In Good Conscience

From Ali to Maria to Euros, sport is never trivial

Throughout a momentous, troubling week, it has been impossible to regard sport as a sideshow to life.

Muhammad Ali dead. Maria Sharapova a confirmed drug cheat. Chelsea pay off the doctor abused by Jose Mourinho for doing her job. And from Paris, conquered by Novak Djokovic last Sunday, to Paris, in security lockdown at the Euro 2016 kick-off yesterday.

How to make sense of it all? How to give due weight to any or all of those conflicting events? And where to start?

For me, it wasn't any of the trillions of words written or spoken about Ali. It was a photograph of his face so physically and mentally frail that it hurts to look at it - a snapshot of a man who called himself pretty, and was something of a self-acclaimed poet.

But that haunting photograph, that the family was happy to have published, is of a man riddled with Parkinson's, a brain disease that boxing's apologists insist had nothing to do with being hit around the head.

Ali in his prime made folklore seem dull. America was split between worshipping him and regarding his refusal to go to war in Vietnam as a crime.

France has to repeat this surveillance, whatever the cost, every day and every night for the next month. The slogan "More Than Just A Game" has to be protected, or else we give up the right to games wherever and whenever they are played.

Mingling with the outpouring of grief in Louisville, Kentucky, there may well have been charlatans who helped rob him of a reported US$40 million (S$54 million) of his fortune.

But, this not being the time nor the place for another tirade about boxing, or race, or religion all fused into one, let us just say: Rest in peace, champ. We hope the good gave you more than the bad.

It seems almost indecent to link from Ali to Sharapova.

Well, she is marketed as being "pretty" as well.

The Russian ice queen dressed up in American fragrance from the moment she hit California has played a double game from the start. Yes, she was good. Yes, she could be a sight for sore eyes (if not good for the eardrums).

But one wondered which was worse, her controlling father, her agent, or the doctor who supplied her the dope?

All knew from early in her career that she was using a substance which may or may not have helped her.

Sweet innocence never came into it. Teenagers are dressed up to be poster girls, role models selling anything from footwear and frocks to jewellery, perfume, to sweeties for kids.

So, with the revealing evidence that Sharapova took the banned meldonium six times in seven days at Wimbledon last year, and five times at the Australian Open this year, it is inexplicable that she would ignore crucial updates about the substance being banned.

Sharapova's response to being caught and suspended? To sell and model T-shirts bearing the symbols of the tennis Grand Slams she deems her place of work, with a slogan "Back in Five Minutes".

Maybe not, Maria. Of course, her legal team are working on contesting her two-year ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The risk there is that the court could double the length of the ban.

Her advisers may deem that a risk worth taking. They claim it's worse for her than others because of the huge commercial income that is jeopardised by her taking the same ban as other, less glamorised, promotional icons.

In the same sport, but so much more edifying, Djokovic's first French Open made him only the eighth man in history to have won all four Grand Slam singles titles - a so-called career Grand Slam.

Should he win Wimbledon and the US Open this year, he will join Donald Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (twice in 1962 and 1969) to sweep all four major titles in a calendar year.

I don't think that needs any words of embellishment.

Passing swiftly by the civil court where Dr Eva Carneiro won damages (the sum paid by Chelsea was not disclosed, but many guess that it was £5 million, or S$9.7 million) but did not get her revenge in court because Mourinho escaped having to testify on oath.

He also evaded having to say sorry for the first time in his public life. He's a Manchester United Red Devil now, as the Chelsea Blues are in the past.

Moving on, and moving back to Paris at the end of the week, let us pray that the story from here on is about sport.

A French minister on Friday described this European Championship as the latest in a long line of major sporting events since the 1972 Munich Olympics to require mass planning by police, military and armed forces to safeguard the players and the public.

Munich 1972 was when Palestinian terrorists shot dead 11 Israeli athletes and coaching staff.

While it is true that we lost our innocence that day, and lost the freedom to think of sport as some kind of a haven from society's sometimes murderous intent, the games-must-go-on mentality prevails.

France has to repeat this surveillance, whatever the cost, every day and every night for the next month. The slogan "More Than Just A Game" has to be protected, or else we give up the right to games wherever and whenever they are played.

We lost Ali this week. Sharapova lost her right to play on the courts and in the global hypermarkets where her fame carried a price.

The next time someone suggests that sport is trivial, just tell them of this one week in June 2016.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'From Ali to Maria to Euros, sport is never trivial'. Print Edition | Subscribe