The way we play sport


IT was June 3, 2002. The man in Australia, the hero, was embarrassed and was not shy to say so. The man in South Korea, the anti-hero, was unrepentant and was not timid in saying so. They come, these men, from different lands, but this is a tale not so much about geography but character. Both men are champions but they share nothing else in common.

The man in Australia is John Landy, the legendary middle-distance runner, now the Governor of Victoria no less, a stately figure whose gentle lines of age cannot disguise his discomfort. Not every day does a man see a statue of himself being unveiled.

The statue is, in fact, of two men, one standing, his arm reaching out to help another, and though statues do not move it seems as if one man is pulling the other up. The standing man is Landy, and the fallen his friend, Ron Clarke, an equally gifted runner. And the statue is of a moment that deserves to be frozen for all time.

The man in South Korea is a Brazilian, and his name is Rivaldo and his act will be forgotten in time though perhaps it should not be. His moment too concerns a man standing and one on the ground, though in this instance it happens to be the same man, a case of Rivaldo playing a double role.

In 1956, at the Australian National Championships, during the running of the mile, Clarke trips and Landy, close behind, attempts desperately to hurdle him. This is not unusual, for runners constantly fall as they jostle each other in the pack, and Mary Decker and Zola Budd come easily to memory.

In the World Cup, against Turkey, Rivaldo is set to take a corner when a Turkish player, from 15 yards or so, instead of rolling the ball across, in frustration kicks it with relative force straight at him.

At the Australian race, Landy spikes Clarke in the shoulder as he jumps over him, and well, these things happen, except the improbable occurs. Landy stops. He seems confused. And then he goes back.

At the World Cup, the ball hits Rivaldo somewhere between the shin and the thigh and it surprises him, and us too, but the impact is minimal and at best some words which your mother warned you against as a boy may be exchanged.

Landy, seemingly unconcerned by the other runners hurtling past him, returns to where Clarke has fallen, to see if his friend is badly hurt, and apologises, and brushes the cinder off him, and then helps him up (thus the statue).

Rivaldo collapses on to the ground as if he has been shot point-blank in the head by Clint Eastwood's .44 Magnum, and strangely enough, it does appear that he is holding his head, though even grandmothers with poor eyesight can be sure that is not where the ball struck him.

Clarke says to Landy "I'm allright, run, run" and so Landy takes off in pursuit of the pack who are some distance ahead, and if you've seen Chariots of Fire, where Eric Lidell is knocked to the ground in a race and gets back on his feet and chases, then you have a fair idea what the situation was. This story has an equally romantic ending: Landy wins.

Rivaldo wins too. The referee, fooled into believing he is hurt, inexplicably whips out his red card and more or less ends the tournament for the Turkish player.

What happens thereafter is illuminating.

Landy is embarrassed by his act, and the statue. He has never thought what he did was a big deal and this day is no different. He describes what he did during the race as a moment of madness. He said that he had been assaulted by a mixture of emotions: "I felt panic, guilt, but a lot of resolution."

But it was not out of character for Landy. In 1956, at the Melbourne Olympics, at home, he wins bronze. It must be a disappointment. Yet, when the winner, Ron Delaney falls to his knees, in prayer as it turned out, after crossing the line, Landy believing he is hurt, goes to his aid. It is the way he plays sport.

Rivaldo is unembarrassed by the incident. "The ball touched my leg, but the other player was still wrong to kick the ball at me," he says. "I said sorry to him, but that's football. It may not have hit my face but the Turkish player should not have done that in the first place." He bluntly admits he exaggerated his injury to have his opponent sent off. It is the way he plays sport.

I am struck by these two separate but intertwined tales. But we can read only so much into them. Landy cannot be slotted, his act was not the norm of his or any generation, it was clearly exceptional. Rivaldo is different, his act was not exceptional, if anything he is a fair representation of a cynical time.

We are not truly surprised by Rivaldo's act (most soccer players are graduates of the Jurgen Klinsmann performance school and do useful impersonations of Louganis on land). It is his insolence in admitting his deception that is confounding.

After all, mostly we expect sportsmen to be disingenuous. When Adam Gilchrist raised the issue of Muralitharan's action, and it caused an uproar, he blamed journalists for reporting it, though it was said at a lunch where journalists are usually present. When Mark Butcher commented on Ruchira Perera's action in his column, and eyebrows were subsequently raised, he swiftly back-pedalled and said, "I said it without thinking. It was silly, but there was no malice involved."

No doubt in time Rivaldo will say he was tired, misquoted, misinterpreted, and that he was upset and not thinking straight having just heard that the new Ferrari he ordered had arrived in the wrong colour or some such nonsense.

He will be forgiven for heroes these days are forgiven for everything. Matthew Hayden makes the sign of the cross yet, so we are told, launches a tirade of abuse at Graeme Smith that explores the entire lexicon of known invective. Yet, his teammate Jimmy Maher insists Hayden was never over the top. We shudder to think what that may be.

Rivaldo will score goals and Hayden will score runs and we will be back in the business of calling them great men. It is the way of sport.

But they will not be men worthy of statues.