x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Australian cricket team, Arsenal and Rory McIlroy deserve respect, not criticism

What does it mean when an athlete or a team is accused of lacking heart? Or that they do not possess the will to fight? That they do not have the requisite commitment, that their desire is absent?

Like many others, even world No 2 golfer Rory McIlroy had a bad day at the office when he opted to walk off at the Honda Classic. Stuart Franklin / Getty Images
Like many others, even world No 2 golfer Rory McIlroy had a bad day at the office when he opted to walk off at the Honda Classic. Stuart Franklin / Getty Images

What does it mean when an athlete or a team is accused of lacking heart? Or that they do not possess the will to fight? That they do not have the requisite commitment, that their desire is absent?

All through Australia's whitewashed series in India, this was the prevailing undercurrent.

Losing is fine, but it is the lack of fight that really hurt.

That must have been particularly galling for followers of Australian cricket, because for years and years maybe forever they have been renowned for doing nothing but fight.

Nobody fought harder, showed more heart, displayed more desire than Steve Waugh, right? He even fought with the umbilical cord on his way out of the womb, before tackling his twin brother, Mark.

It must sound awfully familiar to Arsenal, charged with the same perceived crime in the English Premier League. These days, they seem to play every week without any heart, without the right kind of sporting constitution.

These criticisms are everywhere, in all sport, so much so that let us at least try to be clear about what they are supposed to be.

Actually they are more than criticisms they are slurs that cut deep. Profanity almost certainly causes less consternation to a professional athlete than the suggestion he or she lacks "heart".

So exactly what deficiencies are we measuring and quantifying here? Because if you look at it another way, with greater empathy, every day is a fight for a top-flight professional athlete.

Without having heart and desire and commitment, he will not be where he is. He fights against the inertia of being human, against the pull of being ordinary and unexceptional. He fights every day to maintain himself there, at a level above the ordinary human.

He fights against overpowering natural urges to let go, to not train every single day.

He fights to be disciplined to a degree required only by membership to a cult or an army; to eat healthy; to fight off a trillion little unseen twinges and cramps daily, to not just endure them, but to pretend as if they do not exist.

The vast majority of professional sportsmen have also fought so hard and so long to get where they are in the first place, the rest of us cannot possibly imagine. The heart and fight that we question? That is why they are where they are and not where the rest of us are.

Walking off a golf course, as Rory McIlroy did last month after a poor round, was not evidence that he lacks the fight, or that he is not committed enough.

It was an admission that life had beaten him that day, as it does all of us, only more often. Not forever, but that day.

To back away to square leg when a fast bowler is, at best, trying to dismiss you, or at worst, attempting to inflict some kind of physical or mental damage, is not lacking heart.

It is to say they are ultimately human, and therefore the most natural human instinct, that of self-preservation, is kicking in.

It is the very same instinct which takes over when players sometimes pull out of a tackle, or don't go in as hard on one.

And to lose 4-0 in India is not because the team did not fight, or that this generation does not have the heart of older ones. It is because they simply were not good enough.

India were better. The conditions got the better of them. The challenge did, too.

It is understandable that these kinds of intangible barbs are flung so often. It is almost an inevitable by-product of the growing distance between athletes and the rest of the observing world.

They are so removed from the rest of humanity in their small, hyper-talented, vastly moneyed, celebrity goldfish globes that they effectively cease to be human.

The distance has become so great that the observer no longer understands that what often ails him can affect athletes, too.

It cannot just be that they are too nervous, or that the fever really did affect them, or that they were physically spent, or that they were too sweaty, or too shivery, or just having a long, bad day.

Or too often, that they simply were not good enough.

It must be something beyond that, something deeper, something unseen.

And ultimately, something that is not even true.

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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