Making waves all over the world

Athletes bring joy by overcoming the odds to triumph through grit and talent, but viewers also enjoy watching the great names being humbled by the underdogs

"Cry 'Havoc'," insisted Mark Antony in the play Julius Caesar, and no one has taken that more seriously in 2016 than athletes. No profession has been so committed to skilful agitations and sweaty unrest as these folk in shorts and swimsuits. They disrupted plans and tactics, shook up reigns and confidence, and turned form upside down. Or as Joseph Schooling did, they disrupted the destiny of the greatest Olympic champion, Michael Phelps, by becoming one themselves. The goldfish had devoured the shark.

In Fortune magazine, CNN, The Telegraph, the Bangkok Post, The New York Times, Time magazine, the same August word appeared in headlines: Singapore. One young man took 50.39 seconds over 100m to make the world look to us.

Singaporeans used to wonder: We can be sporting champions? The world inquisitively asked: Singapore is more than academia? Kindly remove those question marks.

Sport is unique for it is happily devoted to disorder. Look up the many definitions of "disrupt" and they fit perfectly. To play havoc with: As tennis player Angelique Kerber charmingly did in women's tennis with her coup d'Serena. To cause confusion: As the Singapore Table Tennis Association did by dispensing with the services of world No.6 Feng Tianwei. To interfere with: As the Rio crowd did by cruelly booing French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie when he duelled with a Brazilian competitor at the Olympics.

To advance, the athlete must be disruptive, he must interrupt a rival's progress as tennis star Andy Murray did by seizing the No.1 position from Novak Djokovic. By year's end, Djokovic had parted with his coach Boris Becker and was partly advised by a Spaniard named Pepe Imaz, who reportedly dispenses lengthy hugs as part of his teachings. An entire way of learning was being temporarily disrupted.


Sport, like life, embraces contradiction. Athletes relish routine and yet look to create turmoil. Coaches crave discipline and yet seek to cause chaos. They look at footballer Lionel Messi, basketballer Stephen Curry, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton in rival teams and find ways to impede their genius. Push them, mark them, disrupt them.

No one did this more serenely all year than Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, who tastefully disrupted our notion of what the football coach should be. Star coaches looked like they feed on pomposity, but he ordered pizzas; they give us sneers and sarcasm, but he laughed and offered us quotes like "dilly ding, dilly dong". Then he rang everyone's bell in the English Premier League.

Ranieri and Leicester won the Premier League and reminded us of an ancient lesson: We know little about sport. We examine talent, debate it, decide who will win and then teams make a mess of our predictions. This is disruption, too. Like the Cleveland Cavaliers, who trailed the Golden State Warriors 1-3 in the National Basketball Association Finals, a deficit no team had ever overturned, and still triumphed, leading that weighty philosopher, the 110kg LeBron James, to say: "The game always gives back to people that are true to the game."

If domination is the intent of sport, then disrupting it is essential to evening out the balance. We wish to watch greatness achieved and yet also to see the great humbled. So it was joyous to watch rugby's All Blacks win a record 18 straight matches yet wondrous when Ireland beat them to overturn a 111-year losing streak against them.

Everything holy was disrupted here, history, form and the colour of a river. Irish captain Rory Best asked that Chicago - site of his team's famous rugby victory - dye its river green, just like it had been coloured blue when the Chicago Cubs won the baseball World Series after 108 years. Entire centuries of loss and superstition were being overturned here, and what a lovely interruption this was.

But disruption in sport is acutely double-edged: If it is joyous to be the disrupter, then it is heartbreaking to be the disrupted. Wrestler Saori Yoshida lost her bid for a fourth successive Olympic gold and wept for an hour. Jordan Burroughs, trying to defend his 74kg wrestling title from London 2012, also fell, and his words echoed the agony of those whose dreams had been left in a shambles.

"I missed a lot of important milestones in my children's lives to pursue this sport," Burroughs told American newspapers. "I didn't see my son walk for the first time. I've left my wife at home with two kids in Nebraska for long periods of time to go to training camps and tournaments in foreign countries... Now, I feel like I let my family down."

The more we journey through the year, the more we appreciate that sport is essentially anarchic, a turbulent place not just full of contesting talents, but also competing beliefs. Athletes astonished us not merely with singular feats but with the strength of their conviction. Occasionally, they disrupted the very idea of what we think sport is for.

When Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League quarterback, knelt during the US national anthem in protest against the treatment of African Americans, he threw sport into intriguing disarray. Why do we have anthems at events not involving nations? Is protest a part of patriotism? Are sporting fields places to fight injustice in?

Irrespective of your beliefs, Kaepernick made us think. So did a group of athletes who marched into the opening ceremony at the Rio Olympics behind a sign that said Time Olimpico de Refugiados.

These were refugees from various lands who had come together because war had disrupted their worlds. They had left their homelands to escape violence and to chase their dreams, and in doing so had forced us to challenge an ancient assumption.

The Olympics often appear as a grand nationalistic affair, a parade of flags and anthems, but sport does not belong to nations but in fact to every individual. To play, said these brilliant disruptors, did not require a passport or a nation. It was simply their right as humans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'Making waves all over the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe