In Good Conscience

Williams a hero while football, athletics get black eye


A week has passed since the wonderful moment when New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams gave away his Rugby World Cup winners' medal to a small boy in the stadium.

We should hold on to that spontaneous act of human kindness towards a stranger with every ounce of innocence we possess.

We need it now more than ever because sports are going through the darkest age of our lives.

Just hours after the rugby, Franz Beckenbauer was added to the list of football people sucked into the seemingly never-ending mire of Fifa corruption. The Frankfurt headquarters of the German football federation, the world champions, was raided by the tax and fraud squad authorities chasing the trail of alleged bribe money.

And the day after that, French police entered the Monte Carlo offices of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The accusations there are worse, if that were possible, than the daily drip-feed of bribery stories seeping out of Fifa's House of No Shame.

Lamine Diack, the Senegalese who headed world athletics for 16 years up to August, is accused, along with his legal adviser and the IAAF's medical director, of covering up systematic doping by Russian and other medallists (and in Diack's case, of receiving US$1 million - S$1.4 million - to do so).

He told the kid to keep it (the medal), and told the media afterwards that this was OK, because Williams had something more precious, the pleasure of sharing with his mates the knowledge of being a member of the All Blacks who retained the world title.

Guilty unless proven innocent? Surely not.

But I am with Daley Thompson, who twice won the Olympic decathlon gold medal, on this.

He said on radio this week that if the charges against Diack and the IAAF stick, they're worse than the Lance Armstrong crimes against sport, worse than anything under Sepp Blatter's messy football administration.

"When somebody is in charge of the sport and is protecting and profiteering from cheating," Thompson added, "I don't think it could be any lower.

"He has undermined the very premise that sport is built on, and that is a level playing field. All those people out there who have lost medals and funding and just pure enjoyment - and all the spectators that have been fooled."

If it is true, Thompson concluded, he hopes there are jail sentences.

Amen to that.

There are plenty of names out there of allegedly bogus world and Olympic champions. There is a mountain of suspicious evidence unearthed by, among others, the German ARD TV station.

Russians, Turks, Kenyans who whisper it quietly because America likes to be the prosecutor and not the accused, are among the athletes named in the blood doping and other cover-ups.

Sebastian Coe, the runner who took over the chair of the IAAF this summer, has nowhere to hide.

Thompson is a friend of his. Doping, Coe has often said, is the worst enemy to credibility that his sport has.

But he must have known this was coming. It has been out there for years, more even than the 16 years of the Diack administration. It never gets any better because nothing gets done at the top to condemn it or scrub it out.

Knowing, surely, what the accusers say, Coe nevertheless attacked the critics when he took over. He called the leaks of IAAF blood data files "a declaration of war" on his sport.

And he called Diack "our spiritual leader" who he said had provided him with "the perfect apprenticeship".

Leaving it there, before I write something that would infringe libel laws, let us move on. Or move back to last Saturday night at Twickenham.

Whether or not you saw the match, you will surely, unless you live in an Internet-free bubble, have seen the sunny side of Williams. He is what he has to be to survive in world-class rugby, a huge man of brute strength.

He stands 1.94m, he weighs in at around 108 kg and, apart from playing both codes of rugby, was once a heavyweight boxer.

As the All Blacks were on their lap of honour after the final, this boy ran from the stands towards the players. A security guard chased and rugby-tackled him to the ground. Williams intervened.

He picked up the child, who looked to him about eight years of age, but turned out to be 14.

"The lad snuck onto the field and got smoked by the guard who was a full-grown man," Williams later explained. "He could have broken the kid's ribs."

The security guard backed away while the boy hugged his hero. Williams then led him, arm in arm, to his parents in the stands and impulsively took the medal from around his neck and put it around the boy's neck.

For a wefie? More than that. He told the kid to keep it, and told the media afterwards that this was OK, because Williams had something more precious, the pleasure of sharing with his mates the knowledge of being a member of the All Blacks who retained the world title.

He couldn't have known, then, that the Rugby World Cup committee would hand him a replacement at the awards ceremony the following night in London. Nor could the boy, who travelled to the New Zealand team's hotel to offer to give back the medal and, for a second time, was told the gift was for real.

What a story. What pleasure it gives us all. What a contrast to the horrors engulfing football and athletics from the top down.

The precedent set by Williams might give all sports a headache down the line because the security guard, while a little zealous, was only doing his job.

The next fan who approaches players on the pitch might not be as innocent as he or she looks, or as diminutive as the lad now wearing Williams' medal.

Right now, I turn a blind eye to that risk. With the finger of suspicion pointing directly at Beckenbauer and Michel Platini - of whom I have such cherished memories - we all need some innocence in our sporting lives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'Williams a hero while football, athletics get black eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe