Lionel Messi dipped a shoulder and a defender fell. I watched the GIF 15 times and tried to explain it to a person uninterested in sport. He did not touch him? No. So how did he fall? I showed her the video. Ah, she said. Magic everyone understands.
I found another video of LeBron James holding a ball in one hand, looking west and throwing a pass to the north-east. It’s not just that he knew where his teammate was, it was where his teammate had better bloody be. Intuition has a music to it.
Made me think of hands and of people who hold a basketball in five fingers. And of Rahul Dravid, an academic with an artist’s hands, which he inherited from his painter mother, long fingers, out of proportion to his height, which is probably why he took all those slip catches. But even he can’t outdo Sonny Liston, whom Muhammad Ali beat to win the heavyweight title, who had hands so big that they had to make special gloves for him. I found this fact in an old column by a Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer which had a line that made me chuckle: He talked about fighters who had “lullaby power in either hand".
The things you find in sport. I love that, too.
I think I enjoy sport in ways different from those I ever did even if sport isn’t always what I want it to be now. I grumbled right through the Australian Open men’s final, when songs suffocated the stadium at every changeover. It is as if thinking is forbidden and reflection overrated. In silence lives tension. It’s worth a try.
I think I understand athletes better, which is to say I am convinced they are a separate species. I am researching a piece on injuries for my newspaper and the nonchalance with which athletes discuss blood on oars and WhatsApp me pictures of mangled limbs from practice accidents is astonishing.
They’re driven by voices, urges, needs, ambitions that are fascinating, if not always fathomable. There is something a little sad, and crazy, in Toni Nadal saying of his nephew: “Many times he’s told me that he would have liked to win less in exchange for having less pain." So why does Rafael Nadal still play? Why risk all this for a future life when even walking might be tough? Because athletes live for now, for history, for competition, for camaraderie, for fear of giving up this one grand thing they can do. If we want to know how far their talent will stretch, then imagine their own expectation.
I have greater respect for the struggles of older athletes because I guess I am more acquainted with mortality. Violins age well, not athletic bodies which lose their elastic music. So to watch Tiger Woods just grinding, digging out scores, asking of his 42-year-old body what it’s tired of doing, is to recognize that old couple, pride and devotion.
Everyone wants one last twirl with greatness, and what will Roger Federer do when the cheering stops? The other week, I interviewed a charming athlete, twice Associated Press Athlete of the Year and a golfing legend, Nancy Lopez. She has just had one knee repaired and a second new knee is arriving in December and she told me, “I’d love to play," just get out on tour and test herself against modern players, and it struck me this wasn’t some passing moment of whimsy, this was competitiveness. She is 61 years old.
I like video referees, even football ones, though somehow even the truth of TV will not stop managers from crying “we wuz robbed". I like a behaving Kagiso Rabada in full ferocious flight and a sweaty P.V. Sindhu at work. Often she’ll finish a match with the skin of victory under her nails, yet unable to hold on. If you’ve never been in a losing scrap—with yourself on a road in sneakers, with a rival across a net—you’ve missed something elemental. The investment, and, then, the heartbreak.
Recently, at Indian Wells, this exchange took place between Venus Williams, 37, and a reporter after a tough semi-final loss:
Q: Do the losses hurt as much now as they ever have or more now than ever before?
Williams: You don’t get used to losses, ever.
Q: Nothing’s changed?
Williams: Anyone who gets used to losses should give up on life.
So here’s what Sindhu can do: Just ignore people who say, “Bah, she can’t win close ones," and pour her fury into training.
There are sports books left to read (Only A Game by Robert Daley) and sports to figure (how points work in wrestling) and stadiums to visit (the Nou Camp), so there is no time for sports’ tribe of the ugly: dopers, cheaters, racists, louts. Sport is not a conclave of saints, but saying “f*%$ you"on a field, which we can clearly lip-read, is hardly a sign of toughness.
All of us, officials, fans, writers, need to hold athletes to a better standard of behaviour—and very few did with the Australian cricket team—else we’re all complicit. I read somewhere that the errant Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi cricketers were behaving like “schoolboys", but, in fact, schoolboys only imitate adult heroes and were probably watching. Let’s be clear: There are athletes who talk a great deal about lines and those who quietly don’t cross them.
We all get to choose our own heroes. Mine include LeBron James and a host of American athletes who are aware, political and won’t “shut up and dribble". Quarterback Colin Kaepernick put cause before career and astonished us because sport has mostly abandoned principle. Bravery, we are reminded, is more than a hard tackle. Of course, speaking out is not in the athlete’s job description but we need all types of sporting folk. Those who dip their feet into activism. And those who just quietly dip their shoulders.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.