Saturday, February 11, 2012

stories of sportsmanship

well, given the nature of these times, human nature seems to reveal itself in all its glory--or lack thereof. times of stress seem to generate a polarization in character, such that we get to see either the best or the worst of humanity.  it can be by turns inspiring, exhilirating, affirming or disheartening, depressing, and negative.

to help sway the state of things to the former and away from the latter, i figured i'd use the generally increased available time of deep winter to encourage some reflection and contemplation on the better parts of human nature. i figured to do so by identifying instances where humanity managed to achieve a measure of good character despite being in situations we typically consider to be most conducive to the exact opposite.  specifically, i wanted to remind ourselves of the capacity to for sportsmanship, and that even in the context of impassioned hostility that can occur in the fields of intense play, in the arenas of mandatory competition, under situations of supreme duress, at the highest levels of sport we can still exercise the strength of character to manifest the best parts of our humanity. we can and should, in short, be noble.

so to that effect, i'll offer a compilation of what i've written about sportsmanship before:
in addition to these, however, i'd like to offer up these recent pieces from the Guardian UK, which provides some anecdotes of actual situations where individuals were caught up in intense, stressful, difficult, combative environments but still managed to exhibit qualities that can only be described as noble--and they did so without reward or respect, and in some cases utter punishment and contempt.  they're highly recommended, and i hope the Guardian UK continues to provide more (for your convenience, i'll put the full text of the first article at the end of this post):
i'll finish by what i think we need to hear in these kinds of days: just because we live in hard times doesn't mean that have to give in to the emotions of fear, despair, anger, or sorrow; just because we are surrounded by chaos and darkness doesn't mean that we have to become evil; just because all we see is the worst in human nature doesn't mean we have to be the same way. we can be better. we should be better. we have to be better.

it's not just good to be good. it's necessary to be noble. especially if we are to make this world a better place. because the world starts--and ends--with us.

