Talking Sport: Close, But No Cigar

Spare a thought for the guy who comes in second

by Lamont Russell

If Usain Bolt didn’t exist, Tyson Gay would be the greatest sprinter of the decade. Which is a reminder that professional sport is a winner take all business. No one really cares much, or spares a lot of a thought for who-ever comes in second. Gay stands in a long queue of athletes who could easily have dominated their particular sports – if only this other guy, or girl, hadn’t gotten in the way.

Psychologically, there are ways of coping with this situation. On his own website, Gay pays due homage to the inspiration he has received from his sister Tiffany, his daughter Trinity and his mother Daisy Lowe. There is absolutely no mention of a certain 6 foot five inch sprinter from Trelawney Parish, Jamaica. Maybe the plan is…If Gay doesn’t mention you know who, maybe he can pretend that what’s his name doesn’t really exist.

The athlete that Gay does single out for praise is the great Namibian Frankie Fredericks – who finished second to Linford Christie in the 1992 Olympics 100m final, second to Michael Marsh in the 200 metres that year, second to Donovan Bailey in the 100 metres at the 1996 Olympics, second to Michael Johnson in the 200 metres that year and second to Ato Bolden in the 100 metres at the 1998 Commonwealth games in Kuala Lumpur…Are we seeing a pattern here? If being the perennial bridesmaid is hard enough for Gay – who has been the best American sprinter of his day – think of how hard it must be for number three Asafa Powell, who can’t even console himself by being the best sprinter in Jamaica.

In golf, it may even be worse. Plainly, having Tiger Woods around has taken its psychological toll of Phil Mickelson. For years, it rendered him incapable of winning a major championship. Even when Woods wasn’t kicking his ass, it seemed that those rare absences still put a hex on Mickelson. These days, the absolute hoodoo has been dispelled – Mickelson now has a couple of majors to his credit – but Woods’ continued domination of the game still plainly rankles. Being called the best left hander in the current game isn’t much compensation.

Sometimes of course, the rivalries for first and second become epic contests that echo down a decade or more. In tennis, think Borg vs McEnroe, Sampras vs Agassi and more recently Federer vs Nadal. Sometimes the difference involved can be miniscule. The current distance between being Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay is just over one tenth of a second spread over the course of running a hundred metres.

In similar fashion, the tired tendons in Rafael Nadal’s knees have been the main difference between Roger Federer being the greatest tennis player in history, and Federer stalling at a point just below the summit alongside Rod Laver and Pete Sampras. And let’s not go into the millimeters on one single shot that marked the difference between Tommy Haas beating Federer in straight sets in the French Open fourth round this year, and the Swiss champion ultimately winning the tournament.

We should remember just how recently – at the Australian Open and during its immediate aftermath – that it seemed certain that Federer would never, could never win another Slam. Yes, history does owe quite a lot to Rafa’s dodgy knees.

The soccer World Cup is due to take place next year in South Africa. In the Guardian, Louise Taylor recently set off a firestorm by questioning whether South Africa is actually a safe place to hold such an event. In particular, her ‘50 murders a day’ line drew a lot of flak. In a related point, she wondered aloud whether South Africa’s dodgy public transport system will be up to the task of moving thousands of visitors around the cities and to the venues, quickly and safely.

The tone of her article was hardly inflammatory. Just as reasonably, her critics have argued that rugby tours and international cricket tournaments do manage to be held in South Africa without major carnage. All the same, as Taylor shows in her article, such events in the past have occasionally resulted in the robbery and murder of visitors.

In Taylor’s view, the responsibility should be sheeted home to the FIFA bureaucrats who awarded South Africa the event. Ultimately though, it will be up to the fans to make a judgement call on the risks involved next year in touring the Republic – and on the steps deemed necessary, to keep themselves reasonably safe. – by Lamont Russell

Lamont Russell is a Wellington based writer