25 January 2010

Defining moments 5: Nicklaus defines true sportsmanship

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

The English language is a peculiar beast. While the words ‘sports’ and ‘games’ are broadly similar, ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘gamesmanship’ have distinctly different meanings. The former is all about playing fair and giving consideration to your opponent in the heat of competition; the latter suggests a more conniving attitude that seeks to maximise any available advantage short of outright cheating. For instance, a snooker player who deliberately slows the game down in an attempt to disrupt the rhythm of a dominant opponent is employing gamesmanship; another who points out to the referee that he has touched a ball with his waistcoat, thereby committing a foul, is displaying exemplary sportsmanship.

Sporting gestures are frequently small things, such as a footballer kicking the ball out of play so an injured player can receive immediate treatment, with possession being returned at the restart.

Sometimes such acts occur on a more humanitarian scale: for instance, Niki Lauda’s terrifying crash at the Nurburgring, where other drivers stopped to pull him from the wreckage of his burning car, acts of selflessness over self-interest which saved the Austrian’s life.

And occasionally, displays of sportsmanship can be so magnanimous as to sacrifice victory in favour of doing the right thing – a simple matter of gentlemanly honour.

Royal Birkdale Golf Club, September 1969

The 1969 Ryder Cup started amid a less than gentlemanly atmosphere.

The Americans had enjoyed a long period of dominance over Britain (it would not become ‘Europe’ until 1979) in the competition, having won 12 of the previous 13 meetings, including the last five. The 1967 match in Houston had been as one-sided as the final scoreline of 23½-8½ would suggest. However, with a strong, young team and the added benefit of home advantage this time around, captain Eric Brown was confident Britain stood a genuine chance of securing only its second Ryder Cup win since World War II. So keen was he to grab every possible advantage that he even ordered his players not to help the Americans look for their balls if they were lost in the rough, setting the tone for a series of niggly, ill-tempered spats between the teams.

In spite of this, the match itself developed into a classic, with 17 of the 32 ties going to the final hole and the British side matching their American counterparts shot for shot and point for point. With just one game left to complete, the match score was deadlocked at 15½-15½.

In keeping with the rest of the match, the final rubber between Britain’s Tony Jacklin and the USA’s Jack Nicklaus - arguably the two best players in the world at that time - is closely contested. The tie see-saws first one way then the other as they wrestle for the initiative, neither leading by more than one hole at any point.

With three holes remaining, the pair are level. Nicklaus wins the 16th to edge ahead, but Jacklin then sinks a monster 50-foot putt to send them down the last hole of the last match of the Ryder Cup all square.

As they walk down the fairway together after their tee shots, the American asks his opponent how he is feeling.

“I’m petrified,” Jacklin admits, to which Nicklaus responds, “If it’s any consolation, I feel exactly the same way you do.”

By the time they stride onto the 18th green it resembles a tiny, tightly-packed gladiators’ arena, with the entire crowd gathered several rows deep around its periphery, straining to glimpse the climax of three days of competition. Jacklin’s ball is further from the hole, meaning he must putt first. His attempt from around 25 feet away is perfect in line but not distance, agonisingly stopping just over two feet short. A valiant try, but now he must watch, powerless, as his opponent lines up a putt to win both the tie and the Ryder Cup outright.

Great player though he is, even Nicklaus is struggling to control the adrenaline surging through his veins. He strikes the ball aggressively and watches aghast as it sails past the hole and rolls on a further four feet. Now the shoe is on the other foot; he has to go first, and if he misses and Jacklin succeeds then it will be Britain and not the USA who will claim the Cup.

Big pressure putts are familiar territory for a top golfer; the added expectation of representing a team and a nation in such a historical and prestigious event is not. The situation might destroy a lesser man, but not Nicklaus, who nonchalantly rolls the ball into the centre of the hole and breathes a massive sigh of relief. Now he can do no worse than draw the tie and the overall match, and if nerves get the better of Jacklin, he would claim outright victory for himself and the USA.

One can only imagine what thoughts are racing through Jacklin’s mind as he watches Nicklaus hole out. The putt he faces is relatively straightforward under normal circumstances, but this situation is anything but. This is pressure at its most intense, and with everyone’s eyes trained on him he has nowhere to hide.

However, of all the scenarios playing out in his brain, the one he has not considered is the one that actually occurs. Nicklaus picks his own ball out of the hole, pauses, and then reaches over to pick up his opponent’s marker, conceding the putt. He goes over to the Englishman, offers his hand, and explains, “I don't think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

The two golfers leave the course together with an arm around each other’s shoulder to heartfelt and deserved applause from the crowd. It is a fitting end to an honourable match between two great rivals.

In the final analysis, Nicklaus and Jacklin halved their match, and the overall score finished 16-16, the first tie in Ryder Cup history. Under the competition’s rules, this meant the USA, as the current holders, retained the trophy. Nicklaus knew this; he knew it made no material difference to the fate of the Cup whether he himself won or drew. The concession cost nothing in competitive terms, but was of immeasurable sporting value.

