Athletes do not have a choice about being role models. The only choice we have is whether we are going to be good role models or bad ones.” This was part of a speech by British basketball player John Amaechi at the Peace and Sport conference in Monaco in 2011.
Listening to Amaechi speak about the good a role model can do, I kept thinking back to Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs. According to FORBES, Woods was the first athlete to make over $1 billion back in 2009. Since then, we have had the Lance Armstrong doping saga and the Oscar Pistorius Valentine’s Day shooting. These are top earning athletes who have inspired people and given back to society. However, they lacked integrity. Integrity gives longevity to success and fame.
I never had a sporting role model when I was growing up because most of our stars were playing internationally and were never available. I didn’t have that person I could reach out to that would tell me just how tough my life was going to be yet motivating me to go for it anyway. Being a good role model is about having solid moral principles that guide behavior on and off the field. Role models make themselves available to spend time with people, to share their stories of success and overcoming challenges. They share their secrets in the hope of molding greater athletes and greater people. One person I look up to is Strive Masiyiwa, the Founder and Chairman of Econet Wireless. He may not be an athlete but he shows the responsibility that comes with success and this is guided by his ethics. Education for everyone is his aspiration.
Sport used to be everything to me. Now that I’m older and will soon be retiring from competition, I realize how significant education is. Sport must never take the place of education – it must assist with it. I was always an average student at high school but when I got to university I started applying the lesson I learned from training in my education. The sacrifices I had to make, believing that I could do it and my perseverance started paying off. The year I won my first Olympic gold was the same year I graduated as an ‘A’ student. Understanding what is important and highlighting your priorities is essential in conveying your message to others.
Motivational speaking is a love I found through sport because I’ve seen how it lifts people’s spirits and gives them the attitude they need to go forward. A priority of mine is speaking to children, to help motivate and guide them. I am often introduced as one of Africa’s greatest Olympians and am expected to tell you that it is okay if you are not great at school work because you can always become a sports star. I throw protocol out the window and very politely let the children know that this is wrong. Four months before my fourth Olympic Games in London 2012, I dislocated my patella and then two months later contracted pneumonia. This was a wake-up call for me and I suddenly thought that I might not make the Olympics. It was one of the most physically challenging times in my career but it made me grateful for the education I received. I had a contingency plan if the injury prevented me from ever playing sport again.
Whoever we are, someone is always watching our behavior: a parent, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a friend or even a person you have never met. Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympic athlete and a fellow swimmer, has recently been caught drinking and driving. This has nothing to do with swimming but because of his responsibility as a role model, he has been pulled off the United States swimming team for six months. This will take the spotlight off him until he can figure out what is important. It will also allow those who look up to him to realize there are consequences for your actions, no matter who you are.
We are all role models to someone. If we can maintain our integrity and become successful, we will not only be able to sustain ourselves but more importantly continue helping others.