The honourable champion is not a myth

As much as Michael Schumacher deserves to be remembered fondly, kids must also know that it it possible to compete and be honourable.-AP

Schumacher has lived a quiet life off the track, fiercely protective of his privacy, and was a saint in a generation prone to making a fool of themselves in public. Away from the pit, this was a sober champion, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Jack Nicklaus' old-crooked-man-leaning-on-a-stick putting style. Jordan's fake so fierce in his last Bulls game that his opponent went sprawling. Pele's ability to make every pass seem unhurried. Sampras' Michelangelo-constructed service action.

So what of Michael Schumacher will remain? The cold smile? The red overalls? The "I-can't-believe-that" overtaking manoeuvre?

Eventually careers, however grand, dissolve in the memory and only fragments linger, like a look, a moment of celebration (Jordan weeping in his father's arms after winning his first title) or unusual disaster, or a goal (Maradona's second against England, 1986).

But mostly we form a broader picture of the retired athlete, we weigh their deeds, we estimate them according to the feats of men who went before them, and then we situate them in history (one of the finest, the greatest, the best of this century, etc).

This task, of evaluating, of grading, is complicated. Because some wonder, do we judge these men solely on athletic feats or also on conduct? Is it essential that a champion uphold the spirit of his sport, is it obligatory that he wear greatness responsibly? Should standards of sportsmanship apply while judging heroes, should on-field behaviour be factored into our decision-making, and can indiscretions off the field be excused because they are outside the arena?

It makes an appreciation of Schumacher intriguing, for his legacy as astonishing driver (no one disputes his driving ability, his instinctive genius) is often stalked by a "but". His skills are beyond question, his reputation always under one.

To explain the rebukes of fellow drivers like Alonso ("the most unsporting driver") or Damon Hill ("cynical") as mere whining is to ignore the truth of our own eyes. The crash into Hill, into Villeneuve, the stalling of his car at a crucial turn in this year's Monaco qualifying to apparently block Alonso, the team orders ensuring a leading Barrichello stepped aside for Schumacher to win in Austria 2002. Only the faithful have not winced.

Some might argue these as the expected, inconsequential hiccups of such a long career, sins inflated because of how famous he is. Others might contend that is precisely the burden of greatness, to maintain a standard of sportsmanship under the severest pressure.

Sportsmen always speak about codes, but don't always obey the important ones. Newspapers are littered with reports of athletes who drink-drive, cheat, ingest drugs, use racist language, send vulgar text messages. Some do not even go that far and are simply poorly behaved on the field. Not everything can be explained away as excessive testosterone in the heat of competition.

Certainly this affects the way we remember athletes. Shane Warne, for instance, is a spinning but puerile genius. His supporters excuse his indiscretions by shrugging it off as "boys being boys", thus immediately lowering the standard we rightfully should expect from our athletes.

Maradona's ephedrine conviction is relevant, for Pele never cheated, neither did Cryuff, nor Platini. Jimmy Connors' offensive behaviour as a young star eventually resulted in some wonderfully appropriate words from writer Bill Nack when he retired:

"There will come a time when Connors is 50, that he will be sitting alone in an airport between flights over a cup of coffee faced with the shards of his past. He will be a man then and he will wish that as a boy he has done it better as Borg had done it. Borg will never so suffer his past..."

Schumacher has lived a quiet life off the track, fiercely protective of his privacy, and was a saint in a generation prone to making a fool of themselves in public. Away from the pit, this was a sober champion. Equally he is a man of good causes, making the single largest contribution by a sportsman of $10 million after the tsunami. He is also a UNESCO ambassador, and according to one online biography "funded projects for the construction of a school in Senegal, a clinic in Sarajevo, and a centre for street children in Peru."

Yet, once plugged into his car, something seemed to switch in Schumacher, his smile seemed to get colder under his helmet, occasionally rules seemed to have no purpose other than being ridden over.

How much you win matters. How you win also has to matter. Character matters. Part of the measuring of men involves gauging how they hold up under the harshest provocation. Men who flout rules, and/or disrespect opponents, do their sports a bigger disservice than they think. Mark Taylor was a charitable champion, McGrath was not. Borg's civil behaviour on court embarrassed McEnroe.

Of course Schumacher is hardly a villain (sport is infested with far worse characters), but to go blind to his absence of grace is an injustice to those athletes who won with grace. The sporting sportsperson is not dead.

India's Sachin Tendulkar is an extraordinarily tenacious yet decorous competitor. So have been Laxman, Dravid, Kumble, and they have been extraordinary gifts to cricket. As the Swedes were once to tennis. Nicklaus the man kept his manners. Federer is an astonishingly decent fellow. These men, too, felt the unbearable expectation of greatness, were constantly expected to win, faced the same distractions, were feted and indulged, yet distinguished themselves as men.

As much as Schumacher deserves to be remembered fondly, kids must also know that it is possible to compete and be honourable.