COMMENT: Top athletes like Lin Dan have a responsibility to fans, whether they like it or not

Chinese badminton superstar Lin Dan. (FILE PHOTO: EFE/Fazry Ismail)
Chinese badminton superstar Lin Dan. (FILE PHOTO: EFE/Fazry Ismail)

Charles Barkley, one of the most awe-inspiring – and outspoken – players to have ever graced the sport of basketball, once made a TV commercial in which he personally wrote his script.

“I’m not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids,” he intoned as he stared into the camera in that 1993 Nike ad.

The last two sentences, I have no problem with. Barkley was right in exhorting parents to take charge of imparting proper social values to their children, and not to simply allow their kids to mimic the actions of their favourite sports stars.

It’s the first two sentences that stay controversial, yet resonant and relevant, long after his retirement in 2000. Top professional athletes are increasingly self-absorbed in their single-minded approach to winning titles and prize money, and they dismiss any responsibility of being exemplary figures to their fans and their respective sports.

“Hey, I’m not paid to do that,” they argue. “Why should I bother?”

Flippant walk-off by one of badminton’s greatest

Barkley’s ad came to mind as I listened to Lin Dan, unquestionably one of the greatest badminton players ever, nonchalantly explain why he walked off his opening match of the Singapore Badminton Open at the Indoor Stadium on Wednesday (10 April).

The Chinese superstar insisted he was carrying a slight injury and had expended a lot of energy in winning last week’s Malaysian Open. He muttered that his match should have been played on centre court, the only court in the tournament with a challenge system to settle disputed line calls.

When asked if he was disappointed in walking away from his match and from his adoring fans, he shrugged and said, “There is nothing to be disappointed about.”

How flippant. Here was an athlete who believed that he was well within his rights to give up a match in which he was losing, to give the middle finger to tournament officials who did not accord him a centre-court appearance befitting of his stature as a badminton great, and to give only 14 minutes of playing time to a 4,000-strong crowd – many of whom flew in from neighbouring countries and paid good money to see him in action.

In essence, he was saying, “I’m not a role model. I’m not paid to do be a role model.”

Prioritising winning over everything

It is a troubling phenomenon that, nowadays, many top athletes feel this way too. Cocooned in their entourage of coaches and minders, they insist that their priority is to win. Responsibilities such as respecting a referee’s call, engaging fans to promote the sport, or simply be a decent and humble person – all these can be discarded if they get in the way of winning.

Every sport has its fair share of petulant and disdainful athletes. But the more accolades a sportsman wins, the more transcendent his popularity, then the bigger the responsibility becomes for him to be a role model for the sport. In an age where every sport is vying for sponsorship bucks and a wider base of athletes, an exemplary serial champion can do wonders in bringing in fans and new enthusiasts.

Which is what Lin should be. He is the only shuttler to have won all nine major titles in his sport. With 16 years of experience on the professional circuit – and numerous swashbuckling highlights in his career – the 35-year-old should have been someone whom all newcomers can look up to, whom they can seek advice in, whom they can hold up their own burgeoning careers against.

Yet, what he did on Wednesday left his opponent Viktor Axelsen – 10 years his junior – lamenting that “if he’s not injured and it was because of bad umpire calls, then I feel sorry for our sport”. It would seem that the affable Dane is far more aware of his obligations as a top-tier shuttler than the temperamental Lin.

The groans and jeers by the paying crowd at the Indoor Stadium are another sign that badminton will take a hit because of Lin’s actions. No one appreciates being treated like nobodies by the sport’s greatest champion.

Examples of amiable champions

And it’s hardly an onerous burden to be at least a decent, appreciative and amiable winner. Michael Jordan is an even bigger basketball star than Barkley, yet he has been nothing short of a classy elder statesman for the sport despite his legendary competitiveness. Tennis great Roger Federer is another sportsman who has remained humble despite his long dominance.

So there is clearly little defence for Lin’s petulance at the Singapore Open, no matter any excuses that he or his most ardent supporters may try to put up. His walk-off simply left a bad taste for all, especially for the many fans who had hoped to witness his brilliance before he winds up his glittering career in the next couple of years.

Yes, athletes are paid to win – not be role models. But, whether they like it or not, once they win plenty of top honours, they have to shoulder the responsibilities of being a role model to fans – free of charge.

It is a humble acknowledgement that, despite sports stars’ dominance and popularity, fans remain the lifeblood of any sport.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 16 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.

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Lin Dan angers crowd at Singapore Badminton Open after walking off opening tie