Sporting Life

Sporting Life: Sport needs the compassionate athlete, not the callous one

There are only two athletes whom I truly consider friends. Both champions, both retired, both low-key, both curious. One goes to museums, the other to the theatre. Each of them can discuss sport and also history, religion, privilege and politics.

Sport needs people like them.

Sport needs finely coordinated conquerors and also the informed and the compassionate. Sport needs sweaty heroes but also equal-pay battlers, colour-barrier breakers and coaches who teach lessons about life outside the lines.

Sport needs socially conscious athletes such as Billie Jean King, who fought for women's tennis for more decades than perhaps you've been around. Once, in the 1970s, women players had to string up bare bulbs on their court to get more light. Illumination took time for only 30-plus years later, in 2007, did Wimbledon offer them equal prize money.

Sport needs philosophers, activists and Johann Olav Koss, the Olympic speed-skating champion whose organisation Right To Play uses sport to educate and empower children. Sport needs not just silent concentration on a field but expressive athletes off it. Sexism, for instance, still flourishes in sport, which is why we need the moral muscle of Andy Murray.

In a piece for the BBC, he wrote that "working with (former coach) Amelie (Mauresmo) was, for me, because she was the right person for the job, and not a question of her sex at all. However, it became clear to me that she wasn't always treated the same as men in similar jobs, and so I felt I had to speak out about that."

Sport needs the unafraid, not just the unshakeable athlete with a match on the line but the unwavering one with a principle at stake. Tennis great Arthur Ashe was arrested for protesting against apartheid in 1985 and Martina Navratilova lost millions in sponsorship because of her support for gay rights. Undeterred, she said: "I think athletes have a duty to speak out when there is something that's not right." Even if it's drug cheats, diving in football or boorish behaviour.

Sport needs difference, it needs people of conviction, else we will be stuck with athletes who are bland, banal constructions built by PR companies, who skirt controversy and tiptoe past disputes in case it happens to offend a sponsor.

Sport needs the athlete with tunnel vision, focused on victory, and yet also the one who sees the bigger picture, who is defiant yet peaceful, like footballer Sulley Muntari, who responded to racist abuse and an indifferent referee by walking off a field during a match.

Like the kneeling players during the anthem in the US National Football League, you might say that this was not the time for a walk-out, that there are different avenues of protest, that you shouldn't disrespect a game, that this is best left to the concerned authorities. But it's 2017 and perhaps Muntari was saying "enough", that indignity has its limits, that in a very civil manner - like the kneelers - a serious conversation needs to begin.

Sport needs voices and not every athlete, understandably, is comfortable with a microphone. Some players are only concerned with pursuing perfection, which is acceptable, but some also need to be heard. For they tell us, as the Refugee Olympic Team did in Rio last year, about tears, separation, loss, no shoes, inadequate food, tragedy, and remind us how privileged we are.

Sport needs difference, it needs people of conviction, else we will be stuck with athletes who are bland, banal constructions built by PR companies, who skirt controversy and tiptoe past disputes in case it happens to offend a sponsor. In his superb 2012 Sports Illustrated story, Why Don't More Athletes Take A Stand?, Gary Smith quotes John Carlos, whose black-gloved fist from the 1968 Olympics is unforgettable, as saying: "They've put the dollar bill in front of the human race. That's why they stopped standing up."

Sport needs its practitioners to be given respect, for in the past week I have heard US athletes speak with authority, nuance and passion. And so for people to tell athletes to stick to what they know best, i.e. sport, is not merely patronising but suggests they are lesser citizens whose opinion is somehow less valid.

Sport needs athletes of conscience for they - who are revered and perceived as role models - have a unique pulpit, which allows them not just to connect and influence a wide, border-less audience but also to speak for the less privileged and the unheard. LeBron James, for instance, who sees a world beyond the hoop, is harnessing his celebrity to make a difference.

Racism is being confronted and debated in America and that is a fine thing. Athletes, from various sports, are standing up and standing by each other and it is a wondrous thing. Their beliefs have brought censure and many are being vilified and it must remind Carlos of 1968 when he received a letter after his Olympic protest saying his father would be chopped into pieces.

We often view the athlete as a shallow, self-serving, entitled god and so there is something profound and human when this egotistical hero bends himself before an ideal. His devotion is now to more than just himself. It's enough, you think, to make the ghost of Muhammad Ali grin in pride.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Sport needs the compassionate athlete, not the callous one'. Print Edition | Subscribe