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Everywhere sport goes, words follow

Behind the sporting action, there's a lot of talking. You can find it in dressing room rants, trash talk, griping to referees and hurried prayers

Lionel Messi at the end of the fractious World Cup quarterfinal match with the Netherlands.
Lionel Messi at the end of the fractious World Cup quarterfinal match with the Netherlands. (AP)

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A year cannot be boring when it starts with a Russian being rudely dextrous with the English language. How does a heated Daniil Medvedev even think up this amusing line which he fires at an umpire at the Australian Open in January? 

“You are, how can I call it, a small cat.” 

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There are so many words spoken and shouted in sport all year and fewer are funny as time passes. Discourtesy comes easier. Quotes are anyway packaged and uttered by things called brands. It makes you wish you were a reporter in America in the time of Muhammad Ali. 

Ali’s words were entertaining but also had the sting of his left jab. In a 2019 piece in Sports Illustrated, Ben Pickman wrote: “The sports section was tradition- ally seen as the toy department of the newsroom, but coverage of the outspo- ken Ali often touched on subjects beyond boxing, offering a perspective on the state of race, religion and the Viet- nam War in America.” These days players plan to wear rainbow armbands at the World Cup, are threatened with a mere yellow card and abandon their protest. So much for the weight of their words. 

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For all the silent action which unfolds in arenas, words follow sport every- where. They are found in dressing room rants, sideline commands, trash talk, griping to referees and hurried prayer. They are hurled at the self on court, tat- tooed on to arms, yelled as weights are lifted and pasted on walls. A rower I knew had a sign above her mirror which asked a hard question: Do You Have What It Takes To Be An Olympian? 

The reporter’s notebook and record- ing device soak in words. We ask, probe, listen. We try to unlock the mys- teries of character and greatness and break it down into words. A Tour de France champion this year yawned in my face and spoke about coming down wet hillsides at 100 kmph on 28mm tyres. This life, in a word, even he agreed was “crazy”.

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This year, like every year, was never boring, for it involved scattered conver- sations with strange, obsessed people. Retired goalkeepers, amateur Channel crossers, Federer’s coach, salty sailors, mothers who had C-sections and won triathlons five months later. The last named, a Singaporean, Choo Ling Er, told me in passing: “I believe that the first time you quit, even while train- ing, it will be a chain reaction.” 

Uh-huh, replied this reporter. 

So much we heard this year wasn’t new because sport has a limited vocabulary and yet every time it was personal.
Athletes spoke of doubt, confidence, form, of patience, technique, belief, and only made us wince when they
referred to “process”. Some words were harder to find, like trying to interpret failure under the camera lights just 90 seconds after a race was blown. Sometimes, surely, athletes just want to say, as actor Wendell Pierce elegantly does: “F*** me.” 

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There’s whining, idiocy, bigotry, monosyllables, excuses, cliches in the sports world, but there are also words which are like slivers of sunshine. Ever heard the hope in a young athlete’s voice? Or the relief at achievement? Or the steel in a young woman judoka’s sentence when asked about pain? Or the mad breadth of their ambition? Then when they age, roughed up by time and defeat, they can become superb storytellers. 

Wasim Akram and Gideon Haigh wrote a book of fine, frank words and one day we will get the Indian equiva- lent. Coaches spoke in long sentences which said nothing and athletes occa- sionally said a lot in a few words. I read of a skier, Sofia Goggia, who had won downhill Olympic gold in 2018 but had injured her knee in late January this year. After one of her practice runs at the Olympics in February, she was asked about her chances and in eight words she offered a short study in defiance. 

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“We will see .... but slow I am not.” 

Incredibly, she won silver. 

Great players, especially artists, can’t always articulate what they do. Instinct can defy explanation. Lionel Messi, diminutive lord of the geometrical arts, produced a no-look pass to Nahuel Molina against the Netherlands at the recent World Cup which left a planet speechless. 

But words help for other things, like suffering for instance, where athletes use them to lead us into the crevices of their madness. Alex Yee, Olympic silver (individual) and gold (mixed relay) medallist in the Tokyo triathlon, spoke to me of just another training day of a nearly two-hour swim, 10km-run and four-and-a-half-hour cycle ride, except a blizzard interrupted. When he finished and finally got home, he had to wait outside. His hands were too cold to open the door. He’s English, so he settled for understatement. “It was not fun.” 

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Words open worlds, they translate the foreign, they reveal skills which humans acquire, they offer us glimpses into sports we look at from a distant shore. Russell Coutts, multiple-time winner of sailing’s America’s Cup, sat across a table on dry land and told me, “I can look at the water and I can read the wind moving across the water like a road map.” 

But my favourite words this year might be from an Indonesian. The sporting life tends to be so shrill, full of boasting and posturing and medal- counting, that it requires little moments of balance. Which is what Hendrawan, the badminton coach, offered us at the Commonwealth Games. 

In a familiar story which deserves constant retelling, the Jamaican Samuel Ricketts, who was facing the player Hendrawan was coaching, found his shoes falling apart during the match. Bad luck, you think. Manage somehow or forfeit. 

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But Hendrawan understood that the most basic thing an athlete desires at a Games is to finish what he started. To lose is fine, but to play the full game is essential. So the coach, who watched the rest of the match in his socks, walked on to court armed with four words for Ricketts. 

“What size you have?”

What else could it be but a perfect fit. 

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Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. 

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