Sporting Life

Amateurs who strive for simple prizes help keep sport alight

As the year ends, a short memo to professional athletes: Sport is not only about you. Of course you strut on our TVs and smirk in our newspapers and grin while holding trophies designed by architecture-school failures. But you don't make sport tick. We do.

Yup, us. The no-knee-bend tennis servers and wonky-swing golfers, the big-splashing, barely-moving swimmers and the flat-footed runners. The amateurs.

Who mostly win nothing but a sliver of self-respect. Who don't fight Novak Djokovic but age and incompetence - and try beating that. Who haven't hit a purely-timed, perfectly-sounding golf chip or football kick for weeks but we've done it once and we know it'll come again some day. When it comes to love of the game, professionals don't have a chance against us.

Amateurs fill stadiums, buy Rafa's racket and ensure the sports pages endure. Without us there would be no professional for he comes from within us. Amateurs come in various shapes and are of various levels. The weight loser, the gadget lover, the data keeper, the ugly-running novice, the weekend hack who hydrates with beer, the intense competitor. Some chase wins, many pursue something purer than first place, which is victory over the self.

The professional and amateur use the same equipment but play different sports. Drives of 350 yards we don't understand. Hitting the baseline thrice in a rally we find vulgar. They chase elite trophies, our prizes are simpler.

On Sunday night, I e-mailed a host of amateurs to ask what they wished for in the new year as athletes. Their answers are intriguing.

A close friend, a Singapore bureaucrat, 52, who compensates for pain in the knee only to find his calf hurts and then compensates for that only to discover his heel aches, just wants this for 2016. Time and distance are irrelevant. "I just want to run pain-free."

Another friend, an Indian sportswriter, is more complicated: She runs but wants to improve her swimming. It is a minor issue that she cannot dive and insists a 50m pool feels to her like "the freakin' Pacific". So of course she wishes "to be able to dive properly like proper swimmers and produce a 50m butterfly lap with ease". Think of her as a pretend Phelps. This is the beauty of amateurs: They refuse to think small.

My nephew, 32, in Dubai, whose high church is the gym, sends me a list of commandments for 2016. First: "Not being scared of tipping over so I can hold the perfect handstand." Second: "Break four minutes per kilometre." Out of respect for his uncle, he did not list the number of kilometres to be run. Thank you.

My nephew adores Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian galloper, and all amateurs need professionals, not merely for entertainment but inspiration. We can't be them, but we wish to imitate a part of them. To understand we will never be great but to have a great moment and build a memory for the self and to tell others. Amateurs, please understand, are professional braggers.

We are also perpetually fearful. In golf, most high-handicap amateurs view greenside bunkers as a version of Alcatraz - to escape unscathed is to be lucky. As a colleague wrote, "almost every time you see a pro play that shot on TV, the ball comes out of the sand high and soft, takes the contours of the green and seems to roll straight towards the hole. Sometimes it even goes in". He would like to do this in 2016. Just, for once, hole the *&^%$ thing.

Amateurs have thicker skins than you might imagine. Professionals will hold trophies, cry and swear "dreams come true". Lucky them. For no one dreams like amateurs even if so little comes true. Yet we never cry, only swear and persist.

A middle-aged off-spinner on our sports desk, who plays on astroturf wickets where the ball turns with infinite reluctance, wishes for figures of "six overs, 15 runs, five wickets". Every Sunday he bowls with a prayer. A sports entrepreneur wishes for a first century for his club because it's the only one he's played league cricket for and not scored a ton for. "Uff," he sighs, "it's ego masquerading as pride and ambition." We understand.

The professional and amateur use the same equipment but play different sports. Drives of 350 yards we don't understand. Hitting the baseline thrice in a rally we find vulgar. They chase elite trophies, our prizes are simpler.

Says an HR executive: "I just want to improve my serve and volley." It is an act that is classic, assertive, complex, which John McEnroe turned into ballet but most of us are inelegantly inefficient at. The amateur confesses "it doesn't come naturally to me" and yet he adds, "I want to make the unnatural natural through determination."

And so we try and fail and try, hunting for something not always clear to us. Perhaps as much as health and competition, we strive for a moment, pushing our rusty, aching amateur selves as we search for one glorious fling with our own perfection.

Sport is what the professional breathes, yet for many amateurs it keeps us alive. Or at least that is what a Singapore doctor is hoping for. Next year in June he runs a marathon in Entabeni Game Reserve in South Africa, where no fence will protect him from lions, giraffes, elephants and antelope. Excellent pacers to run with, one might think, though his wish for 2016 is rather prosaic:

"I hope I don't end up as their dinner."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'Amateurs who strive for simple prizes help keep sport alight'. Print Edition | Subscribe