable to cause offence and they should have been punished, if only to show that the sensible majority has moved forever out of the caves of crude stereotyping.
In a week when another man of mixed heritage achieved a success that astounded the world we must give consideration to the comments to the effect that while we have a black British F1 champion we may never have a black Prime Minister made by Trevor Phillips head of the Race Equality Council.
While I disagree with his claim that the UK’s main political parties are ‘institutionally racist’, I am willing to concede his wider point.
Both Lewis Hamilton and Barack Obama succeeded due to their innate talent and steely determination, qualities that vault the barriers of race, class and gender set up by human societies.
Too often in this country we accept mediocrity in sport, politics and other areas of our national life because we are hidebound by tradition and fear the uncertainty that must be the companion of change.
In a week when the world’s greatest nation said ‘yes we can,’ we in the UK seem, to our cost, to still be too inclined to say ‘no we can’t.’