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Sports and sportsmanship

June 29, 2017

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WHILE all the innocent merrymaking over the incredible — and sweeter because of that — cricket triumph at The Oval is justified, it is necessary to bear in mind the need to ensure that the hallowed traditions of sportsmanship are not breached.

The provocation for this warning has been provided by the trend to treat rivals in sports as implacable enemies in all spheres of life. The decline of the sportsman’s spirit on the cricket ground, for instance, obliged the International Cricket Council to bar the use of words of abuse or racial hatred against rival teams and to lay down heavy penalties for violations.

No sports lover could have been happy that this had to be done but everybody was relieved to see that it was.

The key to sportsmanship is treatment of sport as an essential cultural diversion.

However one is not sure that the kind of body convulsions and grimaces made when a bowler takes a wicket or a fielder holds a catch or a goal is scored in a football or hockey match are in harmony with the norms of sportsmanship. 

Much can be written about the spirit of sport but one of its cardinal rules is that competition between athletes and sportspersons belonging to different communities in the world is intended to foster goodwill among them and not to tear them apart. At any sports event, up to the Olympics, the participants try their best to beat their rivals but once the contest is over, they hail the winners and part as friends, however frustrated or hurt the losers may feel.

The key to sportsmanship is treatment of sport as an essential cultural diversion that enables individual players and teams to extend the limits of human achievement in sports. Every sportsperson is expected to do one’s best to defeat the rivals and bring honour to one’s team/ club/ country; but while doing so he or she must treat the opposite party with due respect.

The worst thing that partisanship in sports can lead to is hatred of the rivals or ethnic profiling. Hitler flouted the culture of sports during the 1936 Berlin Olympics by refusing to recognise the fastest man because he was black, and added to the charge sheet against him, an offence the world has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

There was a time when, besides instructing players in the basic requirements of discipline, fair play and civil conduct at public places, much emphasis was placed on dressing-room manners and courteous behaviour on and off the field.

For a long time, the England cricketers were categorised as gentlemen and players — and the captain had to be a gentleman because he was expected to make good after-dinner speeches.

It was not until Len Hutton arrived that this invidious distinction was abolished and players began to be chosen as captains regardless of their ability to tell appropriate jokes at social functions.

The Indian cricket team also used to be led by the ruling princes, who could make oratorial flourishes and also sometimes funded encounters in foreign lands. Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi was the last ruling prince to lead India; and the team that went to Australia in 1947 — the year of Partition — was captained by Lala Amarnath. (Fazal Mahmud could not go as he had become a citizen of Pakistan; he had to wait for his big day abroad until 1954 when he made a decisive contribution to Pakistan’s first Test victory — that too at The Oval.)

The decision to end the elite’s indefensible monopoly over captaincy of national teams was perhaps based on the hope that educational institutions were going to be the major promoters of sports. These hopes have remained largely unrealised in Pakistan.

The academic centres that did promote sport included instruction in manners neither in their curriculum nor in their training projects. As a result, Pakistan’s sportspersons are often influenced by groups that have little knowledge of the culture of sports. 

As regards sports contests between India and Pakistan, all those who plead that the two peoples should regularly play against one another believe in varying degrees that sports can be used for strengthening good neighbourly relations and friendship between them.

And those who oppose or obstruct India-Pakistan sports events are rightly recognised as enemies of not only friendship between the two countries but also of their mutual progress. In fact, all people of goodwill on both sides of the border should want to see the creation of an environment in which sportspeople develop a stake in each other’s success.

While each side may try to overcome the other at an international tournament, both should be able to cheer either of them in a contest with parties beyond the subcontinent or even Asia, as its success would bring glory to the whole subcontinent.

Thus the tributes paid to Team Pakistan by the captains of South Africa and India after losing to it should have persuaded the Pakistan side to greet the losers as teams worthy of its respect.

Tailpiece: A large number of Pakistanis have enjoyed the following comment on Team Pakistan by a famous British journalist, Rob Smyth: “I used to think that Pakistan were the most interesting team in the history of sport. I now realise they’re the most interesting team in the history of mankind. Their ability to teleport between farce and genius is unparalleled ... Nothing makes a blind bit of sense, key characters appear out from nowhere, supernatural forces are at work and inanimate objects can talk. All you can do is run with the mood and the madness...”

If Mr Smyth had an opportunity of watching our genius at work in matters related to governance or accountability or economic planning he might have run short of words to describe the mood and the madness instead of running with them.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2017