December 14, 2000

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It's about winning, not whining

Rohit Brijnath

There is no sound more grating than a sports star whining. It should be incongruous, it is instead accepted behaviour. They own million dollar mansions, are Ferrari’s favourite customers, have personal hairdressers, and make a mockery of the phrase "there are no free lunches".

But if the tennis balls are a little soft, or the suite they're staying in doesn't overlook the harbour, you can hear it. At whining, many of them are simply world class.

Why else would Australia's defeat by Spain in the Davis Cup final be viewed Down Under as "controversial". Did someone cheat, did they steal Hewitt's rackets, did the linesmen need Lasik surgery? Nope. Then what? Oh, the crowd was unsportsmanlike.

Possibly they were. They were noisy, unrestrained, mean-spirited, undisciplined. Immediately, they drew incorrect comparisons with soccer crowds, as if every football-watching fellow is a swastika-wearing, banana-throwing, invective-shouting, yahoo with a membership to the local Neo Nazi league.

The crowd Yet in an increasingly competitive sporting world, where aggression too often slips its leash, and hostility between teams, either real or manufactured, is evident, the crowds feel compelled to join in. They are just noisy additions to an already bad-tempered party.

Admittedly, crowds are too involved in sporting affairs: they are vocal, often racist, burn stadiums, carry offensive banners, demean opponents, throw objects, (fruit, coins, cushions, golf balls, stones, water bottles), and are mercilessly taunting and inhospitable. It is offensive, frightening, and hardly a place to take a child too. Not every place is Wimbledon.

And it is not restricted to soccer. At the recent World Cup golf in Argentina the galleries were raucous; at the 1999 Ryder Cup, Colin Montgomerie was regularly heckled, one idiot yelling "shank it" just as he played a shot. In cricket, specially in the subcontinent but hardly restricted to there, fans hold up matches, stone buses, playing a larger role than they were intended for. In tennis, Argentina forfeited a Davis Cup tie against Chile because of an unruly Santiago crowd.

The reasons are complex. Spectators attend events to be entertained, to appreciate skill, but it has also become a release, a license to unburden oneself, easily done when alcohol is available. There is also, a certain tribalism at work, where the association between a fan and his club and country, goes beyond a normal allegiance. As if losing is some sort of personal insult.

The media fuels this, sometimes giving an event an artificial, exaggerated , excitement, sometimes just ripping open old wounds. Germany vs England in soccer, India vs Pakistan in cricket, become more than sporting affairs, they become tests of national wellbeing and pride. Soccer has no relation to World War II, nor cricket to subcontinental wars, but the dangerous cliches of 'battlefield', ’'o or die encounter', 'fight to the finish', 'locked in combat' give rise to an unbecoming jingoism.

Often, we lose sight of the sport itself, too interested in the end result, than in the beauty and complexities of the process. When Javed Miandad played his final match against India in Bangalore during the 1996 World Cup, not a man saluted the departure of an outstanding batsman. It was a sad moment, and a significant one.

When the Chennai crowd handed the victorious Pakistanis --- to be honest not a gesture to be expected across the border --- it was a triumphant moment. Yet, in the universal praise of a decent act lay a terrible sadness: to be sporting had become unique.

Lleyton Hewitt But crowd unruliness is often a product of player provocation. It is no coincidence that misbehaviour in the stands has a similar downward graph to player misconduct. When US golfers arrived in Kiawah Island (later to be dubbed The War on The Shore) in camouflage caps for the 1991 Ryder Cap, in the year of Operation Desert Storm, they were sending an explicit message to their supporters.

This year during the Ryder Cup, American wives, players, caddies, spectators hurtled onto the green to embrace Justin Leonard after he sank a monster putt, unmindful of Spain‘s Jose Maria Olazabal, who had to wait patiently before attempting a 25-foot putt to keep Europe's hopes alive. He missed.

I use golf deliberately, for it is a game that believes its traditional and lingering emphasis on fair play, gentleman's manners and a powerful but unwritten code of conduct give it an exclusivity. If golf is bruised, what chance do other sports have?

Players exist in a state of convenient self-denial. Captains will routinely say, "We'll do whatever it takes within the rules to win," but there is little talk of spirit; they never admit to have crossed any boundary of decency, for they conveniently draw it themselves.

Soccer players, who suffer dreadful abuse, deliberately incite the crowd with obscene gestures. Cricketers irritably question umpiring decisions, as Mohammad Azharuddin once did in Mumbai, sending the crowd into a predictable frenzy. Indeed, Tendulkar’s extreme reluctance to go out and pacify the crowd in Eden Gardens after his controversial run-out against Pakistan was one of the only times I have seen the little man act small.

Much of sport by its very nature is theatrical, there is no need to constantly embellish it. But by sustained appealing in cricket (read Saurav Ganguly/Vijay Dahiya), diving in the penalty box, remonstrating like an inebriated yob with the referee as Manchester United captain Roy Keane once did, the crowd is inadvertently (or perhaps not) ignited.

This is hardly an argument against free expression. I have no issue with aggression (indeed, I've always felt Indian cricketers are too mild), nor with the odd word exchanged nor clenched fists nor victory dances after winning goals.

Who would rob sport of its passion, of men sweating fiercely for victory?

There is a joy is watching men chase the impossible, a cause for celebration when they accomplish childhood dreams. But it's never a license for discourtesy and bad manners. From the crowd and the players.

Rohit Brijnath

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