Aidan Smith: Live by the sword, die by the scalpel

British Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington. Picture: Ian Rutherford
British Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN I heard about Rebecca Adlington’s nose job I thought of our own Lachie Stewart.

In Stewart’s era – which seems longer ago than 1970 – the acclaim, fame and spin-off potential for a sportsman were modest indeed and even the tiny table of treats made available to the Commonwealth Games 10,000m champ wasn’t plundered wholesale.

Yes, Stewart got to hug a giant teddy-bear mascot after breasting the tape, although such was its bulk he probably had no option. Yes, he walked – strolled unfettered, no doubt – over the road from Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium for a small party in a pub which was almost certainly dispensing its first bottle of champagne in a while, if not ever.

Yes, a few days later he visited Edinburgh Castle where… he was promptly knighted? Not quite. The officers invited him into the mess for a cup of tea. Then he was back at work at Glasgow’s Dental Hospital “making falsers”. His next race was on the Highland Games circuit “on the grass, dodging coos”. At the end of 1970, he decided against attending the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, reckoning it would be “too fancy an affair”.

How sport, and what in Stewart’s day was amateur sport, has changed. How its attitude to celebrity has changed. Now, for sporting excellence, you can get your very own reality show, a series which is entirely dependent on your comely smile (Tom Daley and Splash). Or, and this is where Adlington comes in, you can claim a place on one of the other reality shows which involves flying business-class to the other side of the world and staying in five-star hotels – apart from a segment in the middle when you have to bunk down in the jungle and eat bugs.

There, you can fraternise with soap strumpets and boybanders, has-beens and never-weres. At least one of the females will be on the programme purely to supply its money-shot – taking a shower in a bikini under a waterfall. And, if you don’t get voted off, you can spend rather too long in the company of image-obsessed twerps whose achievements in life pale into grub-like insignificance next to your own, but still you end up feeling bad about yourself. Why? Because you think your nose is too big.

Last week, Adlington, the double swimming gold medallist from the Beijing Olympics who also won two bronzes in London, was reported to have had cosmetic surgery to reduce and straighten her nose. Strictly speaking, it was her bum and boobs which caused her the most angst on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! But the question remains: Why would anyone with fragile self-confidence concerning the way they look sign up for such a show?

Some things go without saying, but should be said anyway. 1) Adlington’s achievements in the pool were fantastic. 2) It shouldn’t matter that she doesn’t look like Anna Kournikova or Gabriella Sabatini or Biba Golic. (You don’t know Biba? Neither did I until I Googled this blonde goddess and found out she played table tennis). 3) Comedian Frankie Boyle’s jibes about Adlington – first he said her appearance was like that of somebody reflected on the back of a spoon, then, to spur her on for London, he opined she had a great chance of winning because of her “dolphin face”– were tediously typical of a performer who likes to style himself as “dangerous” but often doesn’t rise above the taunts of the playground. 4) There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sports stars diversifying, doing something different, having a bit of fun, demonstrating they’re not robots and capitalising on their achievements, because their window for high-earning is so limited.

But opting for I’m a Celebrity? If you’re remotely worried about body image then turning up on that show would be playing with fire (while vainly trying to start a real one with twigs). The core audience of this grim panoply spends a ridiculous amount of time flicking through trashy mags and revelling in the off-guard ordinariness (drunkenness, cheating and, of course, cellulite) of people far more successful than them while, with the other hand, trolling misspelt viciousness. Adlington had not chosen to present Landward or Songs of Praise, she had thrown herself on the mercy of the mob. If you live by the sword, so they say, then you die by the sword. Or, it seems, the surgeon’s scalpel.

There’s an irony to Adlington’s earlier expressions of unhappiness about her appearance – she’s been doing this for a while, so I’m a Celebrity isn’t wholly to blame, much as you might wish it had been. She admitted she’d wanted to have surgery but couldn’t find the time. “In swimming,” she explained, “you only get two weeks off a year.” Depending how you define work, some of her fellow jungle dwellers may have struggled, excluding panto, to complete a fortnight’s worth. And absolutely none of them knew about 5am training sessions, cold pools, verrucas.

When she broke down on TV Adlington got deserved sympathy. It was thought this could help other women unhappy with their appearance by showing that everyone is human – even Olympians. It was also suggested that, even though her gold medals, unglamorous Mansfield background and cheery disposition (outwardly at least) must have been pretty inspirational already, her candour might unlock the fears of girls about how they look in sports gear – one of the main reasons more of them don’t participate.

Now she’s succumbed to surgery, is that negated? Perhaps. But we’re depending on Adlington too much to expect her to stay as she was, and upset every time she looked in the mirror, for the benefit of the rest. Previously, when contemplating a nip and tuck, she said she’d only ever do it for herself. Not for the trolls and certainly not for Frankie Boyle who, as a comedian, shouldn’t have to worry about how he looks but, sorry, he deserves this – have you seen that jakey beard?

We have to respect her decision and hope that when she marries later this year she’ll feel great about herself. Yes, it’s sad when a brilliant sportswoman feels a failure because of something apparently piffling compared with her achievements, but this is the world now – trivial, sniping, vain – and it’s a whole lot different from Lachie Stewart’s.

Oh, and in case we forget, Lachie was offered the chance to enhance his profile on TV – for an anti-smoking campaign (fags were the only health issue back in 1970). He got to play a Sergeant-Majorish athletics coach and his reprimand to the wheezing straggler in a youths race is still shouted at him with affection today: “Come on, John, you can do better than that!”

Now, what sportsman wouldn’t be content with such fame?