Anyone with school age children will have encountered the Pushy Sports Parent species. Prowling with intent on the edge of (or, if undetected, actually inside) the touchline and ferociously yelling at some poor half-frozen child on the pitch to “MAKE. THE. BALL. YOURS”. I *may* be recalling a rugby tournament a few weeks ago where I was stood alongside such a person (who I didn’t know) for a number of games and it was excruciatingly awful. I actually felt under pressure to say something to my own child which turned out to be the exact opposite of what the coach said 5 seconds later. Clearly not cut out to be a pushy rugby mum or indeed watch rugby. Gutted much.
Pushy parents have long inhabited the world of sport (see Pushy Tennis Dad, a phenomenon that goes back to the distant inter-war days of Suzanne Lenglen). But the world does seem to have increasing numbers of pushy sports parents. Probably because (1) there are more pushy parents generally, (2) there is so much money in sport these days especially if you can develop a ‘brand’ image and (3) we have moved more into a ‘winning is everything’ mentality and away from the values of good sportmanship.
So it is quite something when the death of a F1 driver’s father generates the outpouring of genuine love and affection that happened this week when John Button, Jenson Button’s dad, suddenly passed away. In many respects the sacrifices that families of budding F1 drivers have to make are way greater than in nurturing talented children in other sports. Not too surprising when you do the maths of funding a racing car compared to buying a football or tennis racquet.
John was right there from the start in Jenson’s career, when aged 8 he drove to victory in his very first race. On one occasion, John had to borrow money to buy fuel so they could make it back home from a race in Scotland. In his younger days he competed in rallycross before devoting himself to funding and supporting his son’s rapid ascent through the lower formulae.
He has been a permanent fixture in the F1 paddock since Jenson’s debut in 2000. He managed that rare feat of supporting his son absolutely and passionately but didn’t ever get in the way of the mechanics working tirelessly behind the scenes. All teams and drivers loved John Button (or Papa Smurf as he was known to the paddock) and it is hard to imagine the utter devastation that Jenson and his sisters will be feeling.
In a sport full of big personalities, John’s charisma and joie de vivre really stood out. Even in Jenson’s toughest times (driving the dog that was the Honda) he was relentlessly upbeat and would always manage to give a big smile and thumbs up to the camera even during the hardest of races. With such unwavering belief in his son, it is perhaps not all that surprising Jenson did eventually win a F1 world title. And was there a happier or prouder man in the world that day than John Button? As a fan, you genuinely felt as elated for him as you did for Jenson and you suspect that was the greatest moment of his life.
Come the opening race of the season in Melbourne, I like to think that somewhere John Button will be watching proceedings in his lucky pink shirt wildly cheering on the driver in car no.22.