In every popular sport in the world, there are heroes and villains. Those the crowd love and those they hate. Typically, the athletes or teams the spectator takes a disliking to share one trait; success.
Prime examples of the unfavoured, are sports’ elite competitors; Manchester United, Leicester Tigers, the New York Yankees etc.. Many people would put this dislike down to an admiration for the underdog, the romance of the unworthy pretender emerging in glorious victory. But why?
I was actually inspired to write this article based on a Ladies’ 4th Round match at the recent Wimbledon Championships between Serena Williams and Sabine Lisicki. Taking place in Old Blighty, neither’s home nation, you would probably expect a neutral crowd or one that’s slightly swayed toward the plucky underdog in Lisicki or another edging on the side of a respected veteran in Williams. That wasn’t the case. The raucous Centre Court crowd were overtly biased toward Lisicki, cheering her on to every point and greeting Williams’ successes with groans of disappointment. Lisicki’s support rivalled that of the home talents, Andy Murray and Laura Robson and it even continued through the next rounds when her more arrogant nature came to prominence.
In Serena’s case, she is partially disliked for her intense competitive nature. Understandably, most perceive a dislike of losing as a negative trait but it really isn’t as bad or counteractive as it seems. In reality, a hatred for defeat is the very thing that breeds the successful sports stars that are loved the world over. Serena is often levelled with criticism about her image too, with many labelling her as a ‘man’, usually the same people who detest the shameful body image tabloids pressure women to obtain, while mocking a woman making a positive contribution through sport. Actually, you could argue that Williams is simply ostracised because of her race or gender. It would be untrue to say stars like Nadal, Djokovic and veteran, John McEnroe are dealt the same backlash. They remain popular despite exhibiting very similar behaviour.
Of course, there is less opportunity for vocal bias in neutral grounds in football but that doesn’t stop Manchester United being targeted for abuse from supposedly apathetic fans. In contrast, local rivals, Manchester City have become many fans’ ‘second team’. Back in May 2012, when City pulled off a remarkable title theft from United, fans of other clubs publicly celebrated the failure of the Red Devils despite their club having no links to them themselves. In the Etihad, QPR fans (the visitors on the day), even publicly celebrated a goal being scored against them, because it was at Manchester United’s expense. Seriously.
Ultimately, it comes down to jealousy. No matter that Serena Williams’ success story in particular comes from hard graft and determination and Manchester United didn’t necessarily employ the bank-rolling tactics of their cross-city rivals to start their route to success, they are still loathed by sports fans alike. It’s the same jealousy that sparks the Scotland or British debate among Andy Murray’s fans. Some Scots are keen to claim Murray as just theirs so they can exclusively identify his success. However, Englishmen are less likely to do the same because as a nation, they’re more successful. As with football, the neutral supporters identified with Man City’s title triumph as a victory for every other club against Manchester United… for some reason.
I’ve never bought in to the establishment of disliking the successful stars of sport. I can see why people do, but I don’t share their feelings. Being prosperous is an adaptive characteristic that biologically, every human is attracted to. When I think of the aim of sport, I think of every team or competitior striving to be the best and I cannot see any rationalisation for hating that. After all, being victorious is the reason we love sport, if you’re not trying to win then what would be the point?