In Good Conscience

Celebrating the ordinary athlete's spirit

"I don't need to answer that," purred Maria Sharapova on her return to the WTA circuit this week after a 15-month doping ban. "I'm way above that."

Let's leave it there. The fragrant Ms Sharapova has plenty of catching up to do, and no time for Eugenie Bouchard after the Canadian labelled her a "cheater" who should be banned for life.

And Wladimir Klitschko is returning to the ring at age 41 to fight Anthony Joshua for a reported purse of around £20 million (S$36.1 million) plus the 50:50 split in revenue from pay-per-view and fight tickets.

The smartest man in that ring at Wembley Stadium tonight will be a non-combatant.

He's Michael Buffer, a former male model turned boxing announcer. According to box-office prattle, Buffer picks up US$5 million (S$6.9 million) a time for being the big American voice of professional boxing.

Buffer just bellows out the names, and gets the heck outta there. He's 72. Nobody ever laid a glove on this man, whose signature line is "Let's get ready to rumble".

Matthew Rees of the Swansea Harriers (second left) helping the ailing David Wyeth of Chorlton Runners down The Mall to finish the London Marathon last Sunday. “I couldn’t leave him there,” Rees said, although other contestants ran past the stricken man. PHOTO: REUTERS

Nice work if you can get it.

But this isn't about them. It's about the ordinary people who make up the bulk of sports, and who make sense of it.

I'll give you two I admire.

Matthew Rees is the runner who stopped 250m from the end of last Sunday's London Marathon to pick up a fallen athlete he'd never met. He then coaxed, cajoled and practically carried the stricken man across the finish line.

Rees, who works in a bank, was chasing his own best time when he stopped to help David Wyeth.

"I'd had a tough day myself," said Rees, a club runner with the Swansea Harriers from South Wales. "I came round the final corner and I saw his legs give way. I couldn't leave him there.

Unemployed club runner Josh Griffiths outpaced all of the 11 elite British runners - and so the unknown distance runner will now represent Britain at the world championships in August.

"I tried to help him and every time he got up he just fell down again and again. I could see he was really determined, but not very coherent. He was just like 'I have to finish, I have to finish' and I said, 'You will finish, we'll finish together'."

The action, caught on television cameras, went around the world. Two amateur runners out of 38,000 on the course. Men from different parts of Britain, caught in a few moments of time.

The essence of it was captured in an open letter to Rees from the Chorlton Runners club in Manchester.

"We know and love David, who is both a wonderful runner and a supportive member of our community," wrote the chairman.

"Seeing him in distress at such an agonising stage of the race, you displayed the characteristics that any running club in the UK would be immensely proud of.

"One thing the footage shows is from the many runners who could have stopped, it was only you who chose to. For that reason, you have our eternal thanks."

The letter concluded: "We realise that you have in a small way sacrificed your race and as a community we have unanimously decided that this is something we would like to put right."

The Salford runners offered to pay Rees's entry fee for the 2018 race, and his accommodation and first-class rail travel from Swansea to London.

Small world, as this sometimes appears to be, the Swansea Harriers also sprang the major surprise of the day. Josh Griffiths, a 23-year-old unemployed runner who coached himself to his first marathon, came through the field to finish 13th in 2hr 14 min 49sec.

He finished one place behind Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia. More significantly, Griffiths outpaced all of the 11 elite British runners - and so the unknown distance runner will now represent Britain at the world championships in August.

There must be something in the running water in those Welsh valleys.

There also is something unusual, but meritorious, in Zafar Ansari.

He is a 25-year-old cricketer who, just six months ago, made his debut as a Test all-rounder for England against Bangladesh.

Ansari's heritage is Pakistani. His father Khizar Humayun Ansari emigrated from Lahore to London, where he is a distinguished professor of race and ethnic relationships. His mother, Sarah, is English-born and a professor of history, particularly of South Asia.

Their two sons, Akbar, 28, and Zafar, are Cambridge University blues in cricket.

Zafar has just called time on his first-class playing career. He came through the Surrey County Cricket academy and took time out to earn a double first at Cambridge, and then knuckled down to see how far his qualities as a left-hand batsman and spin bowler could take him.

Last October, in the Test series against Bangladesh, his attitude came across as refreshingly unburdened, almost like a classical cricketer in modern time.

Last Wednesday, Ansari declared his cricket career over.

"This has been a very difficult decision," he said. "I started playing for Surrey at eight and the club has been a hugely important part of my life.

"But I have always been clear that when the time was right to move on I would. And that time has come."

The youngest Ansari will now pursue law as a career. He steps away from cricket with the approval of Surrey's director, former Test captain Alec Stewart.

"Zafar was never going to be playing at 30 or 35 just as a county cricketer," said Stewart, who played 133 Tests for England as a wicket-keeper batsman and scored 8,463 runs in the process.

Stewart observed that Zafar came home from the Tests in Bangladesh and threw himself into pre-season training.

"But he just knew something was missing, the hunger and desire," added Stewart. "Because he's such an honest lad, he didn't want to be cheating himself, the team or the club."

Stewart did not ask him to reconsider. It is a happy release, a rounded person who seeks another dimension in life, from his stated admiration of the achievements of the late US political activist Malcolm X.

Sports in perspective; a man who has choices.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Celebrating the ordinary athlete's spirit'. Print Edition | Subscribe