Sporting Life

Lewis' behaviour lays bare the raw defiance of a beaten champ

Marin Cilic's face is a painting of passing pain. Croatia has lost the Davis Cup final in Zagreb, the Argentinians are celebrating, when the camera finds Cilic in his chair. In the day's first match he was two sets to love up against Juan Martin del Potro and the match slipped away. Now his compatriot has lost, the Cup is gone, and he cannot flee the court, he must sit there almost in public display. There is nothing pretty about heartbreak.

The camera is on Cilic for four seconds but it is enough. If victory is relief, then this defeat is raw hurt, a quick glimpse into the emotional turbulence within the crumpled athlete. But it doesn't last long. As the cameras keep staring, athletes quickly pull on their masks and find refuge in cliches. "I did my best." "My opponent was too good." "I will work on my game." They don't wish to reveal vulnerability nor let you see the depth of their pain. To wear defeat without showing much is performance art.

And so, in some perverse manner, we should thank Lewis Hamilton for Sunday because he let his mask slip a little. He let us see him, his hurt, his desperation, his competitiveness in all its frustrated, uncompromising, prideful, petulant splendour. You don't have to approve of the way he slowed down and you probably wish he had conducted himself better, but there he was. Parting the curtains of a polished, PR world of sport and letting you look at its unmanicured insides.

Some folk will insist the spirit of sport was left with tyre marks on it when Hamilton tried to pressure Rosberg. Yes and no. It wasn't classy but it wasn't new; it was forcefully obvious and yet historically tame. This was tactics but no collisions. There are men, some grey, some dead, who are adored, like Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who banged metal when titles were on the line. As Prost said yesterday: "When you close your visor you are a different man." Ruthless? Mad?

Hamilton comes across as driven, defiant, smart, skilful, brave, disdainful, peevish. He saw the failure of his engines this year as some divine injustice, a plot against the better man. All this frustration must have sat in the car with him on Sunday and played some role in his refusal to obey team instructions.

Hamilton let us see him, his hurt, his desperation, his competitiveness in all its frustrated, uncompromising, prideful, petulant splendour. You don't have to approve of the way he slowed down and you probably wish he had conducted himself better, but there he was. Parting the curtains of a polished, PR world of sport and letting you look at its unmanicured insides.

He told a TV reporter later, "What am I supposed to do, just sit there and let the dude come win the championship," and then added: "I had to try to help myself because no one else was going to help me." Mercedes right then, to him, was not his ally, only his vehicle.

Anyway, this notion of "team orders" in Formula One is silly: You hire a man for his competitive lust and then order him to tone it down? You give him a herd of horses to race and then demand he rein in his instincts? Sebastian Vettel may have described Hamilton's tactics as "dirty tricks" but when he was told not to overtake Mark Webber in Malaysia 2013, he did so and later said: "I don't apologise for winning." There are few obedient sheep or saints in this mechanical paddock.

Later on Sunday, even when Rosberg had made history, it was Hamilton who drew the eye like a winged bird. He congratulated Rosberg once they had exited their cars, but in the waiting room the Englishman could barely bear to look at his team-mate. His body language has few filters and his dejection was like a tangible thing.

When Hamilton posed for a picture with Bernie Ecclestone, Rosberg and Vettel, his team-mate put an arm around him. He did not reciprocate. On the podium he thanked fans, family, team and then he reached his hand across to Rosberg. History will record it, but it will never quite remember the effort it seemed to take.

In Abu Dhabi 2016 there was never going to be a moment like Mexico 1970, when Bobby Moore and Pele were photographed exchanging shirts, one man black, one white, bare-bodied, smiling, touching, separated by a scoreline, united by a love of football. That picture represented sport as balance, winning and respect in easy and natural co-existence, but now that has become the exception. The need to win has beaten down respect and only a fistful of athletes, from rugby players to Nadal-Federer, keep blowing life into its embers.

Yet even as I admire those who wear greatness with style, sport cannot be a field of clones for in its diversity lies its appeal. In the bitter, the conceited, the raging, the sulky, lie sport's fascinating cast. Each one gives us pause. Each one gives us a more nuanced appreciation of sport. Each one makes us choose a favourite.

When a TV reporter asked Hamilton if he felt he had been given equal opportunity and that on this occasion Rosberg, the better man, had won, the Englishman gave us a last honest look at his inelegant self:

"Ummmm, I don't agree with that necessarily," he said.

And he smiled.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Lewis' behaviour lays bare the raw defiance of a beaten champ'. Print Edition | Subscribe