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‘The Last Dance’ Over-Romanticises The Myth Of The Hyper Competitive Athlete

When I was 14, I put the following quote on my Myspace page: “'When you slept, I trained. When you partied, I trained. When you wished you were successful, I was successful.' – Michael Jordan”.

I’d just been cut from a few representative football teams and was bent on proving the selectors wrong. About a year later I saw the quote on the Myspace page of a kid I went to school with and I felt bad. The quote clearly meant something to him, but it was a lie.

See, it’s not actually a Michael Jordan quote. In fact, it’s not a quote from anybody really. It was merely the words of a 14-year-old boy who had been cut from a few teams.

I’ve always had an affinity for the sporting greats. It’s why I cheer for Federer and Williams in every Grand Slam, and hope Simone Biles never finds the shoulder of a podium. When Rousey and McGregor had their flames doused in the Octagon, I felt a pit of emptiness in my stomach, and while I’ve never moved a rook to F4 (or whatever), I still I know enough about Bobby Fischer to smirk if he comes up on trivia night.

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So obviously, like many, I’ve sat in awe as the tale of Michael Jordan has unfolded in The Last Dance documentary series this past month. When MJ laughed at his former opponent Gary "The Glove" Payton and said “The Glove… I had no problem with The Glove”, I felt my cheeks turn up. He is the ultimate over-my-dead-body competitor that a young athlete burns into their mind.

But as the final instalments approach, there is a nagging thought in the back of my mind that puts me at unease about the narrative so far.

Growing up around Dencorub-laden sheds, I’m aware that sporting stories are retold with more grandiosity each time they fill the air -- a goal from 40 becomes a goal from 50 over the years. But beyond that there is a hyperbolic mythology to the ultra-competitive sporting beast. It’s a story written so tirelessly that even a 14-year-old on Myspace can piece it together.

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It’s akin to the tortured artist that immortalises the members of the 27 Club. It’s why we want a heartless Bukowski with a bottle in hand, envision Hunter S Thompson writing about bat country while batsh*t out of his mind, fear that Adele won’t write a hit if she’s found romantic equilibrium, and prefer to believe that the apple fell on Newton's head.

Perhaps in a world where there is little certainty, we gain comfort in the conformity of these narratives, but if you dig around the mythology you’ll find that Bukowski had a bluebird in his heart, the opening to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wasn’t written on a hallucinogenic trip, and the apple didn’t really fall on Newton’s head.

Having read much reverence for the 'homicidal competitiveness' of Jordan, and idly listening to morning radio discussions about how the emotional scarring of success is worth it, it’s clear to me that many are over-romanticising the mythology of the over-my-dead-body athlete.

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To think that Jordan monopolised competitiveness like no other is to delve into the mythos. Self-belief is at the heart of sports. The walls of sporting change rooms are breeding grounds for self-contrived mantras and trademark affirmations, and I’ve found a common staple of most pregame huddles over the years to be the old “we’ve worked harder than these c*nts".

In a moment of earnest reflection in episode eight, Steve Kerr, Jordan’s teammate and current Golden State Warriors coach, said, “I'm competitive too, I just can’t back it up".

Between Kerr and Jordan there would be countless who pride themselves on being competitive beasts and Jordan was distinguished by factors other than just his drive -- a 48-inch vertical jump never hurts. And then between Kerr and everyone who hasn’t been a part of eight NBA championships, there would be even more.

One of the harshest dichotomies of sport is the need for an unwavering confidence to realise your potential whilst not being disheartened when you reach your limitations. Unfortunately, within this framework, modest perspectives such as Kerr’s are rarely the centre point of 10-part documentaries. We’d rather hear about the apple falling from the tree. No one has the time for a sober Bukowski, right?

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To those in the bleachers, this narrative may be captivating. But for those who chase the glory of sporting success, the end point of winning at all costs sometimes leads to greats being lauded for leaping to other side of a great chasm as the rest are forgotten in the crevasse below, ruminating about what could’ve been.

So while the narrative of Jordan’s greatness has me glued to the screen, I view it with a weary scepticism. Before my knees fully give way, I remind myself how prevalent the talk of mental health among athletes is these days and wonder if anyone else sees the connection between the mythology put at the centre of the Jordan narrative and the forces afflicting the many athletes who suffer from depression and anxiety.

To be on the competitive edge is a fine motivator, but to fall from that edge with a loss can unravel the world if it is singularly built on nothing more than winning.

I love sporting greatness, but while watching The Last Dance, I have to remind myself to beware the romanticised mythology of the competitive beast. And a final word of caution: always fact check quotes on Myspace (if anyone still uses it, of course).

Featured Image: Netflix