Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike and coach to Steve Prefontaine (the talented US middle-distance runner of the seventies who died in a car crash at the prime of his career), used to tell his wards at the University of Oregon: "If you can find meaning in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you’ll find meaning in that other absurd pastime called life."
When athletes find meaning in the vocation of their choice, we do so in their pursuits. And as always, in the year gone by, the world of sport held a mirror to that bigger game called life.
Best was a fraying, doubting, balding Pete Sampras winning the US Open, breaking a two-year title drought and answering every critic that had scoffed at his long-held belief that "he still had another Slam in him". It was a mighty climb, a victory for the underdog.
His earlier 13 Slam triumphs were statements of assertion, from one in command of his game, his rivals and the conditions. This one, though, was strung together by a man whose athletic skills were on the wane, his mind assailed by doubt and looking every bit capable of being felled.
Worst was watching Sampras after his second-round loss at Wimbledon -- a place he had lorded over. As he sat hunched on his chair, lifeless, lost in thought, we feared that we had seen the last of, probably, the greatest tennis player ever. And like every person or thing we covet, we were afraid to let go, afraid to imagine a world without this beautiful habit.
Best was watching Michael Jordan prolong his majestic presence on the basketball court, trying to piece together the fragmented Washington Wizards. Although His Airness didn’t dunk the opposition into submission as in his previous two career check-ins, he showed that he could still play some damn good basketball and that he still possessed an athlete’s greatest virtue: the lust to compete.
Worst was enduring Jordan’s single-digit scoring nights, when the hoop seemed like a distant keyhole and defenders made him look like a hapless victim of a daylight robbery. Time waits for no one, not even the best.
Best was watching the Australians play cricket. Test matches or one-dayers, home or away, day one or day three, the Aussies were an aggressive, authoritative, professional, confident, cocky lot. Once in a while, along come athletes and teams that raise the bar to another level. This Australian side is like that. During the year, it furthered its claim to being one of the all-time great dynasties of cricket -- perhaps, all sport.
Worst was seeing the other cricket-playing countries crumble in the face of the Aussie onslaught. Even as the Australian brand of cricket captivated, one couldn’t help lament the absence of comparable, consistent competition. At its very best, sport is a fierce tussle of skill and character, of tact and guile, between two evenly-matched opponents, each believing they are superior. The contests were sometimes close when Australia wasn’t one of the playing sides, but one was sometimes left wishing that the other teams raise their game and level the playing field.
Best was when Indian cricketers picked up their game, stuck it out, and racked up some memorable overseas Test and one-day wins. A revamped one-day side, for once, played like a unit. A judicious mix of youth and experience, they wore their India caps with pride, showed great self-belief and commitment to win, backed each other like rarely seen before, and played roles not in the original script handed out to them with élan. They are still miles away from the summit, but at least they have found the road that leads to it. Now, it’s up to them to walk on it.
Worst was when the words ‘contracts’ and ‘commercials’ became the most popular words in the cricketing lexicon. Money can be a beast. At its worst, it can alter relationships, redefine equations, cloud fairness and deflect purpose. With the money pie growing bigger and bigger, players, sponsors and the establishment went head on, threatening to run out the game of cricket itself.
Best was Brazil winning the soccer World Cup, deservedly, and burying the ghosts of France ’98. One man, in particular, found sweet redemption: Ronaldo. Branded the villain of the piece in 1998, ‘The Phenomenon’ was named the player of the 2002 edition, for his eight goals and powerful presence in the Brazilian forward line. Another enduring memory from that tournament was that of the dummy Ronaldinho sold David Seaman on a free kick from downtown, sinking Seaman and England.
Worst was Rivaldo’s theatrics during a league match against Turkey. As Rivaldo headed to take a corner, a Turkish player booted the ball towards him, hitting him with some force on the lower half of his leg, which is pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for a soccer player. The Brazilian collapsed, clutching his head, as if a bullet had gone through it. So convincing was Rivaldo’s display of pain that the Turkish player was red carded. Rivaldo later admitted his gamesmanship, but didn’t regret it one bit. That’s sport, he shrugged. It was a grim reminder of the times we live in, when the ends justify the means. In the name of professionalism and quest for success, athletes often made a parody of human values.
Best was when Indian athletes made a mark on the Asian and world scene: the bag of medals at the Commonwealth and Asian games, especially the harvest from the track and field; golfer Jyoti Randhawa finishing as the highest money-earner on the Asian tour and Chiranjeev Milkha Singh narrowly missing out on the chance to play in the US PGA Tour (the toughest golfing field in the world); the flowing hockey at the Champions Trophy that won plaudits from the pundits; the pockets of sporting progress and success in shooting, chess, weightlifting and billiards. For a nation that mostly holds it head down on the world sporting scene, these climbs are noteworthy, hopefully stepping stones towards bigger accomplishments and greater sporting acceptance.
Worst was when Indian medal-winning weightlifters and athletes tested positive for drugs at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Athletes and officials made the usual noises, of being framed and of improper testing procedures. Cutting through the babble, the truth was as clear as the Delhi sky on a December morning.
And though some like Sunita Rani were eventually given a clean chit, a sneaking suspicion remained that there was more to it than met the eye. The victory-at-all-costs phenomenon. Really, what’s the <I>real<I> victory: winning with the odds on your side, or winning despite the odds?
Best was watching Mahesh Bhupathi win the US Open men’s doubles title with Max Mirnyi of Belarus, and 16-year-old Sania Mirza wield a racket with an authority and dexterity that promised many bigger things to come.
Worst was seeing another year go by in men’s tennis in India without any answer to that all-important question: after Leander and Mahesh, who?
Best was watching cyclist Lance Armstrong, tennis player Corina Morariu and race car driver Alex Zanardi once more do what they have been doing for a good part of their lives: play sport. Having stared at an opponent called death in the eye and forced it to blink first, they made us sit up and re-look the true meaning of heroism in sport. It’s not just about running like the wind, hitting the ball a country mile, holding aloft trophies... It’s all that, and much, much more.
In the stories of Armstrong, Morariu and Zanardi resonate the life and times of every human being, of battling trials and tribulations, of savouring the highs and enduring the lows, of little victories and big defeats, of hope-filled tomorrows.
They remind us that it’s the effort that matters more than the result. They remind us that the quest for sporting glory is a serious and meaningful pursuit, but it’s still not the be-all-and-end-all of life. They remind us that just being alive, living a life of grace, being able to usher in tomorrow and feel the beauty that surrounds us is a valuable gift.
Happy New Year.