It doesn't take long in motorcycling to empty the soul of a fun-loving serial winner according to our Mike Scott
Someone cleverer THAN I put a name to it - the Frankenstein Syndrome, in which the victim creates his own monster. It happens to successful people in all walks of life, I guess. But seldom is it as pronounced as in the premier class of motorcycle racing.
Over the years, I've watched it happen to several people. Again, seldom has it been as pronounced as in the case of Valentino Rossi.
Not long ago Vale was an innocent charmer, happy to chat with pretty much anyone in the paddock, cheerful and friendly. Happy also to lay on somewhat contrived but still enjoyable little bits of theatre for the fans. Who can forget him dressed as Robin Hood in Britain or a medieval knight in Germany; or giving a lift to somebody dressed as a chicken?
The Rossi of today is very different to that fun-loving figure: remote and stern-faced, hurrying from behind one closed door to another. At press conferences he tends to stare expressionless at empty space, only now and then showing a flash of the humour that used to endear him. As a result, when I heard a tale about a friend of a friend's 12-year old daughter being pushed brusquely away after approaching him in an airport for an autograph, it was not implausible.
Grossly unfair to condemn somebody on such a flimsy piece of hearsay, but it has become something of a press-room joke, when Valentino is spotted glowering somewhere, to suggest that he is looking for another 12-year old girl to push over.
Yet it is easy to understand why the sunny youth has been battered into submission, to give way to a remote, cold adult. Valentino is a racer whose talent puts him up among the all-time gods of racing. But the entirely worthy act of exploiting his talent has taken him to another place, where the rest of his life has become some kind of torture.
Also, it's easy to understand why you try to avoid talking to people when everybody in the world wants to talk to you, to ask you the same questions, and to utter the same admiring words. They all want a piece of you, and give nothing back except some spurious and generally shallow adulation. And if they don't get enough, they turn on you.
The thrust of my discourse is not to do the same. It's impossible not to feel sympathy. Just by riding a motorcycle better than anybody else in the world, Valentino's carefree life has become a sort of hell, in which he cannot walk around the streets of his home town, or indeed anywhere in Italy. He has to go to London for that (he has, however, become a multi-millionaire, which sweetens the pill.)
This is the Frankenstein of fame, and the same effect spoils the lives of sportsmen in all fields. And movie stars, and the like. Goes with the territory. But motorcycle racing at World Championship level adds another dimension. The top-class bikes are magnificent and very fulfilling to ride to their limits. But underlying all that, the old 500s and new 230-horsepower MotoGP bikes are very, very scary.
It's possible that the two-strokes were even scarier than the new big four-strokes. They were less powerful and slower, true - but desperately unforgiving. Especially in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when tyre technology made high-side accidents prevalent.
There was no question back then that riders who pushed themselves hard enough to be serious championship contenders grew old before their time. Wayne Rainey was one who grew angrier and more drawn over his years at the top. Considering the ultimate price he paid for his fulfilment, ending up in a wheelchair, one might say he was justified. Anyway, fighting weekend in, weekend out with a rival as feisty as Kevin Schwantz is going to take it out of you. Doing so on a bike that is trying to kill you even more so.
In the same way, it didn't take very long for Doohan to change from a rather diffident youth to the hardest of hard men in his dealings with those around him. His face reflected the change as it hardened and aged; he started to go grey long before he was 30.
The new generation, of which Rossi is the prime example, started world championship racing younger, so it may take a little longer to go grey. But he's well on the way to being an old curmudgeon long before his time.
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