A page in a book can stop you. Make you put it down. Make you consider the alternate universe athletes existed in. Winning, for us, signifies trophy, cheque, fame. But once athletes won, they played on, for reasons far more profound. In the 1930s, recounts Marshall Jon Fisher in his exquisite A Terrible Splendor, the beautifully mannered German tennis player Gottfried von Cramm is told by Big Bill Tilden that he is playing too much.
Whereupon he replies:
“You don’t understand. I’m playing for my life. The Nazis know how I feel about them. And they know about me (he was gay). They won’t touch me as long as I’m No. 1 in Germany and winning. But I must win. I can’t lose and I can’t quit.”
Eventually von Cramm was arrested by the Gestapo. But he was scarcely alone in the sweaty struggle against discrimination. Athletes have had to win to make a point, have refused to quit despite humiliation simply to insist they are not lesser than any athlete. Of any sex, colour, nationality.
Triumph of merit: Billie Jean King. Frank Tewkesbury/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Male tennis players mutter even today to me about equal prize money. They are like a whiny refrain of the 1970s chauvinist who told the magnificent Billie Jean King: “No one wants to watch you birds play anyway”. She proved that we do. Women were not frail, but men, who made the rules, insisted they were. Men ran the Olympic marathon since 1896, but women earned this right 88 years later, and when they finally ran in Los Angeles in 1984, spectators wept.
Now the marathon gap between the sexes is just 12 minutes, yet this is a wrestle unfinished. Turn to any sports page and it reveals an inherent bias towards men; turn to Augusta National, which golfers speak of in worship, yet find no need to address the absurdity of a major event at a club which allows no women members.
But the most telling struggle has been about race and we have not learnt enough. Not learnt from Charlie Sifford, whose autobiography was titled Just Let Me Play, and who arrived at a golf course to find faeces in a cup.
Not learnt from Althea Gibson, the tennis player, who changed in her car during tournaments because some dressing rooms barred her. Not learnt from boxer Joe Louis, who was instructed by his handlers never to smile after beating a white boxer and suffered grotesque caricature. Wrote Paul Gallico once: “Louis’ handlers...remind me more of animal trainers than fight managers. They gentle their animal around until feeding time and fighting time and then they turn him loose.”
Not learnt from early Brazilian footballers who whitened their face with powder or tried to flatten their frizzy hair. In Alex Bellos’ Futebol, he says historians suggest the dribble evolved among black players because physical contact with a white player could end badly so guile was the superior option.
Not learnt enough because when caddie Steve Williams, a man without a whiff of sense, uses the phrase “black arsehole” about Tiger Woods, we titter, raise eyebrows, say it’s out of context. He’s not a racist, but it’s a racist slur. It’s almost as if “black”, as a put-down, is just an acceptable prefix, a fallback pejorative. So he’s not fired by golfer Adam Scott, not fined, not banned.
Not learnt enough because Sepp Blatter, boss of the widest game, says football has no racism on the field (in the stands, we can hear it) at a time when John Terry and Luis Suarez are facing precisely those accusations. The Times interviews a semi-pro club and finds two-thirds of the 31 players have heard racist language while playing (it also went from black to white).
The Guardian peels back the years to display football’s uneven response to racism. Patrick Vieira gets called a “f***ing black monkey” in 2000 and the other player gets a two-match ban! Luis Aragonés, the then Spanish coach, refers to Thierry Henry as a “black shit” in 2004 and gets fined £2,000 (approx. Rs1.65 lakh)!
Secondly, Blatter says, settle any racial slur on the field with a handshake. He’s suggesting heat of the moment works as an excuse. He’s saying civility can fly with the whistle, discrimination can follow the tackle. He’s saying there are no boundaries that are uncrossable. He is, in effect, undermining everything every African-American athlete fought for.
Yet, Blatter apologizes and stays. Barring mainly the English media, the response is muted. It’s an unworthy silence, a disturbing quiet. Sport has never quite been the separate planet of nobility we presume it to be. Its belief that here, in the fields of everyman’s dreams, merit takes precedence over all else and harmony reigns, remains somewhat misplaced.
Yes, sport has dismantled barriers, it has lifted the Caucasian Only code that infected golf, it has made pin-ups of African-American athletes (though male athletes, with the odd exception of rugby player Gareth Thomas, are rarely openly gay), it has made for studies in assimilation.
But in the week that Basil D’Oliveira died, a cricketing man who wept at the discrimination he faced, it is a battle not just continuing, but a battle that needs voice. To not speak out in the present is to disrespect the courage of the past. Billie Jean King would title her book on women’s tennis, We Have Come a Long Way. Yes, but not far enough.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org