Uniting for a cause

Michael Schumacher, the Formula One champion, topped the donations list among the individual sportsmen. — Pic. REUTERS-

Sportsmen are often viewed as spoilt and careless. But many of them were touched by the tsunami disaster and made small and large contributions, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

SPORT has done well. In an era of tedious parochialism, it has opened its arms to the world; in a time of self-indulgence, athletes have been moved to express genuine concern for their fellow men; in an age of one-upmanship, humility has been discovered. It is a pity, in a way, that it has taken disaster for men to find themselves. Still, it is not a time for quibbling, and as the sporting world — athletes, officials, sponsors — linked arms to raise funds for nations and people left in tatters after the tsunami, there was a suggestion of hope, that sporting man's humanity has not been washed away completely.

For this possibly fleeting moments, sport, as it should, had no borders and concern was not restricted to an athlete's own geography. Men in Sri Lanka worship Germany's Michael Schumacher, and those in India follow keenly America's NBA, and that contributions would arrive from these distant parts was gratifying.

For these few days, sport was truly the universal family it purports to be. Soccer clubs helped as did luge teams, the owner of a horse named Blue Tsunami pledged money as did rugby boards. Baseballer Hideki Matsui donated $(A)630,00, Baltimore Ravens fans raised $(A)68,000, Padraig Harrington held a charity golf show and a Danish footballer sold 53 shirts on the internet for the cause.

Andy Roddick may not be able to find Banda Aceh on the map but smilingly smacked aces for charity. A cricketer, and his family, stayed at home for New Year's eve in deference to those who had little to celebrate. Schumacher donated $10 million. In ways, small and large, sport made a contribution. Everywhere on sporting fields sportsmen are reminded by coaches to be heartless, but this time no one listened. Winning tournaments had been given perspective.

Muttiah Muralitharan with Anil Kumble. The Sri Lankan visited some of the affected areas in his country and helped the victims. Despite an injury he was also in Melbourne to play for the Asian XI. -- Pic. AFP-

It was an important period for sport as its practitioners are often viewed as spoilt and careless. Of course, many give widely to charity and work with children and support good causes, but there resides amongst many of them a sense of privilege taken for granted. Except now Muralitharan arrived in Melbourne with an injured shoulder and still bowled, and Sachin Tendulkar made a long flight not to play but to contribute through sheer presence to the cause. All manner of powerful symbolism was at work here.

Cricket is a small community and felt the tsunami personally for many of its nations were touched by it. Still, cricket is not practiced in Indonesia or Somalia and funds raised by sportsmen would go there, too. Players set aside vacations and interrupted training while administrators found a way for once to agree on mostly everything. A stadium was readied, volunteers arrived by the hundreds, Qantas contributed tickets, corporations sponsored sixes, and it was staggering what can be achieved when the will is there and nations hold hands. Only in the face of tragedy it seems, do men suddenly recognise the futility of pettiness. The Melbourne cricket match between a World XI and Asian XI was a triumph, in so many ways. With over 70,000 fans in attendance and $16 million collected, cricket had reason to be pleased. For a while at least all manner of barriers fell and it was pleasing to the senses.

Muralitharan shook the hand of a Prime Minister who called him a chucker and agreed to return to a land he once swore he would never tour again, and Lankan fans wore signs that said "God bless you, Australia". Yousuf Youhana, whose sledging years ago annoyed the Indians, found himself at the crease with Rahul Dravid, while Lara and Ponting put on a batting exhibition, incredibly we will remember, from opposite ends of the pitch. Later, Indian players dined with Lankans and men with different passports stayed on in one dressing room till 4 a.m. Sport is replete with tales of spirit, but this was special; for once the world was one team, powered not by prizemoney or some glittering cup but by the force of conscience.

Occasional missteps occurred, none more so than the granting of official ODI status to the match. It was possibly the reason a player was asked post-match if Asia had "lost face" by succumbing to the World XI, suggesting the questioner, like the ICC, had missed the point over why the match was being held. This was not about runs or the result or the top scorer but about goodwill, and no scoresheet in the record books can reflect or measure that. If Asia erred slightly it was in not playing the lone Bangladeshi, Alok Kapali; his nation may have not been as brutally affected, but few countries are so constantly touched by natural calamities. The match was primarily about shows of unity and his inclusion would have been a generous gesture. Another charity match, this time in Kolkata (though Chennai or Colombo or Galle might seem more appropriate), is to be held, but sport must not turn its back thereafter and retreat into its cocoon for there is no shortage of the good cause.

"Peace and brotherhood" and "one world" are phrases dusted off and presented to us at every Olympics and then immediately mothballed for another four years and there is something grating and superficial to it all. Sportsmen have a unique power to touch people and they must use it. The cries for help of the tsunami victims have been answered, but they must be heard, too, from Darfur and the Congo. There is no such thing, after all, as having done your bit.