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The Human Side of Those Larger Than Life

The Austin American-Statesman, July 29, 2006

Tiger Woods' emotional victory at Sunday's British Open capped off what has been a tumultuous few weeks for image makers everywhere. Sports stars and heads of state alike have not been conforming to their predictable roles lately, as real life has intervened in the recent cases of Tiger Woods, Zinedine Zidane and Vladimir Putin to show that raw human emotion can readily trump a well-crafted image.

It is in such moments that we are able to see our sports heroes and leaders in their most authentic light, free of the glamorization and the scripted roles that often accompany public figures. Such moments help us remember that they are human, touched by the same emotions that we experience.

Millions of fans watched on television and in the gallery at Hoylake as Woods competed in the British Open last weekend. The story line was even more gripping in light of Woods' unpredictable golfing since the death of his father, first coach and mentor Earl Woods, from prostate cancer in May. A month after his father died, Woods played a distinctively un-Tigerlike two rounds of golf at the U.S. Open, and missed the cut in a major tournament for the first time in his professional career.

The British Open was Woods' second major tournament after his father's death, and the free-flowing tears on Sunday from a steely-eyed competitor such as Woods serve as a reminder that human emotions touch us all. Woods' tears were a bittersweet tribute from a son still very much mourning his father. Woods later explained his emotions on the 18th green: "At that moment, it just came pouring out . . . all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, and I just wish he could have seen it one more time."

Another sporting hero who recently has been explaining his unpredictable behavior is French soccer star Zinedine Zidane. Certainly, it was not written into the World Cup's made-for-global-TV script that the French captain and team leader would execute a head-butt worthy of a professional wrestler to end a decadeslong career.

Zidane himself probably never expected to be spending the first part of his retirement apologizing "to all the children" for an outburst that was by no means an emulation-worthy example of conflict resolution or of good sportsmanship. His fit of unrestrained emotion was as unexpected as it was unscripted, and Zidane later summarized his behavior by saying, "Above all, I'm human."

Putin was also causing indigestion for his image handlers recently. In case you missed it, a few weeks ago Putin singled out a 5-year-old boy from a Kremlin crowd, crouched down, spoke to the boy briefly, then lifted up the boy's shirt and kissed him on the bare stomach. Putin later explained the act by saying, "I tell you honestly, I just wanted to stroke him like a kitten, and it came out in this gesture. There is nothing behind it."

Former spymaster or not, Putin should be taken at his word. His explanation is certainly more reasonable than the nutty conspiracy theory floating around the Internet that the kiss was premeditated by Putin or his handlers to soften his image. You mean to tell me that the former chief of the KGB and a current head of state thought that by lifting a young boy's shirt in front of a gaggle of TV cameras that his image would improve? Please. Perhaps we don't need to look all the way into Putin's soul to be able to take him at his word on this one: He was experiencing a wholesome, innocent and uncensored human emotion. He got caught up in the moment.

The recent examples of Woods, Zidane and Putin illustrate two compelling points.

The first is that we should resist the urge to glamorize our leaders, sports stars and other public figures because by doing so we idolize out the richness and unpredictability that life has to offer. Life is vibrant, dynamic and robust. Part of what makes the study of people in the public eye so interesting is that human behavior is often challenging to predict because people are full of surprises.

To be clear, no one is advocating head-butting or belly kissing as an effective leadership technique. Nor is everyone equipped to work through grief on the golf course under the glaring observation of a million spectators. Yet, if the choice is between the reality of fallible leaders with quirks, flaws, emotions and all the other stuff that comes with being human or being stuck with cardboard cutout leaders mumbling their perfectly coached and canned talking points, we should sign up for fallibility, even if this causes their image makers to reach for the Pepto-Bismol.

And chug Pepto they must because emotions cannot be scripted out of the human experience. Trying to remove the unpredictability from those in the public eye reduces their authenticity and actually degrades their image.

Which brings us to the second point: The things we share in common with our sports heroes and leaders—joy, sorrow, frustration and anger—are more important than the status that sets us apart. Somewhere between a head-butt, a belly kiss and tears shed for a lost parent is a reminder that we are all a lot alike. To miss knowing this is to miss the best that life has to offer: reality, unpredictability and . . . well, life.

Copyright 2006 The Austin American-Statesman


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31 July 2006

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