Lang Lang, the celebrated Chinese concert pianist, told a fascinating story during the week on Michael Parkinson’s “Masterclass.”
His father wanted him to be a great pianist, so when he was four years old, he stood over the child as he practiced five hours a day. When he was nine, his father took him to a big Chinese city for proper lessons, while the boy’s mother slaved at home, sending them money to survive. Father and son lived in a small rat infested bed-sit. The piano teacher was a cruel woman, who humiliated the boy, jibing him relentlessly about his ‘pathetic’ technique. After a few months, she sacked him altogether, saying he was wasting her time and his mother’s money. When the boy arrived back at the bed-sit, his father handed him two suicide pills and a glass of water, told him it would be better for his sake if he ended it all now, then left while the deed was done.
“I almost did it” said Lang Lang, “but at the last second I didn’t.”
Instead, the boy smashed his fists against the wall until those magic fingers were bloody and broken. Now, he plays the world’s greatest concert halls and practices five hours a day in lavish hotel suites, not a squalid bed-sit. But his life remains one of isolation and loneliness. All that glitters is not gold.
Bradley Wiggins, in common with so many of the world’s great sportsmen and women, knows all about dysfunctional backgrounds. SKY aired an enthralling documentary last week entitled, “A Year in Yellow” charting the Englishman’s voyage towards his epic Tour de France victory. There was something splendid and magnificent about it all. The breathtaking training runs through the Tenerife Mountains, the adoring fans, the gleaming bikes, the iconic yellow jersey. Then, the crowning double glory of a Tour victory and an Olympic Gold medal. But, as is so often the case with the world’s greatest sportsmen (Tyson - Mike, not Fury, Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather, George Best, Maradona ... the list is endless) it was in reality a study in misery.
Gary Wiggins was a violent alcoholic and professional cyclist who put young Brad on a bike aged two, then shortly afterwards abandoned him, walking out one morning never to return. Left homeless, Wiggins and his mother moved into a London high rise with his grandmother. From then on, his world was the bike. Now, that means the SKY cycling team, populated by highly successful professionals with abysmal private lives. For Wiggins, this is home sweet home. SKY coach Shane Sutton OBE, another ex-cyclist and human bull terrier, lives in a bedsit above a cycle shop. He knew Wiggins’ dad and tells the interviewer, “Gary was a wild b******d. Not a great person. He’d drink and fight, then booze the next day with someone he’d kicked the s*** out of the night before.... The kid’s left with a lot of anger from his childhood.”
A few years ago, Gary met his match on a night out, his life ending as violently as he had lived it. His son’s chilling assessment is, “As far as I know he got murdered. His body got dumped somewhere. I didn’t go to the funeral. F*** him. I ain’t going flying out to Australia and back in three days when I have the World championships three weeks later.”
Team director Dave Brailsford CBE, another obsessive, workaholic loner, is asked, “How do you get on with Brad?” There is an almost endless pause, before he finally answers, “With Bradley? I wouldn’t say close. I’m not close to anyone. I don’t have any friends.” According to Sutton, Bradley is “a miserable f***er” and “a difficult character at the best of times.”
In the program, his wife Catherine is asked how she gets on with her husband and describes a Jekyll and Hyde personality. “Bradley the cyclist is a train, scattering everything in its path. Childbirth, house moving, none of it matters to him. He doesn’t care about anything else.” Rarely at home, the saddest part of the story is when he rings the house and his daughter answers. “Mum,” she says, “It’s Bradley Wiggins.”
He is a hermit, shut off from the world, only happy when he is on the bike. Describing what a particular mountain climb is like, he says, “it’s like someone holding your head under water. Your ears pop and all you hear is a dull hissing sound. You can’t take any more. You want to pull the plug, but you don’t.” When he wins the Tour and 10 days later the Olympic gold, there are no tears and no jubilation. The organisers sit him in a throne painted gold and he fidgets for a moment before giving a half hearted victory salute. Painted gold seems entirely appropriate. Then, he is gone, back to his hermit’s lifestyle and his inner ghosts.
Wiggins repeatedly says during the film that he just wants to lead a normal life. It is a delusion. These people don’t have lives. Ricky Hatton embodied this when he came back out of retirement last week. As his battered and bloody face illustrated, all the money in the world can’t banish those demons.
It is a natural sensation to envy these high achievers. We believe that their lives are incomparably dramatic and glamorous. But the opposite is often the truth. It is a world populated by obsessive loners with deeply troubled private lives. We should thank our lucky stars to be average.
The yellow jersey? I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.