The Joy of Six: Sportsmanship
From the German who settled Jesse Owens's nerves in Berlin to the man who refused to do a Willie Young in an FA Cup final, a celebration of sport's honourable moments
1. Eugenio Monti (1964 Winter Olympic Games)
Who would expect Great Britain to have any sort of tradition in Olympic bobsleigh? Nobody in their right mind, that's who. And yet.
The duo of Tony Nash, a director of a Buckinghamshire engineering concern specialising in making cigarette machines, and Captain the Honourable Thomas Robin Dixon, an Eton-educated officer from the Grenadier Guards, made off with two-man gold at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Nash was a self-taught driver with poor eyesight, while brakeman Dixon only gave bobsleigh a whirl as part of a jolly caper while on service leave in St Moritz. Still, circumstance brought them together, and the pair became the real deal: as well as winning Olympic gold, they won the 1965 world championship in St Moritz, and came third in the worlds in 1963 and 1966. But even great sports stars need a bit of good fortune along the way, and Nash and Dixon owe the highlight of their career to the generosity of spirit of one of bobsleigh's all-time legends: the Italian driver Eugenio Monti.
Monti was without question bobsleigh's top dog, the dominant figure of the 1950s and 1960s. But despite racking up world titles, Olympic gold was eluding him. He had won silver in 1956, then in 1960 the event wasn't held. (Californian hosts Squaw Valley couldn't be bothered to stump up the cash to build a track.) In 1964, he had just turned 36, and time was running out. But desperate times did not lead to desperate measures. After the first run, the British pair led, only to find the bolt attaching the runners to the casing of the sled had sheared off. With no spare, it looked like they would have to default, but Monti whipped the bolt from his own sled, lending it to the gobsmacked Brits, suddenly still in the game.
After three of four runs, Nash and Dixon were in second place, behind Monti's fellow countrymen Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura, and just ahead of Monti and his brakeman Sergio Siorpaes. They made a dreadful final run – so bad that they immediately took leave of the track and sourced a nearby bar in which to drown their sorrows in schnapps – but the track began to cut up and slow down. Zardini and Bonagura dropped back into the silver medal position, and finally Monti and Siorpaes failed to elevate himself above bronze.
As Nash and Dixon raised a few more glasses, Monti was left with quite a consolation prize: he became the first athlete to be awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for Olympic sportsmanship. (He and his mechanics had also assisted a stricken Canadian team in the four-man event. Monti didn't win gold in that, either, naturally.) And proof that the good guys do come first came four years later at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, when despite being thrown from his bob in practice and taken to hospital, Monti got back on the horse and landed golds in the two and four-man events, aged 40.
2. Luz Long (1936 Olympic Games)
The German long jumper Carl Ludwig "Luz" Long would also be awarded a Pierre de Coubertin medal in 1964, albeit posthumously. It is an honour richly deserved; his act of selflessness is perhaps the most famous in sporting history.
On 4 August 1936, at the Berlin Olympiastadion, US athlete Jesse Owens, who had won gold in the 100 metres the day before, broke the Olympic record in the first round of heats for the 200m. Less than 10 minutes after breaking the tape, he was competing in the qualifying round for the long jump. It was his best discipline – he was the world-record holder in the event – but things didn't start well. He had watched Long – whom he had never previously met – take several practice jumps into the sand. So he took one himself. And was immediately told that had been his first attempt to qualify, and he had fouled.
With the heat on, Owens fouled his second jump too, and was a badly timed leap away from crashing out before the tournament proper had even started. At which point Long came over to introduce himself. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed," Long told Owens. The two chatted awhile. Long told Owens to make a mark a few inches behind the takeoff line, as he would easily clear the minimum distance required to make the final even with that self-imposed handicap. A calmer Owens went back, took off a foot and a half behind the line, and scraped into the final by a centimetre. It was a popular leap: according to the Manchester Guardian, the home crowd gave "a great roar of admiration" as Owens made it through.
In the final, Owens broke the Olympic record, then improved it, at 25 feet and 10 inches. Long, beyond all expectation, matched the jump. At which point Owens turned on the full jets, jumping more than 26 feet with his penultimate leap, then nearly hitting 26 and a half with his final effort. Long had no answer, but embraced Owens warmly at the end, while full jets of steam came out of the ears of Adolf Hitler. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens said years later, "and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment." The two never met again; Long was killed fighting for his country in 1943.
3. Jesse Pennington (1912 FA Cup final)
