Sportspersons are also human.
Much as we may be intimidated by their almost superhuman prowess on the playing field, they are just as prone to the same worries as any other man or woman.
Stress or panic attacks are no longer uncommon in our heroes.
Stanislas Wawrinka is the latest to open up about his demons detailing the tears he couldn’t prevent before the Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic which incidentally he won after dropping the first set.
The pressure of expectations can be high and the bulky Swiss almost came undone in dramatic fashion.
Speaking to Sport24, Wawrinka said:
“A lot of people are asking me how I was able to take the court, nonchalantly, when five minutes prior to that I had a stress attack and I was trying to hold back tears. I tried [but] I wasn’t able to.
I was close to breaking point – the moment where you let it all out, physically and nervously. I really felt I was at my limit. Maybe with the heat everyone thought I was perspiring.
So, how did I do it? I’ll tell you. I hurt myself. I tried to extend rallies as much as possible – one more shot, and another – to make the legs churn and not the head.
When I’m nervous like that, the fatigue feels a lot, lot stronger. And my legs hurt so much. I even screamed at my box, ‘I can’t make it. I’m dead. My legs are gone’. I was hurting so much. I was pushing myself so hard. I was so out of breath that I finally ended up muffling those little voices in my head.”
Brazilian great Ronaldo was not so fortunate.
The buck-toothed striker pulled out of the 1998 World Cup final against France demoralising his side which then succumbed to Zinedine Zidane’s magic. Many believe the script would have been different had Ronaldo taken the field.
Tennis stars Mardy Fish and Rebecca Marino succumbed to the vagaries of the games and ended their careers prematurely.
Fish struggled with anxiety attacks and a heart problem for three years before calling it a day in 2015.
Writing for Player’s Tribune, Mardy says:
I am hours away from playing in the biggest tennis match of my life: the fourth round of the U.S. Open … on Labor Day … on my dad’s birthday … on Arthur Ashe … on CBS … against Roger Federer. I am hours away from playing the greatest player of all time, for a chance at my best-ever result, in my favorite tournament in the world. I am hours away from playing the match that you work for, that you sacrifice for, for an entire career.
And I can’t do it.
I literally can’t do it.
It’s early afternoon; I’m in the transportation car on my way to the courts.
And I am having an anxiety attack.
Actually, I’m having several anxiety attacks — at first, one every 15 minutes or so, but pretty soon every 10. My mind starts spiraling. I’m just freaking out.
My wife is asking me, ‘What can we do? What can we do? How can we make this better?’
And I tell her the truth: ‘The only thing that makes me feel better right now … is the idea of not playing this match.’”
The ironic part is that Mardy Fish always had problems with his weight.
But he turned himself around soon after his marriage in 2009 and lost 30 lbs going from 202 to 172.
In 2011, he became the highest ranked American surpassing his close friend Andy Roddick.
In 2012, he was No. 8.
He was one of the élite.
And that’s when the anxiety levels increased.
“The idea that I wasn’t good enough was a powerful one — it drove me, at an age when many players’ careers are winding down, to these amazing heights. But it also became a difficult switch to turn off. I was, objectively, doing great. And looking back, I wish I had been able to tell myself that. But doing great wasn’t something that my frame of mind back then had time to process. All I could focus on was doing better. It was a double-edged sword.”
He started experiencing heart arrhythmias and underwent a corrective procedure called an ablation.
But the anxiety attacks continued.
Things came to a head when he decided that he couldn’t go on court in front of 22,000 spectators at the 2012 US Open and play Roger Federer.
And then he just stopped playing.
He concludes his piece thus:
“But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed.
In fact I’m writing this, in a lot of ways, for the express purpose of showing weakness. I’m writing this to tell people that weakness is okay. I’m here to tell people that it’s normal.
And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms.
Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.
And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play. You don’t have to play. Don’t play …
That, too, is strength.
As for what comes next, I’m not sure. I’m 33 now, and I know that I’ll never do anything as well as I played tennis. But that’s fine.
I still deal with my anxiety on a daily basis. I still take medication daily. It’s still in my mind daily. There are days that go by where I’ll think to myself, at night, when I’m going to bed: Hey, I didn’t think about it once today. And that means I had a really good day.
Those are the victories, for me.
But there is no tournament to win for mental health. There are no quarterfinals, or semifinals, or finals. I will not be ending this piece with a sports metaphor.”
Because sports end in a result. And life keeps going.
Mine, I hope, is just getting started. “
Rebecca Marino—Canadian top player of the year in 2010 and 2011—quit the game because she could no longer stand the incessant trolling on social media. She had been battling depression for six years.
Marino, however, has not given up on sport completely.
