Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sportsmanship is in transition

Matt Goss of Australia (a sprinter with the Orica-Greenedge team) was docked 30 points in the Green Jersey competition of the Tour De France yesterday for "cutting off" Peter Sagan while bolting toward the finish line. What I saw was a brief little shimmy to the left which could have been down to the effort Goss was putting in to accelerate. Peter Sagan saw it as otherwise. So did the referees. As usual this incident sparked off a heated debate in cycling circles on a topic which has become common to sporting circles. Where does sportsmanship end and where do governing bodies interfere?

All sports are governed by sets of rules which take years to frame and always seem to change with the times to adjust to new events. But there is this strange set of "unwritten rules" that always intrigued me. This strange set of ambiguous moral "follow-if-you're-a-good-person" set of rules. Sportsmanship.

Don't get me wrong. I think as a person you should always do the nice thing. Sportsmanship is something I completely believe in. If an opponent on the basketball court should go down with a hurt ankle, I'd like to think, I'd instantly stop play and alert the referee. However, the next person may not believe or do the same thing. There, lies the problem sportsmanship faces today.

Cricket has this whole abstract "Spirit of Cricket" concept that the ICC have tried to promote and enforce. How has that panned out? Not very well. Should a batsman walk? Subjective. Why is it okay for a batsman to stand his ground knowing that he's out but not okay for a fielder to claim a catch he knows pitched in front of him? Why is it okay for players to scream obscenities on the field of play, often visible and audible to the entire world, but not okay for a batsman to hit back a critic with a hand scrawled note saying " Yeah Talk Nah".

Cycling is another sport ridden with a lot of sportsmanship based "unwritten rules". Slowing down if there is a major crash to allow riders back. Not attacking a rider when he has a mechanical problem (Like when Contador attacked Schleck 2 years ago). Fabien Cancellara was met with mixed reactions for this.

Football has seen a drastic increase in diving. FIFA has tried to crack down on it, but to be fair to them, it's a ridiculously hard job with players getting better at it. Play acting is another absurd part of modern football. Flopping has waded it's way deep into the NBA culture. Tennis saw Tomas Berdych refuse to shake Nicolas Almagro's hand after the game because he smacked a ball at his body in the pursuit of a point.

In this increasingly cut throat world of sport, "sportsmanship" is evolving. Every incident involving a "breach of sportsmanship" now leads to a huge debate, where both sides always seem to have valid points. Take Dhoni recalling Ian Bell for example. MSD was well within his rights to run Ian Bell out. But as Sourav Ganguly argued, the precedent set could be damaging for the rest of the series. Valid points, both sides. 

That's what makes this concept of sportsmanship so complex. There are ways to discourage it. Diving footballers could be retrospectively punished. Cricketers could be banned for claiming bump balls. But that just raises the important "where do you draw the line" question. This is why I believe sportsmanship cannot be enforced. It can't be imbibed in professional players and athletes.

If sportsmanship is to survive it has to be part of the culture of athletes growing up. Kids should be told what is right and what is wrong. Unfortunately, there are two problems even with this approach. 

Number one, How would you define “good” and “bad”? Most of our judging of sportsmanship is based purely on gut. Everyone is different in this world. So it's not necessary that everyone feels the same way about every event. 

Number 2, the stakes are getting higher and higher in sport. Manchester United, for example lost out on 17 million Euros simply because they failed to make the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. With such huge stakes, is it fair to expect a high degree of sportsmanship from a player while he's under so much pressure to deliver victory?

I think these two fundamental questions need to be answered if this complex and abstract concept of “sportsmanship” is to survive. One thing, though, is for sure. Sportsmanship is not what it was 20 years ago. And it will not be the same 20 years hence. The World of sport and it's inhabitants are evolving at a rapid rate. It will be interesting to see what becomes of sportsmanship in the process.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The valiant Mr. V - Tommy Voeckler

There are sportsmen who make things look extremely easy - Sachin with a cover drive, Kevin Durant doing his thing or an Alberto Contador gracefully dancing up a uncategorized climb. Then there are sportsmen like Thomas Voeckler.

When Tommy gets up a tough climb, you feel his pain. When he gets out of the saddle to push himself to the limit, your calf muscles start to hurt. When he flashes that victory smile, you feel a sense of relief that his pain is done for the day. And yet, he comes back for more - over, and over, and over.

Last year I watched in near shock as Pierre Rolland pulled Tommy Voeckler up with him on the Col du Galibier, a ride, that ensured that Voeckler retained the yellow jersey. A young Andy Schleck had mounted one of the most memorable and audacious attacks you would ever see from a cyclist. The experienced Aussie, Cadel Evans had delivered a gutsy (and eventually tour-winning)  ride that single-handedly made sure that Andy didn't get too far ahead of the field. Yet despite all this, one memory remains. An exhausted Voeckler with his arm around the young Rolland. The scene was such that it would have been completely understandable if Voeckler fainted immediately after (he didn't).

That in essence sums up Tommy Voeckler. He's not got the most pretty looking stroke on the bicycle. He won't make you go ooh when he gets out of his saddle like the disgraced Alberto Contador might. His "labrador-like" tongue (as @saddleblaze wrote recently) sticking out doesn't go well with the dinner you're eating. He isn't even like Rafael Nadal, whom you look at and know can keep on running forever. Instead, Thomas Voeckler always looks like he's an old auto running on fumes, desperately trying to compete with the BMW that just whizzed by him. Yet, there he is, winning a stage at the Tour De France.

Tommy Voeckler is one of the most popular cyclists around. One of the most popular in France. And it isn't hard to see why. Voeckler is the kind of underdog athlete you always want to see do well. The French of course expect him to do well in his home tour. But that pressure only stacks the odds against him even more. And yet he somehow finds a stage win here and a stint in the Maillot Jaune there. It warms the heart.

In the age of increased professionalism and scientifically designed training methods, athletes and sports-persons of the ilk of Thomas Voeckler who often seem to be portraying a dying duck while they seemingly pull off miracles are a dying species.  It's getting harder and harder to find true underdogs to cheer for. So when you find one, enjoy him.

"Heart" is often spoken about in American sport. The courage and the willingness to fight with everything you have. Nobody signifies that more valiantly than Tommy.