Nicklaus explained later, “I believed good sportsmanship should be as much a part of the Ryder Cup as great competition.” Jacklin has always been quick to agree, calling it “the greatest single sporting gesture in golf”.

Not everyone involved saw it that way. American captain Sam Snead was apoplectic: “It was ridiculous to give him that putt. We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.” Fortunately, others were able to see the bigger picture. Leo Fraser, President of the US PGA, graciously agreed the two countries should each retain the trophy for a year, contrary to tradition.

The events of 1969 were echoed eighteen years later when the Americans were defeated on home soil for the first time ever after Larry Nelson graciously conceded a two-foot putt to Bernhard Langer. The captains that year? Nicklaus and Jacklin.

Jack Nicklaus demonstrated that sportsmanship is as much about the way you win as the way you play the game, and that it can even be infectious. Conceding Tony Jacklin’s putt was an instinctive act, a small yet grand gesture from one of golf’s true gentlemen, and one which has deservedly earned a place in sporting legend.

14 January 2010

Bernie Ecclestone’s Wacky Races

Whisper it quietly, but has Formula 1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone finally lost the plot?

Over the past year, he has unsuccessfully attempted (twice) to replace F1’s scoring system with a ‘medal’ structure in which the driver with the most race wins (as opposed to the most points) becomes world champion. He later suggested a lottery to determine the top ten grid positions, which similarly failed to gain traction.

And now, at Ferrari’s pre-season media bash, he has suggested introducing short cuts at F1 tracks in an attempt to promote overtaking and prevent processional races.

"I've tried to push the teams with a number of proposals. Imagine a short cut which a driver can use five times every race. Then you wouldn’t get stuck behind a slower car."

Is Bernie being serious here, or is this just an act of verbal mischief designed to provoke a reaction from the teams and generate global column inches for F1, both of which he is a past master at doing?

In the past, whenever Ecclestone or FIA president Max Mosley said something, it generally happened. But Mosley has now gone, replaced by Jean Todt, and F1’s reputation and economics have taken a battering: we have had ‘Crashgate’, Honda, Toyota, BMW and Renault have all exited the sport since December 2008, and major sponsors have chosen to reprioritise their budgets.

F1 is at a watershed. This is hardly a unique occurrence in a sport which has historically thrived on chaos and upheaval, but for the first time Bernie’s pronouncements seem strangely out of step, desperate even. For over 30 years, Ecclestone has masterfully manipulated the ebb and flow of F1’s tidal politics, sometimes pitching outrageous ideas but always ultimately getting what he really wants. He is still doing the former, but without achieving the latter.

The suggested medal system was radical, but not entirely barmy (and, ultimately, F1’s points system has been overhauled for 2010). The top 10 lottery was more nonsensical, threatening as it did to make a mockery of the idea that F1 is all about performance being directly correlated with results.

But, seriously, short cuts to promote overtaking? What’s the real agenda here, Bernie? Is there even an agenda at all, other than publicity? And whatever will he think of next? All pit stops have to be executed at the nearest branch of Kwik Fit? Traffic lights to control the flow of cars and prevent anyone from running away with a race? Or perhaps giving every driver a box of thumb tacks they can drop in the path of trailing cars?

Or maybe Bernie’s grand plan to rejuvenate F1 is to replace Toyota, BMW and Renault with the Ant Hill Mob, Professor Pat Pending and Dick Dastardly and Muttley?

He wouldn’t, would he?

Mancini shows true class

As a typically tribal and one-eyed football fan, it’s not normally in my nature to praise a rival manager, player or club. But rules are made to be broken.

Emmanuel Adebayor has spoken of his personal trauma following last week’s attack on the bus carrying the Togo team, during which their press officer died in his arms. He is currently back in Togo, having been granted compassionate leave by Manchester City. Speaking in a TV interview in Togo, he said:

"If it meant going back tomorrow, I wouldn't be capable of giving everything that I've got. At the moment I can't eat, I am losing weight. It is very difficult for everyone. At the moment my head is not on football now. We are talking about lives – life is more important than football.”

Now I lost all respect for Adebayor during his final year at Arsenal, in which it was obvious that he wanted away, despite his mealy-mouthed protestations to the contrary. His provocative actions after scoring against his old club earlier in the season – sprinting 90 yards to celebrate in front of the travelling Arsenal fans – didn’t help rebuild any bridges either.

On this occasion, however, I entirely sympathise with his decision to spend some time away from football and get his head straight - not because it weakens a rival with their sights on a Champions League spot, but because it’s the right thing to do.

City manager Roberto Mancini has made it clear he will not try to hasten Adebayor’s return, and in doing so demonstrated that, although I have some reservations about whether he is a proven top class manager, he is clearly a top class man.

