Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I think we tend to take scandals in sports very seriously than necessary. And probably rightfully so? 

These days, we have the scandal involving Lance Armstrong who admitted to using performance-enhancement drugs while winning the Tour de France cycling race 7 consecutive times between 1999-2005 after being diagnosed with Testicular Cancer in 1996. For years, he perfectly fit that America's favorite mythology of underdog beating the odds and making it big in life. Here was a professional cyclist who beat cancer and it would make a delightful underdog story if he goes on to win the world's most prestigious title in professional cycling.  And he did not once but 7 consecutive times !!! He reaffirmed that belief in American culture that if you just had the will in life and tried hard enough, you can get to the top. When he admitted that he was doping all through those years, he destroyed that "An underdog makes it" narrative much to the chagrin of fans, sponsors and the general public who knew just one famous cyclist in their life - not because they cared about cycling but perhaps because the media told them.

Not just in the world of cycling, everyone takes severe hurt at a high-profile sporting scandal. I witnessed my own heart break when I heard that the South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje was accused in 2000 in a cricket match-fixing scandal. I had been a long admirer of his captaincy plus I liked his bowling action too. From the Indian team, I was sad to see the involvement of Mohd. Azharuddin whose wristy leg-side flicks were always terrific. Of course, Ajay Jadeja was involved in the scandal too but he was an a**-hole anyway. I was only glad to see him get lost from the team. I mean, did he ever play any worthy innings ever ? He would always get out just when we need someone in the middle-order to ramp up the situation. Ah, yes, may be once in that 1996 world cup quarter final match Vs. Pakistan. But, a one-inning cricket career is worse than a one-hit wonder music artist. Good riddance … Ok ...ok … I might still be carrying some of the old anger and disappointment over Jadeja for the useless team-member he was. Anyway, I took the whole scandal quite seriously soon after it broke out. In a strange way, I felt betrayed. How could they lie to me, deceive me ? After all the hours I spent watching them on TV, reading about them in newspapers and magazines and even taking  their side in arguments with friends ?  My view of cricket as a pure, machine-precise meritocratic subculture soon became human-precise meritocratic subculture. It was as if this large white sheet of awesomeness has a black mark on it now or … or this large black sheet of awesomeness has a white stain on it now (I didn't want you think that I am color-prejudiced and prefer any one analogy over the other). Of course, I was upset. After all, I was happily pro-establishment that time: I was a 13 year old admiring the grand pageantry they made out of cricket, sincerely believing that drinking cola drinks was bad-ass, star-stricken over beautiful movie celebs who win Filmfare awards, thinking high of IIT-JEE entrance exams and so on.

Then, growing up happened. The passions in me have long tempered. Sporting results are not everything anymore but still it's hard to prevent the occasional curve of the spine when I hear of a disgraced sportsman who took a game too seriously. It's not at all cool when they do that. Be it in any game, we don't like a diluted sporting contest. Scandals in sports always precipitates disproportionate levels of emotions. Think about it. It's a goddamn game, after all. The net effect of a sporting result, let alone a scandal, to most of our lives is less trivial than, say, the prices of diesel have gone up and you drive a petrol car or the vending machine ran out of potato chips and you hate potato chips. Yet, people act as if the sky just fell on their head alone and not on their sworn enemy.
We want the world of sports to stay untainted.

Such is the extra-ordinary demand for concentration, athleticism and fairness in professional sports. We just can't stand our entertainment value diminished in any way.

But there is a reason why we expect sports' stars playing at the highest level to behave themselves. Firstly, they are physical freaks of nature who won the genetic lottery with their immense athletic gifts. With all that talent comes money, fame and all things mediocre, no-talent pin-headed people like us seem to wish we had so that we could have some more fun. Secondly, competitive sport is as close we can get to witnessing a war between equals. Even then, someone unfair like Sachin Tendulkar, Lionel Messi or Roger Federer comes along but still they are a pure joy to watch especially when you think about how talented the ones who lose to them actually are.

