Of Sporting Behaviour …

From this morning’s Straits Times, a typically persuasive, imploring piece from Rohit Brijnath on the importance and legacy of fairplay:

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BEFORE we get to Ashley Young or Luis Suarez and a football planet of unembarrassed divers, before we even get into a present time of uneven fair play, let’s retreat to the past. To Berlin 1936 and Hitler’s Olympics. It is an uncomfortable time, and the beginning of a terrible one.

Jesse Owens is black and American. Luz Long is white and German. One man is the antithesis of Hitler’s warped view of a master race, the other personifies it. Except, as they duel at the long jump pit, this happens: Owens is the greatest long jumper alive. He has three jumps to qualify for the final, which should be a simple affair. Yet he fouls his first jump. Then his second. One more foul and he’s out.

Except in this tense stadium, with Hitler watching, it is Long, his rival, who comes to his aid. His English is scratchy, yet he tells Owens, this is only qualifying, so why not make a mark six inches before the take-off board and jump from there? You’ll qualify easily. So Owens takes his advice and…

We should stop this story here, return to the present and ask ourselves this: Could this happen today? Or is it more likely that in 2012, a modern Long would sneer at Owens: ‘Hey buddy, no chance you’ll qualify.’ Or that a modern coach would tell Long: ‘Don’t help Owens, it’s about winning, you idiot.’

It’s not as if sport in the past was an angelic activity, for beauty and crudity have always walked arenas together. Yet in an exceedingly competitive time, when winning forgives everything, fair play is gently eroding like an ancient castle in the wind.

As a philosophy, it gets aired like an old carpet to make us feel better, and then put away once the whistle blows. ‘Fight Against Racism’ banners are waved, and then bananas chucked on a field. Athletes speak of respect because it sounds honourable, but many don’t live it. Civility on a field is almost an indulgence.

When cricketers mouth abuse, they’re just being aggressive; if Tiger Woods kicks a club, it only shows how much he cares; when fans rapidly forgive Suarez, they are just being supportive. We are not just ignoring incivility in sport, we are excusing it. And it’s a problem.

In a recent survey of 1,250 children in Britain aged from eight to 16, it was found that 51.1 per cent had been subject to ‘mental intimidation’ on a field. To swearing, taunting, threats and distraction when trying to concentrate. Even before adulthood, it seems, many are mastering disrespect.

Fair play – and its cousins sportsmanship, respect and nobility – does not necessarily arrive from a clutch of rules, but a culture handed down. It is presumed to be an unwritten code among athletes, not Moses-like commandments inscribed on dressing room walls.

In cycling, admittedly rife with dopers, waiting for a rider who has crashed and not attacking is part of the code. In tennis, still, some players will hit a ball at another player and then apologise. In rugby, a bruised line will form to shake a victor’s hands.

Chivalry dies when generations refuse to hand it down, if they view it not as an essential part of the culture but a peripheral notion. And if athletes don’t care, if it is irrelevant to teachers, to coaches at lower levels, to top managers especially, who can be disingenuous when it comes to fair play, then it won’t matter to children who revere them. Ideas become outdated only if we fail to emphasise them.

Small things in sport have an enduring impact, and we still see them. Shaking a rival’s hand after he’s outplayed you isn’t easy, but this is what character is. Saying sorry for a netcord in tennis isn’t an apology for winning a point, but for winning it that way. Calling a penalty on yourself in golf isn’t just following the rules of a sport, it is protecting the sport. It is saying this is a worthy enterprise, one of skill, but also spirit.

Men in shirts with a club insignia view themselves as wearing a uniform, but this is only a fake war. To confuse the two is absurd because no one in sport comes home in body bags. Sure, no one wants sport shorn of ruggedness. When athletes compete and collide, they will rage, challenge, tease, throw a racquet, and it is understandable, for they are not robots.

But absent of fair play – of accepting that for all the money and reputation at stake, this is only a game – there is a point beyond which sport loses its value and transforms into a base, primitive contest where anything goes.

At a recent Davis Cup match, a victorious Janko Tipsarevic complained that his defeated rival Radek Stepanek made a rude gesture towards him and offered an ugly word after the match. If this doesn’t bother us, then why do we convince children to play on fields and tell them they’re going to get an education? In what?

Sport, we accept, has turned into a business. Business is sponsors and full stadiums. Full stadiums are often predicated on winning. The most followed clubs are the most successful ones. And this is where it turns murky, because for athletes, and managers, winning is often about destinations (where you go), not journeys (how you get there).

Winning, they argue, is the only thing they record in books. Perhaps, but not in the memory. After all, sometimes it takes more than winning to deserve a statue.

In 1956, during a 1,500m race in Australia, a runner clipped the heels of Ron Clarke, who tripped and fell. The great miler John Landy, running behind Clarke, tried to get out of the way, but by accident spiked him. It was an honest error.

Except, astonishingly, Landy, who was chasing a world record, stopped, apologised to Clarke, and then started running again. Incredibly, he won the race, yet the statue that stands in Melbourne is not of victory, but of his act of sportsmanship.

Yet for all such stories, winning, in whatever way, still overrides everything else. It is why Aleksandar Duric, a footballer I like and respect, wrote about Ashley Young’s diving: ‘What Young did, he did for the team, and at this stage of the season it is less about fair play than it is about winning at any cost.’

I admire Duric’s candour, but I disagree. First, it suggests if you’re cheating for the team, then it’s fine – but is it?

Second, to say the dive was understandable at this ‘stage of the season’ suggests fair play is not a philosophy but a convenience.

Third, is winning at any cost really where we should be heading?

Because then who draws the line on what is acceptable? Are we fine with a planet where not kicking out the ball when a player is injured is cool; where saying absolutely anything to a rival if it distracts him is tolerable; where rewarding American football players for tackles that injure rivals is appropriate?

If you agree with diving, how do you disagree with all this? It’s only a matter of degrees. Perhaps one day a World Cup football final, with a planet watching, will be determined by a blatant act of unfair play, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. Because we allowed this culture to flourish.

If fighting to keep sport clean, and fair, is an enduring battle, then it is comforting that the greatest athlete of present times, in the greatest sport, appears to believe in it. Lionel Messi is no saint, but he does not cheat, dive, play-act, complain theatrically. He plays, he falls, he gets up, he starts again. He is a man driven, yet decent.

Owens and Long would have liked Messi. That day in Germany in 1936, Owens qualified and beat Long at the long jump final. When the American won, the German hailed him, and Owens later said: ‘Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.’

Winning matters, of course, but fair play gives it a superior shine.

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2 thoughts on “Of Sporting Behaviour …

  1. You have managed to succinctly state much that I believe in but lack the erudition to expound. Thank you.

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