The most cynical moment in English football history? It's hard to come up with a more egregious disgrace than Arsenal defender Willie Young's infamous tripping of 17-year-old West Ham starlet Paul Allen in the dying moments of the 1980 FA Cup final. With three minutes to go, the then youngest player to appear in a Cup final flicked his boot and squirmed brilliantly free of Arsenal's backline, with only Pat Jennings to beat. A fairytale was in the making but, before Allen could reach the penalty area, in lumbered Young to trip him up in the most brazen fashion possible. Young, in Arsenal's yellow away shirt, lay flat on his back across the sun-drenched Wembley turf, a sick throwback to Charlie George's moment of glory nine years earlier.
Young was booked, and should have been sent off; the challenge effectively changed the rules of football, with referees ordered to come down on practitioners of professional fouls like a ton of bricks.
Allen was denied his goal, but West Ham still won the final, so nothing was lost. Apart from Young's reputation, that is; it's pretty much all he's remembered for these days, despite, as David Lacey pointed out in the furious aftermath of his Wembley disgrace, his being "a basically honest player". Few romantics will have much in the way of sympathy.
And the moral of the story can be found in a simple compare and contrast with Jesse Pennington, the long-time left-back of West Bromwich Albion in the immediate periods before and after the first world war. The 1912 FA Cup final between Albion and Barnsley was a dire load of forgettable tosh: 120 minutes of goalless rubbish at Crystal Palace, followed by another 117 goalless minutes in the replay at Bramall Lane. Still, everyone had put a shift in, and nobody wanted to lose. Then Barnsley winger George Utley slid a pass upfield to Harry Tufnell, who broke clear from the halfway line. Pennington famously had the chance to trip the player up – Corinthian values had long gone by the wayside, even in 1912 – but opted instead to do the right thing, admitting defeat in his personal duel and letting the victor race on. Tufnell slipped the ball past the Albion keeper, Hubert Pearson, and into the bottom-left corner of the net, and the cup was Barnsley's.
A year later, Pennington – who blamed himself for Albion's defeat –took centre stage in a betting scandal, agreeing to influence the outcome of a match, but only in order to gather evidence for the police. As the robber bandit was sent down for five months in the jug, thanks largely to Pennington's efforts, another feather was wedged in the full-back's karmic cap. Pennington would not be rewarded with an FA Cup, but he did go on to captain West Brom to their only league title, in 1919-20.
4. Bill Tilden (1927 French Championships)
The legendary US tennis player Big Bill Tilden was unquestionably the star of the 1920s. After reaching the 1918 and 1919 finals of the US National Championships, he won his home title six years on the spin.
He would likely have repeated this record at Wimbledon, too, but, after winning in SW19 in 1920 and 1921, did not bother to cross the Atlantic again, considering the quality of the opposition outside the States second-rate. Which was a fair enough assumption: a Tilden-led US team kept hold of the Davis Cup every year between 1920 and 1926, handing out fearful thrashings to Australasia, Japan, Australia and France during their reign.
But France were on the up, and were about to knock the States off their perch. Thanks to the Four Musketeers – Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon – the French won six Davis Cups in a row between 1927 and 1932. Tilden, his cap doffed, decided it was time to give the French National Championship a shot.
In truth, Tilden was, by now, slightly over the hill at 34 years of age. Nevertheless, he would have won the French title at his very first attempt had he not served up one of the great acts of sportsmanship in the final against Lacoste. The match went to a fifth and final set, though only because Tilden, when leading 2-1 in sets, had agreed to give his opponent 30 minutes to recover from cramp, rather than win by default. The final set was something of a classic, and Tilden served for it, the match, and the championship at 9-8.
Whistling an ace past Lacoste's lugs at match point, the French player made to advance the net and shake the victorious Tilden's hand – but suddenly a late call came from a linesman. The serve was out. The linesman, ironically, was another of the Four Musketeers, Cochet – though there was never any claim by Tilden of duplicity. Tilden would lose another Paris final – to Cochet, of all people – in 1930. He would never win the title, turning professional, though he did pick up a couple of French Pro Championships in the 30s.
5. Jack Nicklaus (1969 Ryder Cup)
It's easy to harp on about slipping standards – mainly because standards are slipping – but let's be honest with ourselves, they were never that high in the first place. Take the Ryder Cup. In 1991 at Kiawah Island, Seve Ballesteros developed an unfortunate tickle in his throat that would regularly force him to splutter during Chip Beck's backswing, while Corey Pavin spent the entire weekend posturing preposterously in a Desert Storm baseball cap. Both acts registered a full 11 on the bigbairnometer, though the needle sheared clean off eight years later, when the USA team went prance-about across José María Olazábal's line, in celebration of a trophy not yet quite won.
