There is a swollen, primitive appeal to the sound of glove on naked flesh. You flinch, then you look again. You don’t want blood, yet you do. It’s insanity, it’s human. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote: “Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.”
I prefer the art of sport, but there’s no turning away from its brutality.
In risk, we examine character; in wearing pain, we see a higher accomplishment; in danger, we find sports’ masculinity; in collisions, we discover thrill. If athletes can be loco, we’ve got a little crazy in us too; if they’re the gladiators, then we’re the Roman crowd.
Death, as a consequence, as fluke occurrence, inevitably stalks sport. Scan the Internet and you’ll find it on motorcycle tracks and boxing rings. We care, yes. But we also shrug, we see it as tragic but as an accepted risk, part of the sporting calculation. But what unsettles us more is the athlete who dies abruptly on the field, absent of collision, not visited by evident violence, just keels over as footballer D. Venkatesh did in Bangalore. This sort of casualty we are not ready for, this is like a disturbance to the very order of the sporting universe. We’re taken aback because on matters of the athletic heart, our conversations are only symbolic.
Close call: Fabrice Muamba of Bolton suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup football match on 17 March. He is still undergoing treatment. Photo: Olly Greenwood/AFP
When athletes triumph, they point not to the mind where it is fashioned, but to the chest. Novak Djokovic even beats his. When the heart fails it is a figurative criticism: as if a fellow lacks this organ required for a scrap. But literally we never expect its failure, as if there is an obscenity to young people, in full stride, falling inert on a field. Still, we know, it happens, and death by heart attack is no foreign cause in sport. Shortly after Venkatesh, the Italian volleyballer Vigor Bovolenta cried, “Please help me, I’m falling” and died on court.
But what we’re bound to do surely, both for athletes caught in violent sports and those who push their hearts too far, is to safeguard them the best we can. Some of it already exists. Race cars are safer. Support teams are bigger. A spokesman for the Australian Olympic Committee told me they will take 26 medical personnel to the Olympics and some sports might bring their own. More persuasive health screenings are done in some nations.
Rules, like the Australian Open’s Extreme Heat Policy, are instituted to protect players. Debates on concussion in impact sports continue to amplify. Even in boxing, one of the ancient arguments not to ban it, is that since there exists such a powerful human appetite for the sport, it will continue regardless, except this time underground. And thus without any of the reasonable medical facilities which exist.
But evidently, in India, such facilities are still insufficient. And it is unforgivable. If young men, and women, are going to make this deal with us, to push the envelope, to test themselves physically for our entertainment—and yes, their gratification—then we have a duty to protect them. To provide, within financial limitations, the safest environment possible while at work. With Venkatesh, we didn’t. We let him down. The picture of him being carried to an auto-rickshaw, like some limp body dragged by strangers in a sudden natural disaster, is staggering for this is organized sport. The football field is about play but a man does not expect he is doing so with his life.
The tragedy is not just that Venkatesh died—this, alas, happens—but that we’ll never know if he could have been saved. Because there was no one reportedly there with the expertise to do so. How do you explain this to his father?
*Sorry, sir, no doctor. Sorry, sir, no ambulance. Sorry, sir, we never thought it might happen. Sorry, sir, now take his body.*
There is something about the Indian athlete’s anonymous, undervalued citizenry that can be moving and appalling all at once. He makes a small, unheralded living—Venkatesh apparently made Rs 100 a match—is perhaps employed by a company for which he competes, is heroic only among his neighbours, craves a Manchester United shirt, treats his boots like holy objects, and gives on the field that little bit which is everything he’s got. It’s rather beautiful.
What isn’t is that he, largely, remains the prisoner of an inept, lazy officialdom. Even in his unglamorous arena, he has to believe that he has some worth, that his hectic, passionate existence is meaningful enough to warrant some kind of care should he fall. That the association whose rules he follows will not as a rule abandon him. Surely this is non-negotiable. This isn’t about a coach who’s untrained in teaching penalty kicks; this is life itself.
An English friend discovered for me that in his nation’s fifth division there is a nurse, club doctor and an ambulance out the back. In the sixth division, a club press officer wrote to him: “We do not have to have an ambulance on site unless the attendance exceeds 5,000. As a ‘designated’ stadium, we still have two doctors at each match (crowd and team) plus a four-strong first-aid team and a paramedic. They are all highly trained.” In even lesser Indian leagues, a doctor, an up-to-date first-aid kit and workable stretchers do not seem too much to ask. If a sports culture is to be had, this is how you build it. Professionally. Dutifully.
In six months, Venkatesh will be the what’s-his-name Bangalore footballer who died. In a year he’ll be forgotten. He isn’t important to us, is he?
Not a famous player, not a face we know. Just a man earning a quiet wage and living a small dream. Life anyway in India, on street and field, has an unbearable cheapness to it. But we shouldn’t forget. We must track matches, check if care improves, demand a better standard. Insist on it. We couldn’t save Venkatesh. But we can save the next man or woman. That truly would be the heroic in sport.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns