THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Maybe my favourite sports story of the year occurred last month at a triathalon in Santander. A British runner, James Teagle, was in third place, about 50m in front of the fourth-place runner, Diego Mentrida from Spain. But as he entered the stadium for the finish, Teagle instinctively turned to his right to take the final lap, and ran straight into a barrier. By the time he’d turned around and entered the finish chute, Mentrida had passed him, and the two began a sprint.
Until Mentrida held up, and allowed Teagle to pass him at the finish.
“When I saw James had missed the route, I just stopped,” Mentrida explained. “He deserved the medal”.
This moment of sportsmanship deservedly went viral. Much was made of it, because, when it comes to morality, we tend to amplify sports as if they were exemplars of human behaviour. But we use them as paradigms in part because the stakes in sport are relatively low; they are games, not life. Consider how badly “gamesmanship” transfers itself to real life. The term implies a subtle bending, rather than outright breaking, of the rules, but if we are measuring morality in sport we must surely realise that morality is judged by intent. The British used to say “it’s not cricket” for things that might not break the letter of the “laws” of the game (as they are called in cricket) but violated its spirit; nowadays the saying has lost much of its effect.
In 1925, in the first round of the US Open in Worcester Massachusetts, Bobby Jones was setting up for a shot in the rough on the 11th hole, and felt his ball move slightly. No one else had seen it, but Jones gave himself a one-stroke penalty. Someone, sometimes described as a journalist, sometimes a spectator, complimented him on his sportsmanship. Jones’ reply was curt. “You might as well praise me for not robbing a bank.”
He finished that 18 with a 77, but then shot consecutive 70s in the afternoon and the next morning (they played 36 holes a day back then). Passing the likes of Francis Ouimet, Johnny Farrell, Gene Sarazan and Walter Hagen, Jones finally caught Willie McFarlane of Scotland on the final 18 to tie the tourney. Of course, without the penalty stroke, Jones would have won in 72. The first 18 hole playoff was even; Jones lost the second 18 by a stroke on the final hole. McFarlane, who was a professional, won $500. Jones, of course, was an amateur.
The British would call this the “Corinthian” spirit, referring to amateurs competing in the early days of the English FA Cup, as if the act of playing for money was enough by itself to corrupt sport. After all, as the Duke of Wellington supposedly said, “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. It’s a nice thought, but do we really believe that some sort of elevated moral character formed in elite school games was responsible? I doubt many of Blucher’s 70,000 Prussians who saved the day had been educated at public schools in England. And indeed it was a small slice of Wellington’s own army that was actually English. The amateur ethos of fair play was something that felt good for empire-builders, but the reality was much different.
In Tom Stoppard’s television play Professional Foul, some British professors of philosophy are in cold-war Prague for a conference, and find themselves staying at the same hotel as the England football team, who play Czechoslovakia and lose the match after a ‘professional foul’ (chopping down a player with a clear path to the goal) costs them a penalty.
After the match, the confrontational Scottish professor McKendrick confronts two of the players, Crisp and Broadbent. He says, “One thing I remember clearly from my years and years of soccer is that if two players go for a ball which then goes into touch, there’s never any doubt among those players which of them touched the ball last. I can’t remember one occasion in all those years and years when the player who touched the ball last didn’t realize it. So, what I want to know is—why is it that on Match of the Day, every time the bloody ball goes into touch, both players claim the throw-in for their own side? I merely ask for information. Is it because they are very, very stupid or is it because a dishonest advantage is as welcome as an honest one?” To which Broadbent replies “Will you tell this stupid bugger his philosophy is getting up my nostrils.” McKenrick, in best Corinthian spirit, suggests it may not be because of the money at stake, or the game, or that it is the ethos of footballers, but simply because the players are “yobs”. He gets decked for that.
Stoppard’s play is about ethical dilemmas in a totalitarian state, and I must confess it sprang to mind when I sat down to write about Diego Mentrida. Because my conclusion is that sport is a very bad paradigm indeed for real life. Yet it is sport to which we turn for political statements, from boycotting Olympic games while business continues unabated with the boycotted country to blackballing sportsmen for expressing their concern for victims of society’s structural inequality and violence.
I’ve covered cheating in sport for decades, everything from East Germany’s gold medal machine to American football’s steroid abuse to cycling’s pervasive culture of drug-fuelled success. Cheating has become more widespread as the stakes, financial or political, have grown higher.
And when I thought again of Professional Foul, I thought about my dual nations. One has been, for the past decade, governed largely by products of the playing fields of Eton, yet ask yourself what the response would be if someone in parliament rose up and said to Boris Johnson, “hang on, that’s not cricket”! No, I don’t think so either. The other is governed by a man whose career in business has been modelled after Leo Durocher’s in baseball. It was Durocher who said “nice guys finish last” (think of Donald Trump’s “losers and suckers”) and “I believe in rules, sure I do. If there weren’t any rules how could you break them?” Both leaders reached their spots through very similar routes, each rising above a cast of challengers around whom they could run while they crashed into metaphorical barriers. There is little Corinthian respect for the spirit of the rules in evidence from either government. After all, Sophocles said “I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating,” but then he, like Stoppard, was a playwright, not a sports star - or leader of a nation.
Inevitably, I thought about the sportsman who may have made the most significant statement in the face of authoritarianism in the past century. Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in front of Adolf Hitler, who turned his back on the black American. The most impressive moment may have been when he and the runner-up in the long jump, Germany’s Luz Long, embraced after the event was over.
There is a famous story that, in qualifying Long helped Owens, who had fouled on his first two jumps, the first time when he was merely testing the track, by suggesting he make a mark short of the board, which Owens did and qualified easily on his final jump. In the final, the two jumpers went back and forth, breaking the Olympic record five times between them, before Long fell short of Owens’ best on his final jump. Hitler got up and left the stadium; Owens then empathically sealed the deal with a jump of 8.06m just three inches short of his own world record.
Some people have cast doubt on the story of Long’s assistance. Grantland Rice, the leading sportswriter of the day, said he never saw them talk, and one Olympic historian says Owens told him in 1965 that they didn’t actually talk until after the event; though Owens told Long’s son a different story when he was the best man at Kai Long's wedding in 1966. Perhaps this is a case where, as John Ford told us, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, but I don’t really care. Because the fact is Owens and Long became close friends, and corresponded all their lives; Long’s life was cut short when he was killed at the battle of San Pietro in Sicily in 1943.
In his final letter to Owens, Long, perhaps anticipating the worst, asked Owens to contact his son, after the war, and tell him what kind of man he was, and "what times were like when we were not separated by war. I am saying - tell him how things can be between men on this earth".
When I was young, my father went to an Alumni lettermen’s fundraiser at the University of Connecticut. Jesse Owens was the keynote speaker. My dad brought me home a programme (pictured below) and on the page headlined “Jesse Owens: U.S. Citizen” Owens wrote over his photograph: “To Mike, Good Luck, Jesse Owens”.
It may be my most treasured possession. Because it reminds me about sportsmanship, about courage, about doing the right thing, and about “how things can be between men on this earth”.
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