Sports is the best available non-violent metaphor that satiates man's need for primal behavior and hormonal aggression. Besides, where else are you going to see a fairer contest ever in life ? Ever since some Neanderthal bellowed "THAT THING IS MINE. LEAVE IT OR ELSE … " and proceeded to smash the skull of his friend, mankind has been busy rigging all games in life. Notions of property ownership soon defined what status and honor ought to be.
Strong guys, rich guys, smart guys and lucky guys always managed to take turns to gnaw out larger portions of the pie for themselves and still continue to do so. The perfect image for the history of humanity is the following scene from the 1966 movie "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly" where while one goes on yapping and yapping about his plans, the other quietly proceeds to do the needful.

Considering how bad other professions like politics, corporate world or the entertainment industry do, sports remain sacred shrines for impartiality and merit in our culture [1*]. They stand as the last semblance of even-handed contests which as far as possible try to upkeep the "May the best man win" policy. Of course, a tennis game between two crawling toddlers might be considered even-handed but it is a pain to watch unless you are their parents. All I am saying is that there has to be that quality factor when it comes to competition sports as well. I am not saying that the sports' industry is any perfect but, say what you want, it's as close as we can get.  Sporting honors are sole artifacts of a long-surviving meritocratic heritage and it's important that every contest is fought to the best of the true abilities. 

So when a scandal breaks out, I feel it is interpreted as a serious blasphemy and a sacrilegious desecration of our lone-standing cultural symbol for fairness and excellence.  May be, behind all that disgruntlement and disappointment of a scandal stands a fearful apparition in our head, looming tall as a dark silhouette ... a dark silhouette signifying the harsh nature of life itself, lurking around with it's flurry of imperfections, decisively lacking any common standards and bluntly reminding us of the extent of its reach into all of our institutions. No, we mustn't let the attitude from rest of the life pollute the purity of sport. If a politician or a corporation gets involved in some sort of embezzlement, it doesn't surprise us that much as we sort of expect it from their tribe. But, sportspeople are held to a higher ideal than that. Perhaps, by showing serious and immediate outrage, we are trying to protect sporting standards and also subconsciously, looking up at it with a hopeful gaze as a model institution. 


[1*] : Part of the reason for this is, of course,  the narrowness of its context. Any sport requires a ridiculously exquisite amount of a well-defined skill like dribbling or hitting or kicking a ball etc. Professions having that narrowness of context, relatively low stakes, high entry barriers usually tend to be more meritocratic, for example, specialist jobs like surgeons, scientists, music composers, movie directors etc. Of all such fields, sportspeople are a spectacle to watch compared to a scientist in a lab or a surgeon staring down an open gut of a sick man. 


Ramya V said...

The post brought back some Cronje's memories. He was my favorite, and still is. Here -

I watched both the Lance-Oprah videos. Though the guy hardly showed any remorse, I am glad he admitted it finally - It takes lots of guts to come clean.

Sash! said...

well ... that makes 2 of us ... :)

But, I don't give a damn about Lance Armstrong but it's got more to do with me not giving a damn about cycling over all, I guess ... As a general rule, anything i can do wearing a jeans is not a sport ...

Besides, Rip wan winkle and that Ravan's bro hold world records for sleeping ... so ? :)

Twilight Musings said...

I guess I am one of those people for whom "concept of sport" is lost.

Olympians are awesome, and I can cheer for winning team or even give a shout or two to "sid the kid". I sure can appreciate Sachin, or Federer, or Lara or Warne in his hey-day, but the heroism in it is lost on me. I can't get anything great about Beckham (sure it's a cute family).

When my fav cousin was rejected at state level cricket due to politics (read "insufficient bribe or recommendation"), I grew up with no great faith in the rest of the cricket team.

In fact, I think we are lucky that Sachin happened to be from Mumbai. Any other place, his chances of such success would be lower even with his immense talent and dedication.

I don't get the outrage at sporting people anymore. Even regular people are increasingly living on "5-hour energy" drinks. What do you expect from them?

Sash! said...

I grew out of sports either ... but, once in a while, I could sit down and enjoy a game esp. when other friends are involved and the whole group dynamic, rooting for a team Embrace the fleeting duality ("win" or "lose") of the game in such a setting is still great joy ... else, i don't care one way or other about sports that much ...sometimes, i wish i did ... it's a much simpler, conflict-free pastime to have ...

sad to hear that about the cousin ... i know it could get dirty too young, too soon ... shucks !!!

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