If I say the name Lance Armstrong, what word comes to mind? Cyclist? Cancer? Cheat?
If I add a word, and say “Lance Armstrong, fear,” what comes to mind then? The fear of dying of cancer? The fear of losing a race? “Losing and dying – it’s the same thing” was his reply when I once asked which of those two fears had been greater, a remark which should have made me more open to the possibility that he was a drug cheat. After all, if you literally equate coming second in the Tour de France with losing your life to a horrible illness, that suggests you would do anything, literally anything, to win. Which, we now know, he did.
So you might think his greatest fear was the fear of being exposed; hence the campaigns of intimidation against those who were in the business of exposing him; hence the strength of the denials which – mea culpa – I was more than ready to believe. “I am the most drug-tested athlete on the planet; do you not think that if I was cheating, they would have found out by now?” Good point, Lance… now let’s talk training regimes…
In fact, though, when we discussed fear – which is such a motivator in great athletes – it was a case of “none of the above”. Instead, he said the most terrified he had ever been in his life was when he signed a sponsorship deal with Nike, and part of the deal was that he spoke at a big corporate event.
He is such a compelling and powerful communicator these days, and certainly was when I interviewed him for the first time 17 years ago, that I found it harder to compute his “I was terrified” Nike recollection than I did his equation of losing and dying, which so fitted the image I had of an obsessive, driven, alpha male sporting legend.
All of this came back to me as I followed the recent controversy surrounding Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, first fined for refusing to face the media after her matches at the French Open in Paris, then withdrawing from the tournament, citing a history of depression and what sounded like chronic anxiety when she had to do the press conferences to which she was contractually obliged. Cue a change of tack from the event organisers, and those of other Grand Slam tournaments, from their tin-eared, never-upset-the-sponsors-or-the-media initial response to something, at least on the surface, a little more sympathetic (though Osaka still had to pay the fine).
The point is that depression, as I know all too well, is a real thing. It is possible to function with it, much of the time, but it has energy-draining, mind-numbing, confidence-shaking qualities that are bad enough when you are lying in bed, but even worse if you are trying to do a job of work, and worse still if that job requires you to do things that feed the depression and its oft-accompanying twin, anxiety.
And when it can affect someone as outwardly confident as Lance Armstrong, I think we can accept that fear of public speaking is a real thing, too. It is actually one of the most common phobias. I have never had it in the way Lance Armstrong used to, before he conquered it mainly through practice and experience, or in the way Naomi Osaka has it now. But I have definitely had the experience of depression, anxiety, fear and anger crowding in when least expected, turning my mind into an absolute mush. It happened once live on TV, as I was being interviewed by Andrew Marr. I was in the middle of a bad depressive episode, which fed anxiety that I would not handle the interview as well as I would like, then when a few buttons were pressed, suddenly my mind felt like it had left my body and was wandering around a different part of the building. I have made it sound a lot more rational than it was.
I say all this as someone for whom public speaking, for much of my life, was not just a part of my job – it was the job. I was a spokesman. I spoke. I argued. I persuaded. When social media came along, my early-days Twitter bio was: “Used to be Tony Blair’s spokesman. Now my own.” Speaking remains a big part of what I do. Yet sometimes, when the gears of the mind are not working as they should be, speaking in the way I normally do is not as straightforward. As I wrote in my recent memoir on depression, Living Better, those who know me best can assess my mood from the strength or otherwise of my voice.
So if that is the case for someone like me, steeped in speaking, hugely experienced in difficult and combative media situations, why do we make an assumption that because someone is very good at sport they will also have the skills required to deal with a pack of journalists or to wow an audience of corporate sponsors? And might the Osaka row be a good opportunity not just for tennis but for all sports to rethink the role of the press conference, as well as of pre- and post-match interviews?
The pandemic has underlined the significance of the media in modern sport. With stadia closed to fans, TV became even more central. Though supporters could not attend, journalists could, and I don’t mind admitting that I sneaked into a few Burnley games by doing the co-commentary for the club’s media channels. The media is far more powerful than the fans, whether we like it or not – and indeed, in many respects, far more powerful than the sports they cover.
I know a fair few football managers. Most see their relationship with the media as something between an obligation and a screaming pain in the neck. But in the major team sports like football, rugby, cricket, an ability to handle the media is now a key part of any manager’s job spec. They might not welcome a lot of the extra work that involves, but most understand that it has to be done. And, in football especially, the managers’ after-match interviews and press conferences have become an important part of the whole spectacle.
