SPORT ESSENTIALLY IS FUN

The heart of sport is the fairytale and enough unfolded this year to keep us believing in them. The source of even the unlikeliest triumph is in fact hard work and self-belief and fortune, but to see it as some enchanted magic is part of the pleasure.

By ROHIT BRIJNATH

BY the end of it all, 12 months gone in the flash of a forehand and the blur of a passing Ferrari, enough tears to float a ship, champions unmasked as cheats, and nobodies turning to somebodies, despair and triumph separated by a painted fingernail, courage found and nerve lost, it is hard to make sense of it all. Years do not have themes because life does not, for every dream found another broke, for every shining moment of grace arrived a time of unspeakable ugliness.

It was a grand double for Hicham El Guerrouj in Athens. The Moroccan won the 1500 and 5000m events. -- Pic. AP-

Some of what we saw had come before but much we had yet to see. So much of it was hard to believe, whether Roger Federer painting with a racket or accusations that Marion Jones' masterpieces were fakes. Both athletes were spinning illusions, but in different ways.

Technology took man some way forward but also backwards, there was designer equipment like Nike's strapless swimming goggles but also designer drugs like TGH. Yet for all the space-age cycles and footballs tested in wind tunnels, sport reminded us that courage is still not a science, it cannot be created in a lab but is a call from deep within a man's soul. What compelled Hicham El Guerrouj across the line we still do not know.

The Olympics went back to its beginnings and while a pleasant aroma of nostalgia swept through Athens there were reminders that not everything in the past was beautiful and that a flawed moment has made some considerable strides. Then, in 776 BC, the time of the ancient Olympics, women were not even allowed to watch; this year footballer Mia Hamm and swimmer Petria Thomas and runner Kelly Holmes, wondrous studies in skill and grace and power, tell us what they had been missing.

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, India's first individual silver medallist in the Olympics. -- Pic. AP-

We congratulate ourselves on the equality of sport, but it is not yet entirely true. Fifty-seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's colour barrier, black athletes in some sports struggle for respect. Female athletes, in most sports, are still not guaranteed the monetary rewards, either in prize money or endorsements, or visibility, that they deserve, and it is appalling. Often role models are before us and we do not even see them.

The heart of sport is the fairytale and enough unfolded this year to keep us believing in them. The source of even the unlikeliest triumph is in fact hard work and self-belief and fortune, but to see it as some enchanted magic is part of the pleasure. Vijay Singh was once a bouncer in Scotland and now sternly guards the No.1 ranking in golf; Jose Mourinho, better known once as Bobby Robson's interpreter while in Portugal, understood football's language well enough to take Porto to Champions League success; Michael Clarke as a boy wrote down on a piece of paper that he wanted to score a century on Test debut, and did just that; Maria Sharapova was just beautiful till on a Wimbledon afternoon she loudly dismissed Serena and added brilliant to her CV.

The Greeks, of course, had never been to soccer's European Championships and then proceeded to win it, against Portugal, in Portugal, reminding us of course that for one dream to live another must die. Sport is as rewarding as it is cruel, and perhaps part of its allure is that there are no guarantees. Paula Radcliffe owned the marathon so to speak, calculated every calorie she ate with Olympic gold in mind, calibrated her Athens assault down to the last kilometre, and then, at the moment, was betrayed by her body.

Anil Kumble has just dismissed Mohammad Rafique of Bangladesh in the first Test at Dhaka, on December 10, 2004. He is now the highest wicket-taker for India in Test cricket. -- Pic. AFP-

Athens is the past for Radcliffe, Beijing is the future. Hope dies but then it flares again for athletes are resilient creatures; few understand failure with sharper clarity then they do. That defeat, time and again, cannot subdue some men is not merely amazing, it is moving. El Guerrouj, who did so much run 1500 metre races as write ballads with his feet, nevertheless ran with the taste of defeat in his mouth since his Olympic stumble in 1996 and error in Sydney 2000; then, in three minutes and a half on an Athens night he rewrote a life.

