A tinder box waiting to ignite

Sport’s ability to generate controversy, some believe, is part of its charm; but not when it ceases to be sport. There has to be an understanding of how much is too much, writes Nandita Sridhar.

Every year, sport unfailingly generates controversies in its inimitable manner. Throw in a bunch of extremely competitive men and women with a single-mindedness that’s both appealing and disturbing, and there’s bound to be irrational, disproportionate behaviour.

Sport thrives on the abnormal. Abnormal talent, abnormal circumstances, abnormal mental fortitude and abnormal public adulation are bound to culminate in the odd transgression.

Serena Williams, ever the genteel sportswoman, went bonkers when she was foot-faulted at a “crucial” juncture of her U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters.

Serena’s menacing gesture towards the lineswoman and the subsequent exchange earned her a great deal of contempt. Most believed she was lucky to escape with a fine, even if Serena felt she was wronged and discriminated against because she was a woman. She made obvious references to the likes of Jeff Tarango and John McEnroe in a blog she wrote.

“There is another HE who was fined less than half of what I was fined after someone in his camp actually physically ATTACKED an official!!!!” she wrote.

“What about the famous HE who made arguing with officials ‘cool.’ Cool for ‘MEN’ I guess. Is it because they are all HE’s and not a SHE like me? It is indeed a massive difference. Being American I guess the 1st amendment, freedom of speech, does not apply to a SHE in this case? In any event the Grand Slam Committee, ITF and its staff did not hesitate to call, send a note, text, or write letters after this incident. Ironic is it not?...I don’t mind being fined. If I did wrong I accept the repercussions. All I ask for is to be treated equal,” she wrote with a flurry of pronouns.

If Serena’s outburst was the result of her dislike towards losing a Grand Slam semifinal match, the desire to succeed at all costs saw Formula One’s worst moment. Renault’s crash controversy, also known as Crashgate, further damaged an already tainted sport.

Nelson Piquet Jr.’s shocking allegations of a deliberate crash in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, positioned to enable the use of the safety car that would thereby give teammate Fernando Alonso a distinct advantage, rocked the sport. The issue took an ugly turn with leaked reports of statements made by Piquet to the FIA, revealing the exact plans.

The meeting of the World Motorsports Council in September this year imposed a disqualification on Renault, which was suspended for two years. It issued a five-year ban to Executive Director of Engineering Pat Symonds and banned Managing Director Flavio Briatore indefinitely from any FIA-sanctioned event. Furthermore, Briatore was effectively banned from managing drivers as the FIA stated that superlicences would not be issued or renewed to any driver associated with him in the future. Alonso was cleared, since the FIA found no evidence that he or his mechanics knew anything about the plan.

The large and active role played by the engineers and the management during a race meant Formula One was always vulnerable to varying forms of cheating, but being prepared to sacrifice a driver to help out another was unprecedented. It also reflected the situation of young drivers such as Piquet, desperate enough to willingly let go of controls to please the management. The very nature of the sport, the balance between a driver’s skills and a car’s competence, the constant, active involvement of managers and engineers during a race, and the large role of sponsors has made it difficult to remove the sport from controversies. Formula One has suffered great damage.

Thierry Henry’s image suffered damage as well. One of football’s good guys, with a reputation of fair play suffered spectacularly out-of-character moments in Paris against Ireland. Henry’s double handball won France a path to the World Cup finals. Possibly plagued by delayed guilt, he confessed, which left the Irish fuming.

Henry suggested replaying the match, and a fuming Irish team demanded a replay as well, but there would be no such thing. There’ve been endless debates on the introduction of video technology in football, which could prove tricky in a dynamic sport such as this, where stoppages could affect momentum and strategy. However, an additional referee near the goalpost, as suggested by some, could prove a worthwhile option.

But the damage inflicted on Henry will pale in comparison to the personal humiliation that an athlete was subjected to this year. South African Caster Semenya’s win at the World Championship 800m women’s event sparked a worldwide debate. Semenya was subjected to a gender test by the International Association of Athletics Federations, on grounds that she had shown drastic improvement.

The issue of gender in sport has always been a complex one. Gender, often interchangeably used with sex, is more a social construct rather than a biological one. While in the social and everyday context, the basic differences suffice in accepting the gender of a person, athletics requires it to be more biologically conclusive, which is where the trouble arises.

A reasonably comprehensive test would require considering factors such as genes, hormones, physical anatomy, psychology and internal medicine. But even that might not suffice in certain rare cases.

The IAAF’s insensitive handling of the issue has been criticised. Making the test public has severe implications on the social perception of that person. The IAAF defended itself saying that it didn’t accuse Semenya of cheating, but was only checking if she had a “rare medical condition” that would give her an unfair advantage.

Many prominent leaders and personalities from South Africa crticised the IAAF’s handling of the issue. The crisis deepened when they accused the federation of racism, and when Athletics South Africa later confessed it had subjected Semenya to a gender test in the past without informing her.

It was decided that Semenya would get to keep her medal, but not before unfairly subjecting her to the trauma of questioning her very identity.

There was plenty more to come from 2009. Tiger Woods’ private life cast an ugly shadow over the sport, but what will concern the sport’s fans is his decision to take a break from golf. If Tiger’s liaisons came as a shock, so did the ATP’s cover-up of Andre Agassi’s use of Crystal Meth, a recreational drug.

Sport’s ability to generate controversy, some believe, is part of its charm; but not when it ceases to be sport. There has to be an understanding of how much is too much. In most of these cases, the line was crossed.