But why do we put the same level of expectation on young athletes? Why do we assume that a young sportsman or woman, in addition to being very good at their chosen sport from a young age, will also be able to deliver articulate, interesting analysis of their performance, expose something of their personality, and not put a foot wrong when asked about any cultural, diplomatic or political subject under the sun?
It was reported that Osaka’s mental struggles were exacerbated when she was asked for her view on whether she felt the Tokyo Olympics should go ahead. I am sure that during the match she had just played she had not given this a moment’s thought. I have no way of knowing, but perhaps she gave it a cursory thought or two when asked at the press conference and then said what she thought, namely that, on balance, maybe they shouldn’t. Given her focus is tennis, and she lives her life travelling the world from tournament to tournament, she can surely be forgiven for failing to foresee that this might have played big into a debate raging back home. In any event, given what we now know about her mental health, I can fully understand why the fallout had the effect on her that it did.
Who is the loser here? A few journalists had their egos bruised, though I noted that several seemed to share the view of players that these routine ritual press exchanges are, in the main, a waste of time. But given that everyone – federations, event organisers, sponsors, athletes – talks about the fans being so important, we might ask what the fans would rather have. The ability to see the best in the world play against each other? Or the knowledge that, somewhere in a windowless briefing room, the athletes must, as part of their tournament obligations, take part in largely banal Q&A sessions that most of us will never see (beyond an occasional clip on social media, which won’t be as interesting as something the athletes post from the locker room themselves)?
The Euros are upon us. A festival of great, international football. Journalists from all over the world will cover it. There will be stories of heroism and failure, triumph and tragedy. Millions and millions of words will be written and broadcast. But ultimately what matters, and what history will record, is who wins. So to the British journalists covering England, Scotland and Wales: what do their viewers, listeners, readers and followers care more about… that the players can hold their own in a press conference? Or that they beat the opposition put in front of them?
Peter Schmeichel, of Manchester United and Denmark fame, once told me that he felt when England played in a major tournament, the English media actively – though perhaps unwittingly – helped damage their chances. He said that when Manchester United went a goal down, the players immediately had the mentality “we have to get back into this fast,” but that when some of the same players were playing for England, and they were losing, “they start to think about how the media will crucify them. It makes it a lot harder to play well.”
It is all too easy to imagine England getting to the later stages of the tournament, but that one mistake by one player leads to their exit. A red card. A dodgy back-pass. A missed penalty. He will feel as though the whole world is falling in on him. He might be in his late teens, early 20s, and, however he is feeling inside, will suddenly be expected to deal with pressure and abuse few could deal with, regardless of the state of their mental health.
Ahead of the Euros, I spoke to Harry Kane for the Evening Standard magazine and we discussed some of these themes. As England captain, he knows and accepts that he has to do more of the media rounds, and he is pretty good at it. But he feels there is insufficient support for young players making their way in the game, not in terms of football, but in their development as people and their welfare. “People looking in on football from the outside think it’s all just young guys living the dream, making a fortune – and, okay, I see why. But it is not all easy. It’s hard to cope sometimes. How you deal with setbacks, failure, injury, the manager not picking you, loss of form. I have had all that, I have experienced it, and I have dealt with it well, overall, even though I had some low times when I was being sent out on loan and not always getting selected at smaller clubs. But I have friends and other players who have not dealt with it, who really struggle mentally, and young players don’t always get the support they need. I can help with that, help give the support, but also help fight to get it for them.”
Kane has become one of the key figures in the football world’s involvement with Prince William’s Heads Together mental health charity. “It came to me because I am England captain, but I do have a special interest in this area. I didn’t have to take it on, I wanted to.”
Though active on social media, with more than ten million followers on Instagram and 3.1 million on Twitter, he rarely checks what anyone is saying about him. He doesn’t read the papers. “Whether it is too much praise or too much abuse, neither is good for you. It doesn’t help you focus on the job, so don’t let it get to you, don’t let it get in the way.” Fine words – but, for many, easier said than done.
Alastair Campbell’s latest book, Living Better: How I learned to survive depression (John Murray Books) is out in paperback, Kindle and ebook now.
Naomi Osaka serves up a challenge to tennis
The argument between tennis star Naomi Osaka and the tennis authorities is about much more than post-match press conferences
How are you?
Alastair Campbell set out on a series of conversations about mental health that revealed as much about him as the subjects
The second pandemic
On the shoulders of Covid comes a wave of mental illness that the UK is not prepared for
Living Better: In conversation with Alastair Campbell on mental health
Listen to Alastair Campbell’s intensely personal story about coping with depression.