A runner made us weep and a swimmer filled us with awe. As much as we are confronted in recent times by pimpled boys and girls with steel smiles displaying a staggering poise in front of a watching world, each time it occurs it is dazzling still. Michael Phelps, for all his genetic perfection of long torso and short legs, stood in front of the world's cameras and defeated our imagination. To watch one so young, so tuned to his ambition, so worthy of his talent, is to be stirred from the couch. Eight medals, six of them gold, he had the world at his feet and us on ours.

As much of the Olympics was what you saw as what you missed. Too much time was spent on Jones' non-qualification, too little on Yuliya Nesterenko. She is the 100 metres Olympic champion, but her story was little told. There was controversy and colour, and despair and defiance. A wrestler's father ran onto the mat to remonstrate with a referee; Greek sprinters embarrassed their nation; a swimmer instructed his country not to lodge a protest when it seemed his victor's turn was possibly illegal for he knew he was beaten anyway; a gymnast won all-around gold even though he finished his vault virtually in the lap of the judges.

Sachin Tendulkar acknowledges the crowd after his double hundred in Dhaka. The batting maestro has equalled Sunil Gavaskar's record of 34 Test centuries. -- Pic. REUTERS-

No one mentioned India, there was no compelling reason to, till an army man made his charge, fittingly one might say with gun in hand. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, all unassuming accuracy, salvaged pride for a desperate nation and an inflated Olympic contingent, and praised the virtues of sweat for it is the only known route to success. Indian sport remains all promise and potential, administered by men with archaic ideas if any; on the subcontinent if you win you get what you want, but some times to win you must first get what you need. Australia's cyclists prepared for the Athens road race by filming the route in 2003 and gauging the fluids they might lose; India prepared by sacking its hockey coach weeks before the Games. Later in the year a young woman rower committed suicide because not enough people cared and of all indictments of a sporting system this was the most tragic.

Still, Anju George remained world class, two shooters fired their way into finals (cause for celebration, yet in India, incredibly, it is medal or nothing), and V. Anand continued to make moves as brilliant as some of his shirts. The chess player has reason to preen not merely by virtue of his many titles but because the anointing of P. Harikrishna as world junior champion confirms he has stirred a scholarly revolution. Of course, when it came to hockey a nation just sighed.

But this is Sehwag country and cricket remains pre-eminent in the public consciousness though still not so in the world rankings. The year started powerfully and ended in victory but in between a fine team temporarily lost its moorings.

If last year belonged to Dravid, this year was owned by a Najafgarh resident, whose batting was all breathless bafflement and beauty. So much of sport these days is planning, whether drawing football plays on blackboards or sweating over bowling graphs on a computer. It is all necessary in a professional world, but there remains a particular thrill to a player who answers to his instinct, whose play cannot be plotted or charted but is merely a free spirit, so desperate to express himself that he defies any chaining. Sehwag is that. He infuriates, yet he compels; he plays with occasional irresponsibility yet refreshes the senses.

Going to watch Roger Federer was like attending the ballet, or opera, for he was not player but performer, not athlete but artiste. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Irfan Pathan had us swinging with delight at his maturity, Harbhajhan Singh's fingers had their magic restored to them and Anil Kumble deserved every salute for overtaking Kapil Dev's Indian record of 434 Test wickets. At 34, Kumble has delivered to India his best bowling year ever, reinforcing the belief that his career has been an exercise in honesty, to craft and team and himself. He is the warrior priest, strong in heart and body and pure in purpose, modest even though his feats have been anything but.

Sachin Tendulkar's feats did not carry their usual immodesty for injury literally disallowed him from freeing his arms; he is a young man but an old warrior, and though more of his cricket lies behind him than before him, his appetite is not satiated yet. Still, he began and ended the year with a double century, equalling Sunil Gavaskar's world record of 34 centuries, and at least a few more are promised from the small man with a broad blade.

