The real heroes

Roger Federer-AP

Works of genius apart, few things in sport rise above the banality of the quotidian. The Iraqi football team’s triumph in the Asian Cup did, writes Nirmal Shekar.

From the point of view of the fan, sport is wonderfully consumer-friendly — readily malleable, you can make what you want of it and you can take what you want from it. It cheerfully satisfies a wide variety of tastes.

It is precisely because of this there is seldom any sort of consensus among sports fans on most issues unless you are talking about Roger Federer’s genius or the dense thicket of neurons found in the memory areas of Viswanathan Anand’s brain.

In the event, as we look back at the year that was (2007), each of us will have his/her own list of highs and lows. What’s left a lasting imprint in my memory may just be a trivial something not worthy of a permanent niche in yours.

Yet, there will always be the obvious candidates jostling for pre-eminence as we consider 2007’s honours list and, in bipolar contrast, there will also be a handful made-to-order to satisfy our primordial need for villains.

In much the same way, there will be memorable events that will make most people’s list and a few things that most decent and honourable folks will want to forget in a hurry.

While I am as ready and willing as anyone else to celebrate the heroics of Federer and Tiger Woods and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Anand and Kaka, this is often the time of the year when I doff my hat to sport’s little men, its humble down-to-earth, sweat-stained, unglamorous, unselfconscious performers who have had their 15 minutes in the hero’s robes, so to say.

Step on to the stage, Mr. Joginder Sharma. The nondescript Haryanvi is the least likely of the triumphant Indian Twenty20 stars to benefit from the junk cult of celebrity. But he, like thousands of other unsung men and women of his ilk all over the sporting world, did have his heroic moments under the sun.

Courageously and skillfully bowling those two overs of whatever you choose to describe his bowling as — the last overs in the semifinal against Australia and in the final against Pakistan — toothy, rustic Joginder became part of Indian cricket’s folklore.

In a way, the Joginders of the world are the real heroes of sport — quietly doing their thing, bravely rising to the occasion, and uncomplainingly once again resuming their resolute day-to-day toil away from the lights.

Celebrity superstars such as the Dhonis and the Yuvrajs may wallow in the over-egged descriptions of breathless TV reporters and commentators but it is the odd feats of the Joginders of the sporting universe that have a way of ennobling the ordinary.

It is a pity that too many fans today have little or no time for ordinary heroes. Even if you are not exactly uncomfortable with the raw triumphalism and the unabashed adulatory zeitgeist of our celebrity-obsessed times, you must acknowledge that a lot of sport is all about the gutsy little battler from the back of beyond.

“The modern sports hero is actually a misnomer for the sports celebrity. On the surface professional sports seem to offer a natural source for heroes, but on closer examination they offer celebrated sports figures shaped, fashioned and marketed as heroic,” writes Susan Drucker, Associate Professor, School of Communication, Hofstra University, NY, and member of the New York bar.

In our relentless march towards Infotopia, thanks to 24x7 television, we know less about heroes and rather more about celebrities and nothing at all about the line between a hero and a celebrity in the sporting context.

Because celebrities determine TRP surge — or, to be more precise, because TV programme producers believe that celebrities determine TRP surge — they have taken the place of authentic sports heroes on screen and in our psyches.

Talking of genuine heroes, when you look back at 2007 you cannot think of any heroes greater than the members of the Iraqi football team that won the Asian Cup in Jakarta in July.

Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds from a war-torn nation came together to put on a magnificent show of attacking football. There was no greater instance during the year of a triumph of the human spirit. It was about as uplifting as sport can get. Surely, sport has a way of giving us a newer and newer understanding of human possibilities.

But, then, sport wouldn’t be a human activity if it did not, from time to time, hold a mirror to our dark side. In the hierarchy of drug cheats, Marion Jones is the Queen of them all, right up there with Ben Johnson.

Seven years ago in Sydney, she sprinted into our hearts, all grace and gazelle-like elegance. A few weeks ago as she went through a tearful confession, it was difficult to summon any sort of sympathy for Jones.

It is all the worse when charismatic athletes who have the power to inspire the young end up being exposed as cheats. The damage done to sport and its already shaky moral foundation is immeasurable.

Then again, as we survey the world of sport at the end of another eventful year, there is no room for end-of-days gloom. For all the problems, at the end of the day, you still want to celebrate the balletic grace and extraordinary skills of a Lionel Messi, the single-mindedness of a Sourav Ganguly and the genius of Tiger Woods, Anand and Federer.

No matter all that, my vote for the most heroic performance of the year 2007 goes to the Iraqi football team. Works of genius apart, few things in sport rise above the banality of the quotidian. Team Iraq’s triumph in the Asian Cup did.