Sporting Life

Runners' needless feud distracts from real issue of Rio wild card

His headband off, his manners intact, Roger Federer strolls into a BBC studio at Wimbledon and applauds Novak Djokovic's resilience: "He's still so good when he's not so good." That is respect. A few days earlier an exhausted, limp Djokovic is battered by Sam Querrey and yet, when he loses, the Serb gives the American a thumbs up and a pat on the chest. That is courtesy. These men wish to ruin each other's dreams and yet they acknowledge each other's skills. For all their ambition, they still find appreciation. That is just lovely.

I cite these stories because two Singapore athletes, both marathoners, have been carrying out a feud via Facebook. I know both men and like them except that during their long-distance sparring, a few undignified punches have been thrown. That is unworthy.

In short, Soh Rui Yong was not impressed with Singapore Athletics' criteria for the men's wild card to the Rio Olympics. That was fine. He felt that the breaking of national records alone wasn't the best indicator. That opened a useful debate. He believed a gold medal at the SEA Games, and he has one, must have weight. That was his opinion. But he also seemed to insinuate that others were less deserving. That was unnecessary and scornful.

In reaction, Mok Ying Ren challenged Soh's assertions. That was legitimate. He rebuked him for being disrespectful. That was permissible. But he also questioned the circumstances of Soh's personal best in the marathon and questioned the course he ran it on. That was uncalled for. If he viewed Soh as undermining others, then he undermined Soh.

It's clear that Soh and Mok don't particularly like each other. That's no big deal. Marathoners anyway are strange, solitary beasts of unerring single-mindedness. It's also evident that they have differing views on the athletics wild card. That is healthy. Singapore sport needs its athletes to be educated, aware, thoughtful and opinionated. Subservient robots never win anything anyway and furthermore sports officials need to be challenged. That is unarguable.

The incoming athletics regime, for instance, changed the criteria for the wild card with five weeks to go for Rio. Athletes who focused on one criterion for months were now judged by another. That seemed unfair. Yet instead of fighting for a better system, two athletes ended up only fighting. By slighting each other they cheapened a debate.

The incoming athletics regime, for instance, changed the criteria for the wild card with five weeks to go for Rio. Athletes who focused on one criterion for months were now judged by another. That seemed unfair. Yet instead of fighting for a better system, two athletes ended up only fighting. By slighting each other they cheapened a debate. That was nothing but counter-productive.

The wild card eventually went to Timothee Yap yesterday and of course other athletes will feel dejected. Everyone will have their own excellent explanation about why they should have gone to Rio. That is predictable. After all, since when did athletes believe in second best? And yet this ego which propels athletes to finer feats can also lead them into indiscretion.

Soh speaks his mind and sees no value in filters. That can even be refreshing. He more or less suggested that to be unconvinced by his argument is akin to "wasting this opportunity". That is simply called hubris.

What separates the athlete from us, what binds them, where they find solidarity, is in struggle. In early mornings, in pain, in failure, in sacrifice, they find a sweaty union. Yet when one athlete believes his struggle is greater it can seem to diminish his peers. That is never cool.

Athletes will feud and egos will collide and cockiness will flare. That is only human. In the midst of such competitiveness to be a good sport is not easy. That is why we applaud it. We may mock the Olympics in a cynical world, yet among the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, this is written: "Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." That is not a bad thing to aspire for.

We also forget in all the arguing that what we're discussing is only an Olympic wild card. In effect, a gift. That is the real irony. Wild cards, of course, are useful for they are an encouragement to nations and athletes who can't qualify. And yet the only person who is truly deserving, whose place is beyond argument, who speaks with the greatest authority, is always the one who does qualify.

As Pat Summit, the late basketball coach, told an interviewer as she inadvertently captured the soul of competitive sport: "I don't want anyone to give me anything." No, she simply wanted to "earn" it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Runners' needless feud distracts from real issue of Rio wild card'. Print Edition | Subscribe