Zidane head-butt and all that

In some sense, sporting controversies are an even edgier distillation of the genre-bending sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The hook lies in conflict and its resolution, the shape of the redemption if at all it is reached, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

Ever since professional sport assumed the air of theatre, athletes have come across as actors rehearsing parts for an avant-garde play, unsure where the script is taking them but doing their best with ambiguous sketches, not knowing if theirs will turn out as lead role or walk on irrelevancy.

The best narratives thrive on tension. Spats, in that context, are doubly entertaining when they are the product of a build-up and not a digression. The audience is shaken out of its passivity, a dent is made upon the glibness, and greater focus is brought to the reality show. It cannot be denied that in some perverse way the public enjoys witnessing the fall from grace of personalities: we like to watch with horrified fascination because these are the very same people we once aspired to be. In some sense, sporting controversies are an even edgier distillation of the genre-bending sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The hook lies in conflict and its resolution, the shape of the redemption if at all it is reached.

In the realm of sport football of course has the widest reach, and nothing counts as a bigger spectacle than the World Cup. Any controversy surrounding the game gets magnified because of the impact, and as such, Zinedine Zidane's rage at being provoked couldn't have found a bigger stage.

Zidane's performances against Spain and Brazil had thrust France into the World Cup final; his chipped penalty in the first half against Italy briefly raised hopes of the perfect finish. Then Murphy's Law kicked in. That Zidane, with all his experience, would succumb to sledging seems inconceivable, yet it is supposedly what happened. Some believe, going by Zidane's chequered on-field history, he couldn't have reacted in any other way. Exactly what prompted his sullen charge, head-first into Italian defender Marco Materazzi's chest in the dying minutes of extra-time, remains unclear. Nobody seems to know what was said. But a moment of silliness robbed the French talisman of his finest moment, his team possibly of the Cup.

Postscript: some six months later, the incident has lost its intrigue value, it is no longer grist for gossip. Zidane retired from all football after the final as planned, and has since been spotted kicking with underprivileged kids in Bangladesh. Public memory is short and mostly forgiving, particularly towards those perceived as wronged heroes, and Zidane got away with censure. He recently made the shortlist for FIFA's World Player of the Year award. Still, a pity that his playing career should have ended on that footnote.

Meanwhile, Italy's World Cup win helped salvage its reputation after a match-fixing scandal broke in May, just before the start of the season. Transcripts of intercepted telephone conversations between a former Juventus official and Italian soccer authorities, discussing refereeing appointments, were published; and a special tribunal demoted Juventus to Serie B, while other clubs like Lazio were permitted to continue in the top tier with point penalties; AC Milan was docked eight points but allowed to participate in the Champions League. Several club officials were barred for different periods.

Cricket had its share of attention. Darrell Hair, in particular, had a rough time. Umpire Hair has, during a long and eventful career, been called a lot of things; but he was generally acknowledged to be one of the best — honest, if a bit fastidious. In the aftermath of the Oval Test his reputation has been questioned. His actions are being revisited and, perhaps unfairly, judged for motives.

When he accused Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq of ball tampering, Hair merely seemed to reinforce his reputation as a maverick: a devil-may-care, hackles-raising official. The forfeit in protest, however, set off a chain of events that forced the ICC to declare that Hair would no longer officiate in international matches. Much has been made of Hair's secret offer to resign from the Elite panel in exchange for $ 500,000, and his subsequent backtracking. The problem with that was not so much moral as ethical; this wasn't so much blackmail as trying to take the easy way out. Bad move. The ICC's cunning decision to publicise the e-mail was a masterstroke — the cricket body came out looking rather virtuous. As for Inzamam, he was cleared of ball tampering charges but banned for four ODI's, for bringing the game into disrepute. Which is to say, he was declared innocent and then punished for having protested his innocence too vigorously.

That, of course, was not the only scandal to hit the Pakistan team. A tribunal banned and then subsequently cleared fast bowlers Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif of steroid use and assorted doping offences. Akhtar was at first handed a two-year ban, Asif a one-year suspension. Had the ban stood, Akhtar's career would have been in danger. Why the tribunal withdrew the ban, what pressures were applied, we do not know. As it stands, the panel ruled that the duo was not provided sufficient warning that the supplements could be contaminated. The World Anti-doping Agency, backed by the International Cricket Council, has decided to appeal the withdrawal of the bans in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.

Drugs may have finally destroyed what little dignity remained with professional cycling. In July, Tour de France winner Floyd Landis was reported to have failed a drug test; he registered an unusual ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. Landis is the first Tour de France champion to have tested positive, although doping allegations have long tailed seven-time winner Lance Armstrong. In another high profile case — this time, in athletics — Justin Gatlin, the reigning Olympic 100m champion, was confirmed to have tested positive, and subsequently banned for eight years.

It will be interesting to see whether his closest (and some say, only) rival, Asafa Powell can dominate the field over the next couple of years.

India's Santhi Soundararajan won silver in the women's 800m at the Doha Asian Games, and the country marvelled at how a woman from an impoverished village had managed despite the lack of training opportunities, and even proper nourishing food. Then came the anti-climax: she was stripped of the medal after failing, not a drug test as is common, but a gender test. The humiliation must feel surreal. It later emerged that Santhi had failed a gender test once, a couple of years ago, when she applied for a job with Southern Railways. Was she aware of that? Why weren't the authorities informed prior to her departure for Doha? As it happens in these cases, it has proved difficult to get to the essence of the matter. The athlete's personal feelings are swept away by the larger issues.

Tennis stars Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won gold for India in the doubles event in Doha, but not before India had blown the chance to win gold in the team event. Paes accused Bhupathi of not trying hard enough; Bhupathi denied that furiously, and by the end of it, had sworn never to play with his erstwhile best friend again.

Paes has a habit of thumping his chest and proclaiming his patriotism, while the introverted (but no less spirited) Bhupathi can be moody to the point of seeming conceited. Whatever their flaws, they are world-class doubles players — when they played together, Bhupathi's power service and groundstrokes complemented Paes's movement and impeccable net skills perfectly. Unfortunately their personal differences have destroyed the chemistry they once shared.

Nevertheless, as armchair critics, we have no right to ask them to put aside their problems in deference to larger national causes. If Bhupathi and Paes no longer wish to partner each other, we must respect that sentiment instead of heatedly accusing them of letting down the nation. They are professional sportsmen, the finest upon this stage; and while their successes reflect positively on the country, let their failures not detract from the nation's sense of self-worth.