The embracing world of sport
Even in the competitive heat of the contest, sport naturally leans towards alliances. Not just of nationalities but between races and gender
To the jingoistic, my-nation-is-best, rest-of-the-world-hai-hai, chest-beating nationalist, a small passing thought about Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. German coaches polished him, a South African sports scientist tuned him, an Australian trainer sweated him. He got advice from a Norwegian shooter, grips from a Turkmenistani who spoke no English, gained confidence in America and sourced his pellets from China. One might say he was born in India but it took the world to help him rule the planet.
As much as we split ourselves into belligerent tribes and paint national flags and club logos on our faces and use uniforms to identify our allegiances, sport does not just separate, it binds. Indians helped spread the growth of kabaddi in other nations and a slow-talking, genial Kiwi arrived with a guitar to help India play cricket.
Eventually, John Wright left with an expanded vocabulary of “jaldi" and “chalo", a wooden coffee table that sits in his living room and the authentication of a deeply held belief. As he wrote to me last week: “I always believed if you all shared a passion for something then nationalities and race were irrelevant." Presumably sporting people see possibility, not difference.
Excellence has no border guards and to get better, you ask for help. If you want boxing assistance, dial a Cuban; need expertise on diving, call the Chinese. It’s how they make a living and transfer an art. Every nation likes to believe it’s the best—medal tables can be read on the basis of population, height, GDP and other silliness—yet none can do it alone. The English codified football but eventually its national team required instruction from an outsider. Humility in sport is always one defeat away.
Musicians, those slightly less fit cousins of athletes, will tell you that from collaboration comes the most dazzling creativity. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summers once made music together, while at Real Madrid, players from Portugal (Ronaldo), France (Karim Benzema) and Wales (Gareth Bale) united to write symphonies. At Wimbledon, the Swiss had a Swede and a Croat in his box while a Scot leaned on a Czech-American after having parted with a French woman. No one is the keeper of all the secrets of sport.
Sport may be ugly and brutal and individualistic, yet in the competitive heat of the contest it naturally leans towards alliances. Not just of nationalities but between races and gender. Boxer Muhammad Ali was a black icon whose trainer was the white Angelo Dundee, while the genius breaststroker Adam Peaty has been guided by a woman coach, Melanie Marshall.
Of course, teams will spy on each other, guard tactical information and train behind locked doors, yet leg spinners will discuss variations and runners will share hill-running notes. It is like meeting a fellow craftsman, another member of a small tribe, who knows the same pain and has worn the same frustrations and speaks the same vernacular. Years ago, Milkha Singh told me that in 1956, using an interpreter who spoke only broken English, he asked Charles Jenkins, the 400m champ that year, for his training schedule. The American graciously complied.
In a world focused these days on division, sport still preaches a more embracing idea. Occasionally, it will be stated that outsiders can’t appreciate our culture, but it is the protest of the intellectually lame. Language anyway is an impediment only for the unimaginative and football managers with inadequate English have coached adequately at English clubs. Everyone understands the words “pass" and “get off" and swearing in every language has an easily recognizable music.
Not every collaboration works but when it does, it brings an uncommon joy and a sense of community. Dutchman Guus Hiddink’s brief work with the South Korean football team led to an honorary doctorate in that nation, figurines being made to resemble him, a stadium being named after him, and The New York Times writing that “corporations want to emulate his leadership style (and)...enraptured students are demanding that he be given citizenship". Only sport, you think, could be so embracing of a temporary visitor.
The more nations pursue their narrow interests, the more we require the wider coalitions of sport. At the Youth Olympics, in many sports such as archery, girls and boys from different nations play for the same team. It plays hell with medal tables, which is precisely its appeal. Not everyone wins a medal anyway but at the end of any partnership in sport, any cross-cultural enterprise, everyone goes home with a little something.
A new word perhaps in a different language. A batting stance. A type of clothing. A way of saying thank you. A practice regime. A different way of thinking. A curse word. An eating ritual. A religious custom.
And sometimes a piece of love.
Heinz Reinkemeier, who coached Abhinav Bindra in tandem with his wife, Gaby Buhlmann, also mentored the Indian shooter Suma Shirur. Roughly five years ago, he noticed something that Shirur was wearing, asked what it symbolized and then requested that she find him one. So Shirur went home to Mumbai, visited a jeweller, had the item made, took it to Germany and handed it to Heinz, who then gave it to his wife.
And so now if you visit the town of Drensteinfurt, population under 16,000, south of Munster, and happen to meet Gaby Buhlmann, don’t be surprised. Because some days she wears a mangalsutra.
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.