The Incomprehensible Sportsman

Sebastian Vettel’s decision to overtake his team-mate Mark Webber last weekend was a demonstration of the relentless, unyielding need to win which drives elite sportsmen to the top of their field and out of the realms of public understanding.

When Vettel made the decision to ignore team orders and overtake Webber with 13 laps remaining of Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix, he wasn’t thinking of the long-term consequences. In those few moments, he had to make the choice between team success and personal glory. In the midst of the drama, Vettel’s impulsive reaction was to bow to the same innate desire to win that will have ensured he got to where he is today.

Vettel’s actions have been roundly condemned. In the days since the race, the 25-year-old’s personality, credibility and morality have all been questioned by an unforgiving media and public. Simon Barnes, the Chief Sports Writer of the Sunday Times, even wrote this week that Vettel “failed as a human being.”

The criticism is undoubtedly just. What Vettel did was wrong – he has accepted this and apologised – but it is another example of the difference between elite sportsmen and the watching majority.

The average onlooker cannot comprehend the German’s choice. He put himself before his colleague and his team in a move that was astoundingly selfish. At the critical moment, he did what the vast most others would never do and forsook his integrity for a moment of short-sighted self-indulgence and personal glory.

Of course, it wasn’t personal glory in the end. Celebrations were muted as Vettel awkwardly took his place atop the podium. There was no pride, no satisfaction and no joy as he won. “I messed up. I would love to come up with a nice excuse or a nice story but I can’t. That’s the truth,” he said.

So what motivated him to do it? Winning in that manner would have always resulted in a pyrrhic victory and finishing second would have made little difference to his personal standings. Listening to his instructions would have maintained the trust of the team and the organisation which looks after his salary and his safety.

Vettel was blinded by his uncontrollable need to win. Even if it wasn’t a ‘real’ victory, he couldn’t stand coming second. At the decisive moment, he displayed the cutting-edge competitiveness which so few are born with and equally few comprehend.

Elite sport is littered with such personalities and it is remarkable how rarely it is commented upon. The best sportsmen will do anything to win. Whether it is a World Cup Quarter-Final or simply a casual training session, there are countless examples of top athletes who are totally encompassed by this will to succeed.

It’s not always necessarily when the stakes are this high. Jermain Defoe has spoken of how angry he becomes if he doesn’t score in training games. His team-mates have also said that the England striker will be devastated if he hasn’t got on the score-sheet in any game, even if his team has won. These are team sports, but so many of the players are motivated by their personal competitive nature. This is what is so incomprehensible for so many.

Very few people, including fellow professionals, can understand Jonny Wilkinson’s obsessive training regime of his younger days. In his childhood, Wilkinson would be taken to a field to practice his kicking. If he couldn’t hit the correct amount of perfect kicks in a row, he would start again. This often resulted in him being on these fields for literally hours upon hours – to the exasperation of his parents.


It didn’t stop when he became an England international. Wilkinson would train overtime as well as on his days off, constantly pushing his body to the limits. In his autobiography, he writes of how he was once so frustrated at supposed ineptitude in training that he bit himself until he drew blood. If he couldn’t meet his high expectations, he would regularly submerge himself in a pool and scream. He knew it was bad for his body and his career, but was compelled by his obsessive competitiveness to drive himself on and on and on.

What Vettel did was not normal. What Jermain Defoe does is not normal. What Jonny Wilkinson did was not normal. Not for most athletes and certainly not for the average person. These three examples do, however, demonstrate how top, top sportsmen are a very different breed to everyone else. When it comes to split-second decisions, even if the consequences are not beneficial, the need to win overrides everything else. It made no sense for Vettel to overtake Webber or for Wilkinson to put himself through such physical torment, but their personalities meant that it didn’t matter. That is what makes them the best of the best and got them to their positions at the pinnacle of their field. Vettel may have “failed as a human being”, but that’s because he, like many elite athletes, is not an ordinary one.

Sam Dean


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