THE idea that sports people should be held as role models has always been as preposterous as the notion of handing Donald Trump your dinner money to keep it safe.

It’s not that athletes are bad people. It’s just that they never auditioned for the role of being very, very good people. In all my years of asking top sportsmen or sportswomen about their early years, I have yet to hear one say: “Yes, I always dreamed of setting a moral tone for the youth of the nation, being without sin and then setting up a charitable foundation.’

Sports stars want to win. It’s why their childhood is marked with Monopoly boards flying through the air, siblings with various hues of bruises and more tantrums than the President at a press briefing. It’s why, too, that their lives are generally not to be envied. There may be a tawdry glamour in the lives of the top footballers (except when they are on holiday in Greece) but the elite athlete has endured a strange childhood, a sometimes desperate adolescence and an adult life whose fleeting contentment is tied to results which are destined to fade, and sometimes quickly.

The athlete knows, too, that they are condemned to die twice with their exceptional powers waning at an early age. They justifiably fear the stripping of their physical prowess and the long, empty years they can presage.

The athlete, too, does not live a life of contentment and fulfilment can disappear with the speed of Usain Bolt being chased by a particularly peckish cheetah. (A proposal for an event I pitched to the Olympic organising committee, incidentally, and was spuriously dismissed on ‘health and safety grounds’)

The sports star has to be obsessed, though we call it focus or commitment. He or she has to pretend to have a normal family when it is obviously impossible. He or she has to affect concern about the ails or woes of others when all that really matters is that twinge in his or her right calf and will it prevent him or her playing in the Comfort Girdle Extra Stretch Open in Akron, Ohio.

This is all part of a truth acknowledged by most athletes, certainly by the most reflective of them. They know who they are. They know their shortcomings. Yet they face the carping from those outside their world.

They are decried when they are not articulate. Yet no one ever criticised Churchill for his inability to get the ball up and down over the wall from just outside the box.

They are derided for their intellectual capacity. Yet no one forensically and honestly examined the weakness of the Einstein forehand, particularly cross-court.

They are condemned for their selfishness or lack of social concern. Yet no one put Gandhi in the stocks for not improving his impossibly weak uppercut.

The point I am labouring, with all the subtlety of a gang of navvies on a Fair Friday pub crawl, is this: great sports people offer lessons on how to be great at sports. And most of the lessons are useless to the mass of humanity because, basically, we not only do not have the talent but, if we did, would baulk at the rigours of a mental commitment and physical trial that would make lead rower on a slave galley seem a like a jaunty cruise.

So sports people are not there to offer life lessons. But here’s the twist. Sometimes they do.

Andrew Barron Murray is spending most of August running around courts in New York after a small ball. It is hot, draining work and he doesn’t need the money or the acclaim. I know little about him, but enough to realise that he seeks validation only from the tightest of crews.

But his extraordinary comeback from injury and return to elite tennis can offer some consolation to the wider world. It is this: there can be recovery. It may be difficult to glimpse in the depths of despair but it can be there, pulsing weakly in the face of life’s bitter blows. There can be a defiance, too, in the face of all opinion, whether medical or uninformed.

There will be doctors who would have told Murray that the game was up and he should go home to count his money. But he wasn’t quite ready. He is a competitor. He is a sportsman, for good and ill, in focus and in fight. He had to go on. It is a powerful message in the year of the virus, the time of the teetering job, the age of debilitating anxiety.

There will be a time for quitting. But it’s not quite yet. Not for Andy. And not for us.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.