Friday, January 19, 2018

Watching world sport in a fix

Like the security officer at Melville Hall Airport on Saturday afternoon, I am also damn vex that the West Indies again disposed of Zimbabwe in less than three days. Our reasons though are very different.

This irate lady, standing at the entrance to the security checkpoint, couldn't stop complaining about the regional side being so selfish in winning the match by an innings an hour after lunch on Friday, and therefore depriving Dominicans of a chance to fill Windsor Park on at least one day of the weekend and see homeboy Shane Shillingford mow through the hapless visitors.

My motivation is also selfish, but more in the context of the consequences of having too much spare time because of the early finish. If there was torrential rain in the nature isle over the first two days of the match, the fixture may have gone into the scheduled last day yesterday and, not being able to walk and eat tamarind ball at the same time, I would have come up with some hastily-typed, error-strewn piece on the match, no doubt giving some unfortunate sub-editor a headache to make sense of, especially as it might have duplicated what Tony Cozier commented on in these pages in the Sunday Express.

But at least that would have been his or her problem, not mine.

So when I should be in Roseau watching cricket, I'm back at home on a Sunday morning being bombarded with all these reasons why we should just take sport at face value and enjoy its ability to provide superficial entertainment and shallow satisfaction, because to do otherwise to delve into the how's and the why's, to place it in the context of a bigger picture is to become thoroughly disillusioned and cynical over spectacles that are portrayed and celebrated as joyfully spontaneous.

Take yesterday's Formula One Grand Prix event in Malaysia, in which three-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel angered his teammate Mark Webber and Red Bull team officials by winning the event despite clear instructions for the German to let the Australian win the race. You hear that: "let" the other man win. And that's not all, former world champion Lewis Hamilton, now driving for Mercedes, finished third only because his teammate, Nico Rosberg, was ordered not to overtake the Briton when the Finn had every chance of doing so in the final laps to the chequered flag.

To cut a long story short, the race was fixed, although there is no mention of that characterisation anywhere in any sports report because this is seen as perfectly normal in a sport celebrated as the most glamorous in the world, where the hoity-toities from Monaco to Melbourne flim and flam, enjoy their champagne and caviar and where, we are supposed to believe, even the remotest suspicion of improper conduct by race teams on and off the track is treated with the utmost seriousness.

Yet while they split hairs over engine capacities and tyre quality, the most blatant aspect of Formula One that undermines the very competitiveness of the thing is taken as part of the glossy package. Of course, the same thing happens in cycling, where teams determine well in advance of premier events like the Tour de France who will be their leader, and other riders are required to do everything tactically possible to keep the nominated man at the helm, even if one of his teammates has a good a chance as anyone else of taking the yellow jersey.

And we're not even talking about doping and Lance Armstrong as yet.

Speaking of fixing, I suppose my first real experience of a suspicious sporting result was Argentina's 6-0 mauling of Peru at the 1978 World Cup finals when the hosts needed to win by four clear goals to advance to the final at the expense of arch-rivals Brazil. Yet even as considerable evidence points towards the Peruvians being offered all sorts of inducements (and maybe threats) to lose by a wide margin, that footballing controversy evaporates into irrelevance against the backdrop of the unspeakable brutality meted out to tens of thousands of their own countrymen by the military dictators who ruled the South American nation at that time.

Watching a BBC report yesterday, in which eyewitness evidence is now emerging of more grotesque savagery by the minions of de facto president Jorge Videla, makes all the tension, anxiety and exultation over those football games nearly 35 years ago appear deeply insensitive. But how is a 13-year-old, watching an entire World Cup tournament "live" for the first time and adopting Argentina as "his" team because his father backed West Germany and Brazil, who still considers the cool, silky striker Mario Kempes to be his favourite footballer of all time, supposed to appreciate then what was going on away from the television cameras?

It is chilling to think that at the same time that Kempes was sidestepping lunging tackles and stroking the ball into the back of the net fellow Argentines who dared to criticise the military junta were being lined up and shot. All of the joy of the moment drains away in contemplating the possibility that just as Videla was presenting the World Cup to his country's captain, Daniel Passarella, those victims of summary execution were being flung out of aircraft into the trees, tributaries and swamps of the Parana Delta.

So much for a cherished sporting memory. Darren Sammy and company should have tried harder to stretch out that match in Dominica. Shame on them.