Recently, our good friend Marcela Mora y Araujo drew attention to Juan Roman Riquelme’s habit of referring to himself in the third person: "I like to think it's been a good year for Riquelme." Marcela also commented: “Diego Maradona consistently uses ‘Maradona’ in his speech, and over years of careful analysis I feel confident formulating the following hypothesis: ‘Maradona’ is used when discussing the media construct, the celebrity - e.g. 'Maradona should not be held as an example to anybody' - and ‘I’ enters the discourse when the narrative truly is in the first person; when he is talking about playing football, for instance, he says ‘I’. Anyone feels like funding me? I'll do a PhD on the topic.”
In eager anticipation of Marcela’s PhD, here are a few more thoughts on this phenomenon, and no doubt Pseuds will have their own to add...
This odd use of language has appeared among cricketers too: during the disastrous 2006 Ashes season, England’s captain Michael Vaughan, sidelined through injury, began talking about himself as Michael Vaughan and was roundly mocked on the threads for his apparent swollen ego and detachment from reality. Interestingly, the speech pattern seems to have disappeared with Vaughan’s return to health and form – is he now in a more normal psychological state, or did his wife/PR person read the cricket blogs and tell him to stop it?
By far the most unsettling of these strange verbal usages in the cricket world was that adopted by GU journalist Rob Smyth, who spent an entire over-by-over commentary referring to himself as Daddy – a genuinely creepy gimmick which probably got him a record number of emails. Mr Smyth, however, is no longer with GU.
This is the thing about the third-person trick: other people don’t like it. It bothers them. They think the person concerned is nuts or conceited or both. Or else it’s a bit of a joke: “It’s all about entertainment,” says Floyd Mayweather, “and that’s what Floyd Mayweather brings to the table.” And the effect seems to be the same in most languages. It’s not that you can’t use another word instead of ‘I’ - ‘one’ or its equivalent is used as a substitute in various languages, and in some languages you can refer to yourself as ‘he’ or ‘she’. No, it’s the use of the name which provokes a reaction.
So why do they do it?
Perhaps it’s an unconscious expression of the psychological tricks required to deal with the stress of competing and performing at a high level, or, in the case of Maradona, being a legend and not having lived anything approaching a normal life for many years.
Some degree of disassociation is probably encouraged by sports psychologists as a mechanism to make it easier to deal with media hype. When the tabloids and pundits are alternately describing someone as a genius and a total loser, it must be a lot easier to take if that someone isn’t you...or isn’t quite you.
Detachment must also be needed to deal with defeat or inexplicable loss of form. Suddenly the skills have deserted you – is it your fault? What have you done? Have you annoyed God? Were you rubbish all along, but a kind of collective hallucination prevented anybody from noticing? No, no, it’s just a thing that’s happening to a different part of you, an other you, and your inner self isn’t personally responsible.
There’s also the pressure on successful sportspeople to see themselves as brands – the company that pays, for example, Jonny Wilkinson to advertise its range of classic men’s clothing is buying a set of attributes which are connected with him in the public mind, and in turn encouraging him to see himself as a marketable entity which really has those characteristics “modest, taciturn, English hero”. While supping on his diet of egg-whites and boiled chicken, does Jonny look at those adverts and think “That’s me” or “That’s ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ ”?
Athletes have no disguise, whatever luridly-coloured and/or skimpy kit they compete in; they aren’t playing a role on screen with the help of make-up, camera angles and computer effects, or blogging behind the safety of a pseudonym. But, aided by the media and its own prejudices, the public will see its own version of them. How can they distinguish between the person the public sees and the person they feel themselves to be? Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff is clear that Freddie is the cricketer and celebrity while Andrew is the family man – and it seems that sometimes when Freddie goes out and leaves Andrew at home, he gets into trouble.
Robbie Williams has said that the ‘Robbie Williams’ who appears on stage is his evil twin. Many sportspeople experience ‘white line rage’ – as they step out onto the pitch they take on a persona which is more aggressive, more provocative, more reckless than the everyday one. It’s not just about being pumped up and adrenalised, it’s being taken over by a more vivid and dangerous version of yourself. To succeed at the highest level, that persona has to be encouraged, fed, trained, nurtured, taking over like a cuckoo in a nest. It’s not surprising if the anxious parent bird sometimes feels disconnected from the monster.
Nuts? Conceited? Demonically possessed? Or just trying to cope with it all? What do you think?