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Michael Phelps. Photo: AP
Michael Phelps. Photo: AP

The boy who refused a penalty

A trip down 2016 in sport, via Muhammad Ali, Angelique Kerber, Chad Le Clos, and more

Small things matter in sport. 

Like the nobody teenager on an unknown football field in an anonymous school game. He falls in the box, the referee awards him a penalty, the teenager gets up and refuses it. 

Isn’t that something?

I’m mining my memory for my favourite sports moment of the year, but is there such a thing? Can we remember in December the emotion of February? If anything, it’s the teenager from April, and his small act of conscience, which lingers longest. 

2017 is already upon us and of 2016 only small shards of clear memory remain. Like Virat Kohli at the crease: Most batsmen have trouble staying in, he seemed unable to get out. Like the Canadian women divers who come fourth in Rio in the synchronized springboard by .87 of a point. No pool’s water can hide tears. But then they come and talk about their art and their errors. 

Small moments hang around longer than most. Like the photograph of Chad Le Clos, mid-race and mid-stroke, looking left, at the next lane, to a man who is clearly ahead of him, on whose cap is written only this: Phelps. Le Clos is wearing goggles, his teeth bared and perhaps he’s thinking: How can you still be fast, you ageing, %$#@* genius? 

Le Clos won gold in 2012 (London Olympics) and none in 2016 and his parents have been ill with cancer but one night in Rio, his Games over, he sits, stoic and charming, talking about his muted performance and says about family and supporters: “When you swim for something greater than yourself, it can help you achieve great things." 

Small gestures sit in the brain for days for no compelling reason. The fleeting sadness of the Rafael Nadal head-shake as he wonders, where have all the forehands gone? The passing grace of two gymnasts in Rio, both from different countries, who reach out suddenly to shake hands as one team finishes with an apparatus and another starts. The single, elegant line uttered by pastor Kevin Cosby at Muhammad Ali’s funeral: “Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud’; Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty.’"

Small pleasures arrive from nowhere. Like the lady and I, who haven’t exchanged a word all night, reaching out our hands to touch and shake in the Maracanã Stadium when Brazil win football gold, just strangers confirming we have been part of the fantastic. Like a fine wrestling book and a handsome wrestling movie in the same year. Like a synchronized diver telling me that if his partner is out of tune, he spins slower in the air to compensate. 

Small pieces of imaginative skill leave you startled. Like Angelique Kerber’s drop shots, two of them, in the same game, to roughly the same spot on the court, both of them iridescent and irretrievable, during her Australian Open final against Serena Williams. Stereotype Germans if you will but Kerber just says, “That’s how I am, a little bit crazy."

But it’s still the teenager whom I keep coming back to. Because his small feat lay in character, not skill. 

There are, through a year and across a planet, brilliant football dribbles created, three-pointers sunk from the halfway line, javelins thrown into space, swimmers who beat the red line to a world record, quicksilver boxers who reset jaws with a hook, but we’re used to all that. We even expect it. Prowess is the purpose of it all, dexterity is the destination. But decency is a surprise. 

Like cricketers shaking the hand of the century-maker on the field and thus separating competition from conflict. We have to be grateful for it because cheating is now grotesque. In September, it was reported that a weightlifter who was ninth in London 2012 would retrospectively get bronze because the first six competitors tested positive. This news broke after the very same weightlifter had been sent home from Rio 2016 for testing positive. 

We have an expectation of professional athletes to honour their sport, to be role models, but this teenager is unknown. Just a schoolboy. His deeds aren’t being recorded on tape and no media posse is scribbling his life story on a daily basis. If he cheats no one will discuss it in forums or condemn it. If he embraces fair play, no one will recommend his name for a celebrated award. He is heroic when no one is looking and that is meaningful. He is simply doing the right thing. Nothing less, nor more. 

Jonathan Chua is the teenager and his school is down 1-2. It’s April, it’s the 78th minute, it’s Singapore, and he falls after being tripped in the penalty area and the referee points to the spot. If he watches football on TV, he knows what he has to do. Just take the penalty. Even if he’s not sure if he was tripped, he should take the penalty. Even if he dived, he should take the penalty. Everyone does it, everyone acts, everyone takes advantage of referee errors. 

The teenager isn’t everyone. 

He gets up and he doesn’t speak to his teammates or ask for permission or reassurance. Honesty isn’t a discussion. Even the rival captain thinks it’s a penalty but the teenager tells the referee no one touched him. He wasn’t felled, he merely fell. The penalty is cancelled and the teenager's team loses the match. 

I go to meet the teenager one evening because in a time of widespread drug-taking in sport, he’s a 17-year-old argument against “winning is everything"; a shrugging, teenage demolisher of the notion that children blindly emulate even the idiocies of their heroes. “Giving up integrity isn’t worth a win," he says.

People might say, “who cares about this unknown teenager", but he cared about sport. And sport doesn’t belong to the professional only, but to the amateur, the weekend batsman, the morning golfer, the 10k race runner, all of us faced with our moral dilemmas (did anyone hear that snick?), all of us entrusted with following rules and keeping alive the fundamental integrity of sport. All of us decide what sport is going to become and all of us add our stitches to this vast fabric. The teenager just left us a lovely thread. 

He played the game the way it should be, inadvertently told his friends what he stands for, made his parents proud and honoured his school. He gave football meaning and he told us what we needed to hear. 

In sport, the small things matter. 

Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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