Along time ago hate came an athlete’s way like a rough wind. Contempt followed. Labels of traitor were hurled. Red Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but as David Remnick recounted in his book King Of The World, Smith wrote that “Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war”.
Smith later changed his mind but then Muhammad Ali changed so many minds. Novak Djokovic won’t do so easily. Ali wore principle, Djokovic privilege. One man was ready to give up his title, and did, the other would—if you ask his critics—tell any story to try and win his title. One man is perhaps the most loved athlete we have known, the other is making it hard to admire him.
Last week, I wondered, which athletes do we hail and why? Are there those we respect, some we venerate, and others we watch even if they are low-down fellows but with high skills? Is blind love boring or beautiful or a little of both?
Do we really know athletes? Is the standoffish athlete in fact only focused? Aren’t scoundrels important? Are there lines we draw but are we morally flexible depending on the score and the nation? Are we torn? Between Virat’s bravery in a mostly silent sporting India in raising the issue of religious bigotry and Kohli’s yelling of inanities into a microphone? Is heat of the moment an excuse for immaturity or a challenge to temperament?
Djokovic reminds me of a bungee cord, elastic and unbreakable. His tennis has a ferocious athleticism and his legend has been forged under pressure. To ignore his superiority to the Swiss and Spaniard is to refute cold fact.
But is tennis all there is to it? In the record books, yes, in our appreciation, perhaps not. The ATP Sportsmanship Award has been won by either Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer since 2004 and the ATP Fan Favourite Award has been won by Federer for the last 19 years. They are consistently affable and this is a truth but, his recent wilfulness aside, is there something about the way Djokovic is painted by those who spread the word? Like the way Björn Borg was Scandinavian and cool and Ivan Lendl East European and cold.
Still, it takes a lot to put people off because with athletes we are endlessly forgiving. Steve Smith, for instance. When athletes win, we renew our vows with them. Genius gets excused its vanity. We don’t always like all of an athlete but parts of them. The defiant ruffian in Diego Maradona. The scrapping of Serena Williams. The analyst in Andre Agassi. Other parts maybe glitter less.
It’s hard to say who we like and who we won’t and when we will. People evolve and so do we. Arthur Ashe was dismissive of women players and once—as Billie Jean King noted in her book All In—he told The Boston Globe, “The women are going to disappear because they draw flies.” Later, he became a heroic, graceful activist. Once we held John McEnroe’s racket-hurling as entertaining rebellion, now we consider Nadal’s refusal to ever throw his as high virtue. Oh, well.
Sport isn’t logical and neither is the act of admiration. Michael Jordan flew like an athletic angel and yet was swollen with hubris and preferred commerce to activism. We listen to what people say when they lose (Kane Williamson at the 2019 World Cup) and how they react when they win (Great Britain women’s hockey players consoling the defeated Indians at the 2021 Olympics). We cringe at bigots and racists who stain the very idea of sport but forgive diving cheats if they play for our team.
We give artists rope and put our weight behind underdogs. It’s a human thing. We are taken by tales of farmers’ kids, shoes tattered but tenacity intact, finding their way on to podiums. We are suckers for sportsmanship partly because we are just stunned people can put grace before winning.
As eras pass so can tastes. Passion, in cricket, for one fan must be expressed aggressively and for another quietly. Volume does not always equal strength. There are no saints, we have figured out—well, George Best aside—but it’s consistency we search for. Patterns of decency shine and repeat offenders grate. We even wink occasionally at conceit because it depends how it’s presented. With a sly Usain Bolt smile or the showmanship of Ali is just fine.
Ali was more fascinating and flawed than the hagiographic version of him now presented to the world. We live in a less-nuanced, black-white world but the boxer’s complexity—from how he fought, to whom he followed, to what he resisted, to what he said—was his attraction. And what he also did was give journalists access, and spoke freely, and allowed us to see the layers in the man. Today, in many sports, we are provided social media handouts and thus only peeks into an athlete.
Djokovic is complex in his own way, crown on head and chip on shoulder. But maybe, as happens with so many exceptional athletes, he feels righteous about his path and insulated by an applauding entourage. A cult of his own. In a suffering Melbourne, in a hotel full of refugees—as Sharda Ugra wrote in Mojo, Djokovic’s childhood in a war-torn country surely gave him insight into the suffering of refugees—it was still only about himself.
Selfishness is almost viewed as an athletic staple, a bending of your surrounding world to your single dream. But everything is about proportion and taken too far, it can feel an athlete believes he is deserving always of special treatment. As if it is an inherent right.
It jars particularly because some athletes are looking beyond themselves. They live for sport and excellence but see life beyond it. Naomi Osaka stands up against racism, Simone Biles speaks up for mental health, Megan Rapinoe scraps for equal pay. They are doing what sport always needs and what we respect. Raising the standard, inside the lines and outside.
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.