SPORTING LIFE

If you weren't watching Lin Dan, are you a sports fan?

On Sunday, did you see, the 60-shot rally he won, the flick cross-court he made while diving, the electric feet at 32? On Sunday, did you watch the saint of the shuttle, who now owns six All England singles titles, five World Championships, two Olympic golds and makes that Fed fellow seem a trifle overrated?

No?

My nephews, many friends, some colleagues - none watched Lin Dan. Everyone is a card-carrying, argument-wielding, fact-flourishing sports fan. Except right now I am considering stripping them of that status. Doesn't matter if you're not born to a badminton nation or prefer tennis' heftier music, you have to watch Lin. Well, at least once. Think of it like a Picasso exhibition coming to town: You don't ever say no to genius.

There is no accepted definition of the ideal sporting fan, but I might start with the people who show up to watch Stephen Curry do his warm-up. It's like hanging around for a Bruce Springsteen sound check. Or watching a Cirque du Soleil juggler limber up. It's devotion.

I like that. I like fans who are utterly irrational, the secular folk who pray on Saturday nights, the rationalists who are unwilling to change their sitting position if Federer is winning, the meditative folk who find themselves standing in their living room and shouting at their TVs "how the *&^% did he do that".

I like fans who don't just attend matches but go to practice, lean on fences, watch drills and stand outside Court 15 in the sun and follow unknowns. It's one thing to watch the athlete in the stadium when his greatness is already made, it's another to watch him in training as his greatness is slowly made.

I like fans like my colleague, Alvin, who stays up at night to understand unfamiliar sports like kabaddi and curling, trying to find meaning and beauty in unlikely crafts. Another friend can watch tennis, of any level, anywhere, even it's Rybarikova versus Kulichkova, whose names she can pronounce perfectly at 4am with a bad cold.

I like fans who don't just attend matches but go to practice, lean on fences, watch drills and stand outside Court 15 in the sun and follow unknowns. It's one thing to watch the athlete in the stadium when his greatness is already made, it's another to watch him in training as his greatness is slowly made.

I like fans who don't carry meanness, who think Maria Sharapova is a dope but say it without glee, who might loathe a rival team but see no virtue in the unseemly boo, who dislike umpires but don't mime spitting at them because their kids are sitting right next to them.

I like fans who cry during Million Dollar Baby, can recite from Raging Bull and feel confident enough - this is a true story - to give Rahul Dravid a lesson in batsmanship over dinner. It's a balance some get wonderfully right, like being able to tightly embrace a national team while rejecting the easy ugliness of jingoism. At the India-Pakistan cricket match at the World Cup last year, a friend spied a young Pakistani man dressed in his nation's green shirt but with the Indian captain's name, DHONI, written on the back.

I like fans who try and play sport, however badly, just to know the hollowness of exhaustion, the emptiness of defeat and the difficulty of a forehand on the run hitting the line. There's nothing quite like completing a day's viewing of the Masters on TV, driving to the course and imitating the swing of Dustin Johnson. It is a very bad idea but very good fun. It's also when we figure out that getting to greatness is beyond our understanding.

I like fans for whom the front page is the sports page and who believe texting the score of a match to a friend who is waiting to see a recording is sacrilege. There's a fine eccentricity to this clan and here's where I draw the line: If you buy, as a friend did, a replica of a Valentino Rossi helmet, that's kind of cool; if you collect thrown-away tickets from the pavement after great matches, as another friend did, it is officially weird.

I like fans who turn their rooms into shrines and can still stay married, perhaps because they have figured out that naming their daughter after their favourite male player may not entirely be a sound idea. Even Zlatan might agree. I like fans who never want to leave a stadium, juggle statistics like a nerd from Moneyball and can still remember and mimic Marco Tardelli's celebration after his goal in the 1982 World Cup final.

I like my nephews, 25 and 32, sporting and sensible, one of whom told me yesterday that "you should congratulate the winning team's fans at the bar when your team loses" and another who insisted that "a sports fan must never diss the rival of his favourite. For example a Ronaldo fan saying that Messi is rubbish, only has a left foot and has no World Cup. You don't have to fall in love, but show respect".

I like my friend in Singapore, who points to an Indian fan who took a year off with his American wife to do a cricketing pilgrimage and backpack across the world. As my Singapore friend wrote: "As he learnt cricket and she learnt what cricket was, did they put their life aside or did they actually live it?"

I like all these people, so wise and philosophical, but in truth as fans they're hardly perfect.

How could they be if they weren't watching Lin Dan?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'If you weren't watching Lin Dan, are you a sports fan?'. Print Edition | Subscribe