Protecting prodigies

In a an era where a sportsman's heart cannot be seen for all the neon advertising signs that obscure it, in an age of excess and exaggeration, people were compelled to go further.


Parthiv Patel, some distance from the conventional definition of manhood, is now supposed to be hero, role model, performer, celebrity.-Pic. K. RAMESH BABU

HE was 17, he moved with the sinuous, unfettered grace of youth, and he scored a goal that the memory will never let go. It was a moment of wonder, but that was not enough. In a an era where a sportsman's heart cannot be seen for all the neon advertising signs that obscure it, in an age of excess and exaggeration, people were compelled to go further.

So when Michael Owen scored against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, some writers, forsaking common sense for the 72-point headline they were already envisaging, drew the most dangerous comparison they could find.

They summoned up the image of another 17-year-old, at another World Cup (1958), whose goals made us wonder too. But by putting Owen, even fleetingly, in the same sentence as Pele, was the greatest disservice grown men could do a young boy. They had inadvertently dumped the highest expectation on a prodigy before he had even begun.

These days as another 17-year-old, Everton's Wayne Rooney, is held up as the Second Coming after just one international match, it is a reminder that history teaches nothing. Or maybe we just don't learn.

From Tracy Austin to L. Sivaramakrishnan in varying ways we have witnessed the crippling pressure that accompanies prodigious talents. Before us is all the evidence of burdened young people, but we still can't think straight when we see the prodigy. We see Tiger Woods and Sachin Tendulkar, and other precocious talents who made it, and say, well, maybe the rest weren't good enough. We see agents and managers and parents and sponsors pushing their own vulgar ambitions on young shoulders and we look the other way. We see footwear manufacturers battling for the signature of young basketball star LeBron James who is not even yet in the NBA and we think that's fine.

So what chance then does Wayne Rooney have, or 13-year-old golf prodigy Michelle Wie?

Rooney the teenager needs protection. Instead he's already being compared in some quarters to Paul Gascoigne. "He's a star," said a cautious Bobby Robson. "But he's also played just one game (for England)."

People attempt to be generous but only exacerbate the problem. England goalkeeper David James said: "You look into his (Rooney's) eyes and he is 17 but you watch him play and it is as if he is 32." Yeah, but he's not 32; despite his toughness his body is a 17 years old and so is his mind. His game may be ready for the world, but is he?

Is he ready to make deals on his life, be shadowed by the press, have his garbage rummaged through, front press conferences day after day, sound dignified? Is a 17-year-old wanting to have fun, be normal, ready to be cling-filmed in abnormality? Years ago at Wimbledon, I listened to Monica Seles, all toothy grin and unpunctuated rambles, suddenly be asked about the situation in Yugoslavia. What did she know? More importantly, why did we care what she thought? It is a suffocation prodigies know too well.

Youthful muscles take time to stabilise, young bodies are mostly not ready for the hurly-burly of physical international football, minds are not always developed for the brutality of professional sport. Not everyone is Woods or Tendulkar or Nadia Comanechi... too many more have fallen forgotten by the wayside. Still, we demand, expect, push.

At 17, players do not know best. Certainly not at 13. Michelle Wie may hit 300 yards drives but she also wears braces and finds boys annoying. A grown-up game does not make a grown-up. Still, already she owns a cumbersome nickname The Big Weisy (a pointless play on Ernie Els' The Big Easy) and the expectation to match.

So maturity must arrive from the prodigy's entourage, but it is not easily found. Sure, Wie's father says the Ladies Professional Golf Association ruling that only 18-year-olds can become a full-fledged LPGA member is fine. They will wait. Similarly, Tendulkar's father seemed more intent on his son growing up to be a decent human being, and never advertised his own presence at matches, or functions, or pushed his son to embrace the excesses of stardom.

But they rest in a minority. Jennifer Capriati was pushed till she came to a standstill. Fathers slap soccer-playing teenage daughters after a poor game. European tennis coaches, documented by author Michael Mewshaw, would demand sexual favours from their young charges to select them for teams. A friend asked me the other day why an Indian cricketer's mother was appearing on television showing off her cooking. The media rarely knows when to stop, but families must be careful not to unwittingly become part of the problem. The circus is too chaotic as it is.

Everyone will take responsibility for Rooney, or Wie, if they succeed, but few if they fail. The public is understandably mesmerised by prodigies, for there is an innocent, uplifting charm to the young and the gifted. The public also has a limited attention span and a failed prodigy is quickly swept off the front pages.

Capriati was on magazine covers, had endorsement contracts and a million dollar bank balance before a ball was hit; but when her mugshot appeared in the police files, suddenly there were few to comfort her. Prodigies rise with the world on their coat-tails, but they fall alone. Those who hysterically dubbed Virender Sehwag as a Sachin clone, will be the first to flay him when his performance does not match exaggerated reputation.

Nurturing is vital to a teenage sportsman's wellbeing and his ability to function coherently in a dizzy world. Indian cricket for all its resources has no apparent system on how to carefully negotiate the way for young stars.

Parthiv Patel, some distance from the conventional definition of manhood, is now supposed to be hero, role model, performer, celebrity, a man taken from his classroom to face Glenn McGrath one moment and shake the hand of a president the next. Who teaches him to handle the media, to maintain his equilibrium in the lightning rise from no one to someone, to keep his focus despite distraction, to know a real agent from a "I'll make you a millionaire" huckster? Who, indeed, was there for Vinod Kambli?

There are sensible men around but they are too few. Robson said it's important we don't go overboard about Rooney. David Moyes, Everton's coach, who has shown great maturity in keeping his player under wraps, is pleading with England manager Sven Goran Erikkson not to over-expose the young tyro. As many though will argue that to hide Rooney is to deny his destiny. To be young and gifted is not always the blessing it appears to be.