The straight dope on Agassi

Andre Agassi is back in the headlines again, after confessing in his soon-to-be-released life story that he snorted the illegal stimulant crystal meth. And revelled in it: "A tidal wave of euphoria that sweeps away every negative thought... I never felt so alive, so hopeful -- and I've never felt such energy," he writes.

I'm not surprised. Agassi cultivated the brash, super-brat image and drugs goes with the territory. But not necessarily lying. In his book Open, which has been serialised in several newspapers, he writes about what he did after he was caught by tennis authorities:

"My name, my career, everything is now on the line. Whatever I've achieved, whatever I've worked for, might soon mean nothing. Days later I sit in a hard-backed chair, a legal pad in my lap, and write a letter to the ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals]. It's filled with lies interwoven with bits of truth.

"I say Slim, whom I've since fired, is a known drug user, and that he often spikes his sodas with meth -- which is true. Then I come to the central lie of the letter. I say that recently I drank accidentally from one of Slim's spiked sodas, unwittingly ingesting his drugs. I ask for understanding and leniency and hastily sign it: Sincerely. I feel ashamed, of course. I promise myself that this lie is the end of it."

Subsequently the ATP drugs tribunal decided not to impose a penalty -- and not to inform the public of the positive result.

The latest revelation to be drip-fed to the public is that his father may have given him caffeine pills and even the illegal amphetamine speed to increase his concentration before a match.

Why has Agassi confessed now, when he is trying to be a role model to help young kids, medically and socially?

His critics sneer that his sins are worth US$5 million from his publisher. This seems unlikely. Agassi earned squillions in prize money and endorsements. A bit more may be helpful, but not motivational.

His sympathisers contend that he was a tortured soul. After reading what he has to say about his childhood, this seems almost plausible.

His father, Mike Agassi, is a former Olympic boxer from Iran who migrated to the US. He was a classic sport-obsessed dad, who used to scream abuse at the refs when Andre was a child. Agassi had a far from normal childhood. Nor did he love tennis; he was just good at it. "I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have," he writes.

His sponsors exploited his status as an anti-hero icon. Canon gave him the memorable line "Image is everything" in an advertisement for its cameras. Nike turned him into a clothes horse with ever-changing hair styles and garish outfits.

Despite his alleged contempt for the game, he was a marvellous player. "When Andre's on, forget it," his rival Pete Sampras commented. "He does practically everything better than anybody else." But that relentlessness may have come at a price. Perhaps he felt that he needed dope to get him through the unreal glitter of the tennis professional's world.

But my theory about the book is that he is just bored with life off the court and out of the limelight. He can't shake off the craving for notoriety. Perhaps at heart he's still a teenager looking at himself in the mirror.

But why should we work ourselves into a lather over the adolescent antics of a balding tennis star? (Another lurid revelation: he used to wear a wig!)

No, the real villains in these lurid revelations are the grown-ups. First, the tennis authorities. They kept mum about their super-star when they should have censured him. Where do the lies begin and end? If Agassi lied to the ATP, how many others did? How many others did the ATP shield to protect its image and income?

Second, his sponsors. Like grown-ups laughing at a child's tantrums, they exploited Agassi's failings to sell their products. Instead of seeing a teenager starved for affection, full of self-doubt, and bursting with emotional instability, they saw a cash cow. And they milked it.

Agassi is not alone. His sad story is just one of hundreds, even thousands, of youngsters -- in baseball, soccer, and other sports -- who are sucked in and spat out by the global sporting business, an unholy collusion between sports bureaucrats and advertisers. He's lucky. He survived. Many of them don't.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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