Sporting Life

When officials squabble, athletes often pay the price

In his book Legacy, James Kerr, who spent five weeks with rugby's All Blacks, describes a routine - well known now but worth repeating - that the team follows. After a match, in this case a victory over the Welsh in 2010, the team leaves but two senior players stay behind. They each pick up a broom and clean the room of dirt and bandages:

Writes Kerr:

"Sweeping the sheds.

Doing it properly.

So no one else has to.

Because no one looks after the All Blacks.

The All Blacks look after themselves."

It's a brilliant story because it tells us so much. Men tired, but finishing a job. Men senior, but sharing the load. Men who are stars, but taking responsibility. Here is discipline, but most of all respect. For their team and for their game.

Respect is being professional. It is not showering the referee with spittle. It is arriving for practice on time every day. It is acknowledging your rival when beaten. And it is sporting officials appreciating that, though they're older, they are here in the service of younger people.

Respect is being professional. It is not showering the referee with spittle. It is arriving for practice on time every day. It is acknowledging your rival when beaten. And it is sporting officials appreciating that, though they're older, they are here in the service of younger people.

But officials - some of them - forget. And every time a sports association here hits the news for a messy election, or sacking a star player, or for a WhatsApp message that suggests antagonism between officials, there is a hint of disrespect in the air. Because grown-ups are putting their interests first.

So let's just send a small but very respectful message to officials. Not the ones who are diligent and innovative. But the other ones, the squabbling, politicking ones.

First, let's be clear: The only power athletes are interested in concerns their legs and core. The only position of influence they seek is high on a podium. The only politician they're happy to deal with is the one who hangs medals around their necks. It might be good for officials to remember that.

Second, when you, the officials, bicker, athletes get embarrassed. It's akin to working for a questionable organisation and constantly being asked about it. After a while athletes might think: what am I doing here? Maybe mum was right, a law degree was better.

Third, when there is unseemly finger-pointing by officials, athletes often get distracted. Instead of talking performance, they're sidetracked by politics. Instead of focusing on technique, they're afflicted with tension. When it's before a major Games, it's simply lousy and inconsiderate timing.

And when athletes arrive at a Games, this is what could happen. As Kenneth Khoo, the former 400m runner, says: "You walk into the dining hall and all the other athletes want to know what's going on in your sport and you become self-conscious. So you don't want to hang out in the common area." So now the athlete's mind is somewhere else and it's "damaging".

Fourth, when you, the association, are divided by discord, do you not see an irony in later teaching young athletes about teamwork? You know that all-for-one stuff? Because what position of authority exactly are you lecturing from?

Fifth, it's best for officials to always remember that trying to win is a neurotic business. For the one minute of a race, in water or on land, the athlete needs to bring everything he has learnt to the starting blocks. He needs to be almost perfect because this moment can't be rewound, can't be replayed, can't be restarted.

Imagine that pressure.

So on this journey to the starting blocks, the athlete requires a clarity which gives him stability: Who is his coach, where will he train, what is his travel schedule, how much time does he have before events, what is the selection procedure? Because if he doesn't know this, if he isn't sure, if he finds the selection criteria constantly changing or doesn't have enough time to shrug off jet lag, he feels pressure. Unnecessary pressure. Which makes it even more difficult to be almost perfect.

Sixth, if you're an official, consider yourself lucky. Because this is Asia where silence and deference is still the culture and athletes are reluctant to speak out. As one told me last week, "Keep quiet and you will be okay". But that's not always going to be the case. Nor should it be.

We know Singapore has some strong, ambitious associations which have a professional shine. We know many officials are volunteers and thank you for that, but as Khoo says: "Some say they have nothing to gain, but their actions don't always reflect that."

We know officials are passionate and competitive, and that's fine, but the only winning that's truly relevant involves athletes not them. For small nations to make a major impact, this humility is as essential as harmony. It's why instead of promises and pledges, officials should quietly clean house. Show athletes some respect, fellows. Pick up a broom.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'When officials squabble, athletes often pay the price'. Print Edition | Subscribe