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Lewis Hamilton and the Problems with Media Portrayal

Lewis HamiltonIf you dive into the life of Lewis Hamilton beyond the racing circuit, he seems to be a decent person by all accounts. There are plenty of instances of charity work from the six-time World Champion, including his roles with UNICEF and Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. He’s not the kind of celebrity that we see falling out of nightclubs, nor is he the type to fall afoul of the law. While he is intensely driven to succeed in motor racing, it’s also very clear that he respects his sport.

Back in 2015, The Telegraph ran an article on Hamilton with the title, “Lewis Hamilton: The champion it is mathematically impossible to like”. Saying that someone is “mathematically impossible to like” is quite the charge to put on any human being. To be fair to The Telegraph and the author of the article, Callum Davis, the piece wasn’t a complete hit-job. It listed all the reasons why people should like Hamilton, including his sporting prowess and philanthropy, but then went on to list qualities that people (the story claimed) found unattractive – his outspokenness, lifestyle, social circle.

With all due respect to Callum Davis, who is a fine sportswriter, this article was neither insightful nor original. The internet is littered with articles on Hamilton, asking the same questions and providing the same conjecture-heavy answers. The point is that there is always a “but” beside any media portrayal of Hamilton that looks beyond his achievements in F1. As soon as the media starts looking beyond Hamilton the driver to Hamilton the man, there is suddenly a need to muse on his perceived worthiness.

Parallels with Sterling

The British press often has had an uneasy relationship with successful sports stars; too eager to build them up, and almost obsessive about pulling them down again. And, it’s been argued that its treatment of young black sports stars has been particularly poor, vitriolic even. The England footballer, Raheem Sterling, has fallen afoul of the journalist’s pen before for the seeming crime of being a young black man who bought a home for his mother.

There are undoubtedly parallels between Sterling and Hamilton. Some might contend that it does not constitute outright racism, and there are some compelling arguments that it doesn’t. However, what is incontestable is that the media has a profile that it believes sports stars should fit. All too often, it falls into a nostalgic view of an ideal sports star that did not exist in the first place. Men’s men, like James Hunt with a cigarette hanging from his mouth or Bobby Moore hoisting a pint of bitter in his local pub; these are the men Hamilton is judged against, not Sebastian Vettel or Max Verstappen.

Hamilton has history in his hands

As fans of Hamilton will claim, it seems such a shame that this hurts his standing as a sporting great. When we hear the plans to restart the F1 season, Hamilton will go off as the hot betting favourite to land his seventh title, equalling Michael Schumacher’s record. It will be celebrated within the sport by the people who appreciate the magnitude of the achievement. It will make the headlines in the British press, sure. But will the media clamour for a knighthood for Hamilton with the same enthusiasm they do for moderately successful England footballers or gold medal-winning Olympians? Unlikely.

Lewis HamiltonSome elements of the press can’t get their heads around someone being passionate about veganism or the thought of seeing a young man in a skirt for a fashion shoot. Hamilton also tends to walk straight first into the media’s favourite trap by making hypocritical statements, or statements that are perceived to be hypocritical. A rich sportsman talking about poverty, a vegan talking about saving the environment when flying around the world to drive for a living; these are some of the faux pas made by Hamilton. And, to be fair, he’s not always careful with his words.

Yet, it could be argued that Hamilton’s is a unique case in the media. There are so many instances of flawed sports stars – Diego Maradona, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant – for whom the media finds no difficulty in separating their personas and, indeed, their crimes from their sporting achievements. Even the supportive articles of Hamilton ask the question of why people do not like him. You might wonder whether they need to ask the question at all.