Marlon Samuels is ecstatic as West Indies edge closer in the final over

Was it Samuels' sledging of Stokes or Brathwaite's sixes that won West Indies the World T20 final?

© Getty Images


Built by sport, revealed by sport

How does the word character apply? First you played to develop it, now you develop it to play

Simon Barnes |

"It's all about character." How many times do we hear this in the midst of a protracted sporting encounter? It's not about how strong your arms and legs are, it's about how strong your character is. We talk about character every time we have a sporting conversation.

So it wasn't Sachin Tendulkar's hand-eye coordination that made him great, it was the serenity of his character. Likewise Roger Federer. And it wasn't Kevin Pietersen's strokemaking skill that made him such a great match-swinger, it was his turbulent nature. Likewise John McEnroe.

Character has always been a significant word in sport. But words are slippery things, and what character meant in sport a century back is quite different to character as we understand it in modern sport.

We invented sport because it's fun. Often quite serious fun, but fun all the same - a chance to savour your own courage in a relatively safe environment. But sport came into the mainstream of life because people believed that sport taught moral lessons. Sport made better people of those who took part. In short, sport built character.

That was the idealism at the heart of the modern Olympic Games. Their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, said: "For each individual, sport is a possible search for inner improvement." Not better results, better people.

De Coubertin, an Anglophile, adapted the idea from the English public schools, which cultivated team sports as a vital part of education. It taught the boys how to sink self in the common cause - a sentiment forever caught by the poem "Vitaï Lampada": "There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night - Ten to make and match to win" and so forth. Here, quite explicitly, the values required to win colonial wars are compared with those acquired in sport: "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

Television flattens perspective, diminishes distance, and makes every kind of action look simple, but always it gives us faces. And emotion. And character

But as sport became a profession and a business, the emphasis changed. We don't watch sport to improve ourselves, or to watch other people improving themselves. We watch sport because it's enthralling. It's enthralling like a novel, an art form that depends on the revelation and development of character.

This is now mainstream thinking in sport. It's summed up in lines normally attributed to the American sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun: "Sports don't build character; they reveal it." So when Jonny Wilkinson dropped the winning goal for England in the rugby World Cup final of 2003, he was praised not for his endless hours of practice but for his intense and dedicated character.

They are both legitimate interpretations. If Wilkinson wasn't intense and dedicated he wouldn't have practised so hard, and he wouldn't have had the skills and the muscle memory to perform the trick under the greatest intensity that his sport can offer.

This insistence on character is largely a product of television. On television - but not at the ground - we can see the faces. They fill the screen. Faces reveal character; reading faces is an aspect of being human. Television flattens perspective, diminishes distance, and makes every kind of action look simple, but always it gives us faces. And emotion. And character. So sport is increasingly talked about and written about as if character was all that mattered.

Joe Root had the character to change his character so he could enjoy cricket more

Joe Root had the character to change his character so he could enjoy cricket more © Getty Images

We often talk about sport as if its entire function was to put character to the test, as if bodies and skills were almost irrelevant. Marlon Samuels was mischievously - even rather vindictively - inclined to put West Indies' victory in the World T20 final earlier this year down to the character weakness of Ben Stokes, who bowled the last over at Carlos Brathwaite. He called Stokes "a nervous laddie", and claimed that his sledging of Stokes was decisive. Really? And not the power-hitting of Brathwaite, who hit four successive sixes?

It seems that sport itself has swallowed the idea that character is everything. That, after all, is the No. 1 selling point of the sporting industry, more important even than partisanship. The pursuit of excellence - the highest thing in sport - is way down the list of priorities.

Sport is now sold as drama - the dramatic revelation of character.

But things have already taken yet another twist. The more we learn about the mental issues in sport, the more it seems that character is becoming a skill itself, one that can be improved by practice and expert help. In all professional sports, including cricket, psychologists are part of the landscape. It's no longer about sport building character, or even sport revealing character. These days, athletes work on character as part of their skill set. They do so not in search of inner improvement, but of outer improvement. To win.

Joe Root was a talented cricketer eaten up with intensity. But after being dropped by England he resolved to be more forgiving of himself. To enjoy sport more. This conscious adjustment of character made him one of the world's top batsmen. Perhaps the point is that he had the character to change his character. Certainly character in sport is a different matter from what it was when time and cricket began.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books