Sporting Life

In a world of cheats, a refusal to blame is a lesson in grace

This is a story of honesty amid the grubby, shabby world of doping. This is a story of a dignified runner who was cheated of a medal but carries no malice. This is the story of 4x400m relay runner Kenneth Khoo and his SEA Games bronze from 2011 which lies in a cabinet in his Singapore living room.

This is also not the story I set out to write.

When the second part of Richard McLaren's report on doping in Russia was recently released, I kept thinking about athletes who suffer because of cheats.

The ones we see in fourth place at an Olympics or even a SEA Games. Bent over, beaten, despairing. The ones who later find out they should have been second or third and receive their medals a year later in a soulless office not a baying stadium. The ones for whom the chance to stand on a podium, feel the warmth of achievement and the worth of sacrifice is gone.

Why do these athletes run? Perhaps for joy, and satisfaction, and to discover their limits but also to win a medal. Winning is proof of effort, it validates a life choice, it comes in a stadium, often in front of their families who've risen every day before dawn to feed them.

Athletes surprise us, not just with dexterity or turn of speed but with character. By chasing dreams but holding onto a sense of perspective, by pursuing medals single-mindedly and yet not going blind to life's bigger picture.

Cheating steals this moment, it hurts sponsorship, it affects selection. Cheating is what happened to Khoo, 34, and he should be angry.

In November 2011, at the SEA Games in Indonesia, his relay team came fourth in the 4x400m but in January 2012 he heard on television that the Malaysian team, who won, were being investigated for a doping violation. Later they would be disqualified; later, no one officially told Khoo he was now a bronze medallist.

Khoo deserved to get his medal in an arena. Instead, four years later, in May 2015, he received it in the Black Box auditorium at the Sports Hub at a briefing session for the athletics teams before that year's SEA Games. Just a trifle more respectable than shot putter Adam Nelson who, wrote The Guardian, received his 2004 Olympic gold medal nine years later in an airport outside a Burger King.

This is what you call second-hand glory. Like winning a used car. So I thought Khoo, captain of the athletics team in 2011 and 2015, would make a perfect story. He'd explain the despair of missing his moment and articulate his rage at a rival's deception.

What I got instead was forgiveness and decency. What he offered was the competitor's honest assessment of himself. What I was reminded of was that athletes are often made of better stuff than we think.

Speaking only for himself, Khoo said of the 2011 race: "We'd all been training hard but I was disappointed because the timing wasn't good. We didn't do well that day. To win a medal with such a performance would have been undeserving."

The best athletes know the worth of their performance. They'd timed 3 min 15 sec in May but 3:18.50 in the SEA Games final in November. On the big day they didn't have their finest day.

Instead of hostility, Khoo teaches us about generosity. He points out that "only one Malaysian runner was guilty. The three other guys had trained hard only to be let down by one guy". He knew these runners, he'd raced them, chatted with them, all fellow members of the same athletic brotherhood. "It must have been painful for them to swallow."

For some athletes any victory will do, for others it has to be earned. The time on the stopwatch - data that is inarguable - told Khoo they weren't fast enough. As he says: "I don't feel cheated. If they took out that one runner and put in another, they would have still won the race. We know when we're beaten."

Athletes surprise us, not just with dexterity or turn of speed but with character. By chasing dreams but holding onto a sense of perspective, by pursuing medals single-mindedly and yet not going blind to life's bigger picture.

Last year after the Rio Olympics, Piotr Malachowski, a Polish discus thrower, auctioned his silver medal to aid a boy with eye cancer. Later he wrote: "For an athlete, to win an Olympic medal is a dream come true... however, fate has given me a chance to increase the value of my silver."

From India, in August last year, arrived another story of a medal. Wrestler, Yogeshwar Dutt, a bronze medallist in London 2012, was awarded silver after second-placed Russian wrestler Besik Kudukhov's sample from 2012 tested positive.

But Kudukhov had died in a car crash in 2013 and Dutt asked authorities to let the Olympic silver medal stay with the Russian's family. As the Indian athlete told ESPN India: "For his mother and father, that medal contains memories of their child and that is all they have left with them today."

Khoo similarly reveals himself as a man who wanted to win a medal but has not lost his empathy. Without even being asked about it, he talks about how the Malaysians - who weren't favourites for the relay - had to leave Indonesia before their medal ceremony the next day because of flights bookings. "I feel for them, they went through a lot."

Khoo never won another SEA Games medal and like any athlete he has the right to whine and lament. But he's offering us another perspective, reminding us that every medal lost and won has its own particular story.

It's a story that doesn't qualify as modern breaking news but grace is always timeless. It's a story worth telling because he is the best antidote to the cheat, not a blot on his sport but an adornment. It's a story that is an education, but then that's almost appropriate. Kenneth Khoo, after all, is by profession a teacher.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2017, with the headline 'In a world of cheats, a refusal to blame is a lesson in grace'. Print Edition | Subscribe