Sporting Life

Winners who weep remind us that sport craves emotion

Zach Johnson tore off his glasses on Sunday, stripped off his cap, peeled away his composure and soon the undisputed world blubbering champion emerged.

"I am at a loss for words," he sniffed and then, for good measure, sniffed some more. He shrugged, his voice cracked, he welled up and then wiped a tear. In between he managed to cough up that he was "grateful", "humbled", "thankful" and "honoured".

Then he sniffed again.

Yes, it was beautiful.

"Thank the Lord," - to use Johnson's words - for sobbing stars and bawling bruisers. If we want sport to move us, then a modern tribe has stood up and howled its way into history and our hearts. "There's no crying in baseball," Tom Hanks' character spat in the film A League Of Their Own to his women players. But that was the 1940s; this is a new century when men do cry. Kindly hold on to your tissues.

Johnson played like a machine in sunglasses and his tears later were essential for they revealed he was only a man. He is, in fact, just like us and yet nothing like us. His emotion was our education for only through it can we comprehend clearly the depth of desire of such men.

Now heavyweight judokas weep like boys whose ice-cream cones have collapsed and cyclists, who wear pain like a second skin, step onto podiums and turn into magnificent mush.

Last week Andy Murray, tennis' Crying Czar - a title once held by Roger Federer - had a little blubber and presumably felt a bit better. After three consecutive wins in three days, in the raw fisticuffs of the Davis Cup, he'd visited the boundaries of his own resilience and was shattered. As he said: "It feels unbelievable to get through. I used up my last ounces of energy."

For days, as with Johnson, athletes will zip up emotions and corral their feelings and try to ward off tension by focusing on "routine" and "process". But mistakes will wound, rivals will surge, cameras will watch, concentration will flirt. You will play brilliantly but then sport will only ask for more.

After 72 holes, Johnson got no prize but only a play-off, pleading with himself for one last brilliant putt, then another, and when they came, and he won, he just had to unfasten his emotion and let go.

If you weren't moved, you might miraculously own a wooden heart.

His tears were a moment of sweetness and significance, not choreographed like a footballer's celebration after a goal, not cheaply designed like a steroid user's fake sobs at a press conference. Johnson looked stunned and exhausted, overwhelmed by his own accomplishment and so grateful to be able to play this game.

He played like a machine in sunglasses and his tears later were essential for they revealed he was only a man. He is, in fact, just like us and yet nothing like us. His emotion was our education for only through it can we comprehend clearly the depth of desire of such men.

Most of the world outside Iowa wasn't praying "Go Zach" and most of Britain wasn't buying tickets to see him. He would not take umbrage at this for he isn't - by his own admission - "the most charismatic, emotional, fun-packed individual". He doesn't hit big or talk loud, dress stylishly or swing gracefully.

He wasn't Dustin Johnson chasing a redemption tale, Jordan Spieth hunting down history or even Tiger in tatters.

But maybe that's why we should cheer for him. Because even as he isn't an underdog, a nobody, a long shot, he isn't a celebrity, a sensation, a prodigy - and sport has to be more than just that. He's just talented and precise, a father of three who prays hard, a quiet-living man who calls his wife "the CEO" of his team, a blue-collar golfer who produced a brilliant heist at the most upper-crust venue in his sport.

One Major - he won the Masters in 2007 - is worthy, but a second one is validation, it is proof the first was no fluke, it is proof of never stopping wanting, it is proof of honesty to craft week after week.

It hardly sounds like a dazzling tale yet it is the labour of such ordinary men, in search of their extraordinariness, which makes sport enduringly enchanting. A kid may not pin Johnson's picture on his wall yet in the golfer's commitment lies his valour and in his tears his humanity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline 'Winners who weep remind us that sport craves emotion'. Print Edition | Subscribe