Tendulkar faltered in the middle of the year as did India, but the batsman had an excuse his team did not have. India drew in Australia and outplayed Pakistan away, yet thereafter inexplicably stumbled. Captain Sourav Ganguly has raised expectations for his team and in part this year they were left unfulfilled.

Cricket's standard continued to be emphatically set by Australia, who roamed the globe like a collective of conquering Alexanders. They, like Michael Schumacher and Annika Sorenstam and Arsenal through most of the year, did not weary of winning and this alliance with concentration, this bottomless desire, this constant expression of divine gifts, was humbling.

Maria Sharapova was just beautiful till on a Wimbledon afternoon she loudly dismissed Serena and added brilliant to her CV.-REUTERS

Valentino Rossi was merely downright embarrassing. The motorcycle ace won a world title on the all-powerful Honda last year and then celebrated victory by signing for the all-powerless Yamaha. Rarely do champions sign with weaker teams and, money aside, there was something pristine to a young man's search for a challenge. Pundits said it would take Yamaha a few years to get it right; Rossi in his first year won the title for them, suggesting if nothing else that man still rules machine.

Not since Hannibal has a man taken on the mountains with as much determination as Lance Armstrong, pedalling his way, almost predictably, to a record sixth Tour de France. But only genius can make triumph over 3360 kilometres of muscle-screaming, lung-burning, mind-numbing racing appear routine.

What fuels Armstrong is a power more substantial than mere athletic hunger; it is a cancer survivor's sense of mission and it was a calling that people were drawn to. This year, his foundation hoped to sell a few hundred thousand simple yellow wristbands ($1 each) inscribed with the words "LIVE STRONG" to raise funds to fight the disease: at year's end more than 20 million had been sold.

Armstrong made a difference beyond sport and he was not alone. Andre Agassi, a high school dropout, continued to raise millions for the schools he runs, while Indian cricketers participated in AIDS awareness campaigns. Small drops in an ocean, but acts deserving of some recognition if only because universal fields are littered with self-absorbed athletes. Basketballer Latrell Sprewell, for instance, cried he had "a family to feed" after his salary negotiations stalled; that he was anyway paid $14.6 million points to a shameful lack of proportion. And he was not alone. Drug use continued to subtract from great achievement, but as much as sport is bruised, its spirit is revitalised. And to see Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima, knocked out of the Olympic marathon lead by an intruder, come into the stadium in third place, his face lined with joy, was to become a believer again. As he said: "What prevailed here was the Olympic spirit. I'm very happy to have won this medal."

De Lima showed style, and so in a different way did Federer; going to watch him was like attending the ballet, or opera, for he was not player but performer, not athlete but artiste. He won almost everything (three Slams, 11 titles) but the situating of him alongside Sampras by his peers said more than any statistic. Rarely, it seemed, has history been wrought with such nonchalance, but as Phelps said and Federer might echo: "It may look effortless but it felt anything but that". Sharapova in turn brought sex appeal, and also a tennis father of rumoured Damir Dokic proportions, and while the Russians squabbled among themselves, on court they provoked a revolution that turned women's tennis, at least temporarily, on its head.

All year athletes challenged themselves, stirred us, wrote records, defied belief, embraced greed, cheated their peers, illuminated stadiums and television sets with their grand deeds. The new year is almost upon us and soon these moments, too, will pass into the great filing cabinets of the memory.

It is a never-ending journey that has taken us from Romario to Ronaldo to Ronaldino and now Robinho. How time flies.

Sport does not stop, Michael Clarke comes and Keith Miller goes and both men represented something valuable, something too easily forgotten, which is that sport essentially is fun, a celebration, a game, no more and no less. Asked once about the pressure to perform in cricket, Miller, a fighter pilot during World War II, dismissively replied: "Having a Messerschmidt up your backside — that's pressure." From the past had come some valuable perspective for the future.