There is something jarring, almost transgressive, when great sportsmen reveal their inner vulnerability.
Depression, anxiety, fear, self-loathing, philosophical uncertainty, suicidal thoughts: these are things that we do not associate, or perhaps do not wish to associate, with our sporting heroes.
The men and women who win medals, lift trophies and bask in our acclaim are supposed to be invincible, like comic strip heroes. That is the mythology that has come to surround top-level sport, the idea that if you are wonderful at kicking a football or whacking a shuttlecock, you are also living in some kind of personal nirvana.
Of course, it doesn’t take a great deal of reflection to perceive the deep flaws in that. Many acclaimed autobiographies have provided a glimpse behind the mask of sporting stardom. From Brian Moore to Andre Agassi and from Marcus Trescothick to Ronnie O’Sullivan, leading sportsmen have revealed their inner struggles and personal demons, and just how difficult it is to deal with them while living in the spotlight.
In his documentary, Hidden Side of Sport, Andrew Flintoff, former England cricket all- rounder and captain, provides his own personal narrative. “As an international sportsman you experience some unbelievable highs and dramatic lows,” he says. “You never think the lows can turn into depression. You put it down to just being a part of the game… For some, though, it becomes too much.”
Through interviews with Ricky Hatton, Barry McGuigan, Vinnie Jones and Steve Harmison, Flintoff faces the realities of emotional turmoil, and re-examines his own struggles: his sense of emptiness, the unexpected tears, the battle with alcohol.
Flintoff endured a dark period during the 2006/7 season when England were whitewashed in the Ashes in Australia under his captaincy. He then received a pasting in the press when he was sacked as vice-captain after getting drunk and falling off a pedalo after losing a 2007 World Cup match in the Caribbean.
“I think I was lucky,” Flintoff says. “I wasn’t in a great place, but I never got as bad as those I have spoken to. I managed to come out the other side. I would hate to think of what it would have been like to feel any worse.”
His interview with Graeme Dott, the former world snooker champion, is particularly revealing. Dott describes his battle with clinical depression. “I fell down the world rankings to 40-odd, I went through the whole year and didn’t win a game,” he says. “I didn’t even realise I had depression. I just went through months of doing nothing… I was playing one match and started crying into my towel.”
In November last year, Peter Roebuck, a former Somerset cricket captain, jumped to his death from a South African hotel window. An acclaimed commentator, he was apparently being questioned by police just minutes before he took his life. Two weeks later, the world of football was sent into shock by the death of Wales football manager Gary Speed, after apparently committing suicide.
If definitive answers to the problems that bedevil sportsmen and women remain elusive, we are left with a profound truth: sporting stardom does not immunise a person from depression, anxiety and a sense of worthlessness, which are as common among those we idolise as among any other group.
As Peter Kay, head of the Sporting Chance clinic, which helps leading sportspeople deal with psychological distress, puts it: “Just because someone is being cheered by thousands of fans doesn’t mean he’s happy when he goes home and closes the door.” It’s a truth that sport is only slowly coming to terms with.