And yet there's an argument that suggests the template for this nonsense was set back in 1969, when Great Britain gave their opponents from across the briny a very rare fright during the era of total American dominance. The USA had won all but three stagings of the cup since its inauguration in 1927 – in 1929, 1933 and 1957 – but in 1969 the contest was, for once, predicted to be tight. "To an ever-increasing extent," wrote Pat Ward-Thomas in this paper, "American golfers are ceasing to appear as formidable, legendary figures. Their efficiency is beyond question, but no longer are they invested with magical skills denied to the British … It should be a memorable three days, come what may."
It certainly was. Ahead of what would be a nip-and-tuck battle, the British captain, Eric Brown, set the tone by instructing his players not to look for any opposition balls that might find their way into the rough. In the afternoon fourballs on the second day, Brian Huggett raised Cain after Dave Hill tapped in for a half, accusing the American of putting out of turn. The referee pleaded for reason, but Huggett refused to accept the ruling, and the Americans conceded the hole. Hill's companion Ken Still, "made remarks that the crowd overheard and on the 8th green booing broke out". During the singles on Saturday, Still deliberately stood too close to his opponent Maurice Bembridge while the Brit was putting.
Thank the golfing gods, then, for Jack Nicklaus, who in the final match of the final day made the most famous concession in all sport.
With the scores level at 15½ points each, Nicklaus and the newly crowned Open champion, Tony Jacklin, went down the final hole all square. There would be little drama, until the death: both men reached the green in regulation. Jacklin left himself a two-foot tiddler for par, while Nicklaus knocked in a five-footer for his.
Nicklaus's par meant the USA would escape with at least a draw, and retain the trophy no matter what. But with his captain, Sam Snead, on the sidelines itching for the outright win, Nicklaus picked up Jacklin's marker and conceded the putt. The match was halved – and the 1969 Ryder Cup was drawn. "I don't think you would have missed that, Tony," Nicklaus said, "but I didn't want to give you the chance."
One of the great moments of sportsmanship. Which shines like a beacon to this day, despite – or perhaps because – it was swiftly followed by an irate Snead giving his star man pelters in a full and frank exchange of views.
6. Alf Gover (1945 Victory Test)
The Victory Test series of 1945 between England and Australian Services was always destined to become a feelgood story for the ages, whatever happened. The first match was held 12 days after the unconditional surrender of Germany, and crowds flocked to Lord's partly to witness the first such action in six years, partly to get back into the groove of normal life. The four three-day matches weren't awarded official Test status – the Aussies had to scrape together an inexperienced team, while England were close to full strength – but nobody paid much attention to the bureaucracy. This was a welcome return to the sort of combat that could be enjoyed.
"The MCC hope always to maintain the great tradition of a game which means so much to both England and Australia," the MCC president, Stanley Christopherson, wrote, during an exchange of cablegrams with the Australian prime minister, John Curtin. "We reciprocate warmly your wish that never again will the matches be interrupted." The nice war was back on.
The series would end all square, two "Tests" apiece, but it was apt that the opening match would be the most memorable. On the opening day, in cold weather, England made a first-innings total of 267 in front of a Lord's crowd of 23,000. By stumps, Australia had put on 82 for the loss of two wickets.
Day two, on the Monday, saw Australia take control of the match as, under perfect batting conditions, they rattled up a first-innings total of 455. "England's somewhat elderly team toiled in vain to stop the young Australian airmen and soldiers," the Manchester Guardian reported. "The truth is that England has had no opportunity yet to replace Hedley Verity and Ken Farnes, both killed during the war, or WE Bowes, who only recently returned from a German prison camp."
Australia's big score that day was made by "night-fighter pilot Keith Miller", who notched a 105 "notable for vigorous drives and cuts". The crowd, as nonpartisan as it gets between England and Australia, simply enjoyed the spectacle. "They welcomed the former prisoner of war, Graham Williams, by cheering him all the way to the crease. He too, enjoyed himself … helping himself to eleven fours in his 53."
England ended the day requiring 188 to avoid an innings defeat.
Which they managed, setting Australia a target of 107 to win in their final innings. They had 70 minutes to score them. For a while, it looked as if the Aussie XI would fail to make it; with 20 minutes of play left, they were 65 for three. But England's bowlers began to flag and Australia inched towards their target. Just as the clock was about to strike seven, to end the day's play, Australia were still five runs short. At which point England bowler Alf Gover ordered his team-mates to rush to their positions to ensure their opponents had one last over, and a chance to register a deserved victory. Which they did, Cec Pepper sweeping to leg for two. The previous ball, also hit for two runs by Pepper, was nearly caught, a draw slipping through the Englishman's fingers. But let's not think how close this fairy story came to remaining untold.

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