"He [Adebayor] has lived through a terrible tragedy. You can imagine the shock of a terrorist shooting at your bus and some of your closest friends. What counts more than anything is the man and he is extremely distressed. I'm very sorry for him because the situation is unbearable. I will wait for him and when he comes back we will speak with him. After that we'll decide when he's ready and OK to play."

As a typically tribal and one-eyed football fan, it’s not normally in my nature to praise a rival manager, player or club. But at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson is becoming increasingly curmudgeonly, Rafa Benitez is hanging on to his job and his reputation by a thread and even Arsene Wenger is prone to the occasional bizarre and unwarranted outburst, it is reassuring to see Mancini putting human interest beyond financial or competitive ones. The Premier League is a better place for his presence.

11 January 2010

Togo's yo-yo no-go

There's not much to report that hasn't already been reported about last Friday's machine-gun attack on the bus transporting the Togo national football team to their base in Cabinda for the Africa Cup of Nations.

We know that Cabinda is a particularly volatile region of Angola, itself hardly the most stable country in the world. We know that, during the 30-minute attack, the bus driver, Togo's press officer and an assistant coach were killed, and that goalkeeper Kodjovi Obilale remains in intensive care.

We might ask why Angola was deemed a suitable host for the tournament - but, in truth, how many countries in Africa are genuinely safe and stable? We can wonder why the team was travelling by bus rather than air.

We can also speculate as to the exact reasons behind the team's initial desire to withdraw from the tournament, and their subsequent about-turn. And about the Togolese government's last-minute request to reinstate the team after insisting over the weekend that they come home. And about why the Confederation of African Football summarily turned that request down having initially made every effort to persuade Togo to stay.

No doubt there has been much politicking behind the scenes, and many assurances made. In all honesty, that interests me not a jot. I have a broad understanding of the wider political and ethical issues involved. I understand the desire to defy such acts of violence to ensure the terrorists don't 'win'. (Whatever that means; I rather think the rebels have made their point already.)

However, when you have spent half an hour cowering under your seat while unseen terrorists take pot-shots at your bus - not something many of us (thankfully) have ever experienced - I would think the natural reaction of "I'm a footballer, get me out of here!" would be perfectly understandable to any sensible person.

Apparently not. I have seen/heard some comments - from, admittedly, a very small minority - criticising the Togolese players for going home. Frequently these have been couched in terms of higher moral principles: the show must go on; honour the dead; after all, the Munich Olympics didn't stop after the massacre there.


Three dead. Others injured. Everyone traumatised. I know footballers are often accused - often with considerable justification - of being completely removed from reality. But not this time. If you or I lost were involved in a traumatic incident where someone died, would we be expected to show up for work the following day as if nothing had happened? Of course not.

Whatever the personal and political reasons resulting in the Togo team's departure, who are we to criticise? This isn't some philosophical hypothesis - it is a reality, involving real people with genuine emotions and fears. The bottom line is: is football really that important when the players involved have witnessed death first-hand?

I think not.

4 January 2010

Review: ‘My Comeback’, Lance Armstrong

This coffee table tome – titled Comeback 2.0 elsewhere in the world – certainly lives up to its subtitle of ‘up close and personal’, providing the reader with genuine insight into the year that Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, returned from retirement.

And what a year it was too, encompassing not only a podium finish at the Tour in his racing comeback, but also the birth of a child and his second ‘job’ promoting global cancer awareness and fund-raising through the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

The book is essentially a photographic account of the twelve months following Armstrong’s decision to return to racing in September 2008, annotated with his own, frequently wry, commentary.

Elizabeth Kreutz’s excellent photography strikes a nice balance between journalistic and candid images, recording meetings with global heads of state, training and race preparation, and more intimate moments with his family and the seemingly ever-present drug testers. Kreutz’s images capture, amongst many other moments in time, Armstrong in the company of former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush (possibly the ultimate in jaw-dropping name-dropping); a shot of Ben Stiller posing on Lance’s bike, to which is attached a little-known tale of near-disaster (the actor broke the bike’s chain mere minutes before the team time trial, necessitating a rapid repair), and the great man’s obvious joy at the miraculous birth of his fourth child, Max (having been told by doctors during his cancer treatment that he would be unable to father children naturally again).

If you want Armstrong’s life story, this is not the book for you. (Pick up one of his previous two autobiographies, It’s Not About The Bike or Every Second Counts instead.) Or if you are looking for the full story of his 2009 comeback, there are a number of other books out there covering the 2009 Tour de France and Armstrong’s role in the race.

But if you are looking for a book which conveys both breadth and depth lacking in press coverage or other, unauthorised biographies, then this admirably fills in the background detail behind the big stories with the aid of some fantastic – and exclusive – photography. It is, at most, an hour’s leisurely read, but to judge the book purely on its length is to miss the point. My Comeback is a fascinating year-in-the-life record of one of sport’s most successful, intriguing and charismatic sportspeople. Well worth seeking out, particularly at the kind of discounted prices readily available online.

4 stars (out of 5)

For more information about the Lance Armstrong Foundation, or to make a donation, visit the Live Strong website here.