She’s a member of University of British Columbia’s rowing crew.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a bad day. I honestly can say I’m a different person. That’s why I stepped away from tennis — to find myself and work on my mental and physical well-being.
And here I am.”
“I’m pretty comfortable with how things went. I can’t really look back and wonder: ‘What if?’ I’m in a really great place.
I’m doing things I love now. I wouldn’t change it.”
Rowing is in the family too.
Her uncle, George Hungerford, represented Canada at the 1964 Rome Olympics and clinched gold. Her brother competed at the University of California.
“I actually avoided rowing for a long time.I just thought: ‘I’m never going to wake up at 4 a.m., come to practice, go until I almost want to puke.
Who would want to do that?’
…There’s a camaraderie. You really bond together as a crew.”
Marino still doesn’t watch tennis though.
“Fashion is very important for me, so (whatever I wear or design) always has to be fashionable. But clearly it also has to be functional. They go hand-in-hand. I wouldn’t pick one over the other. But it’s easy to design something functional without being fashionable. It’s about challenging yourself to push it a little bit.”
In 2014, it was Shamil Tarpsichev, the President of the Russian Tennis Federation , who set the blogosphere afire with his ill-advised comments about the Williams’ gender on national television.
This time, it’s Raymond Moore, the Indian Wells tournament director who put his foot into his mouth when he remarked thus:
“In my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coat tails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have.”
The South African is a former tennis player and helped establish the joint ATP-WTA tourney.
Moore compounded his folly further by speculating on the future of women’s tennis without Maria Sharapova.
He named Garbine Muguraza and Genie Bouchard as being both “physically attractive and competitively attractive” and that they “can assume the mantle of leadership once Serena decides to stop.”
Moore later apologised but not before a flurry of rejoinders and calls for his resignation from players, commentators and fans alike.
While these are the sort of comments that one can expect from arm-chair fans and critics of the game in the comfort of their homes , or even spectators in sports bars after the influence of a few drinks in rowdy company, it’s not becoming from the CEO of the tournament. He risks alienating women players and their fans.
Serena Williams responded:
“I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that. I think Venus, myself, a number of players — if I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister — I couldn’t even bring up that number. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement.
I think there is a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch. I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch. I think it definitely goes both ways.
There’s only one way to interpret that. ‘Get on your knees,’ which is offensive enough, and ‘thank a man’? We, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”
Patrick McEnroe was among those calling for Moore’s sacking.
Novak Djokovic, however, was his incorrigible self.
“I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the, you know, reasons why maybe we should get awarded more.
Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve. I think as long as it’s like that and there is data and stats available and information, upon who attracts more attention, spectators, who sells more tickets and stuff like that, in relation to that it has to be fairly distributed.
Knowing what they have to go through with their bodies — and their bodies are much different than men’s bodies — they have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff — we don’t need to go into details. Ladies know what I’m talking about. Really, great admiration and respect for them to be able to fight on such a high level.”
Moore may have apologised and the brouhaha over his remarks will probably die down in a week or so. The average fan’s memory is short-lived.
The gender divide persists.
There exists parity in earnings between men and women at the Grand Slams and other joint tournaments like Indian Wells. Scoffers and skeptics may enquire whether women shouldn’t play five sets as well at the Slams.
Also, shouldn’t, as Djokovic points out, there be attempts to make the women’s game more interesting to the spectators? How many fans can testify to finding women’s matches as evenly matched as men’s?
Also, at the risk of sounding sexist, why shouldn’t the attractiveness of women players be a reason for drawing fans in? The modern men’s game has no real personalities.
Without one of the Big Four—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray, it’s relatively difficult to market a tourney to fans.
Is there no shred of truth in Moore’s remarks , misogynistic as they seem?
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars.
The Program is a film based on journalist David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.
Walsh of the Sunday Times is convinced that Lance Armstrong’s victories in the Tour De France are fueled by performance-enhancing drugs. The journalist’s reaction on meeting Armstrong for the first time is that he’s good but not great.
“He’s good enough to win a day race but not the Tour,” he announces to his fellow journalists but then Armstrong has him eating his words.
Armstrong too realises that he’s just not good enough to win the Tour De France on his own. He turns to Italian physician Michele Ferrari for help.
Ferrari rejects him initially because he believes that Armstrong is simply not built for racing.
Armstrong is struck with testicular cancer but recovers to found the Live Strong foundation to assist other cancer survivors.
But the film leaves the viewers with no ambiguity about Armstrong’s villainy when a doctor bursts into his hospital room with the query whether he had ever used performance enhancing drugs while training.
Following his recovery, Armstrong seeks out Ferrari again this time convincing him that his body shape has changed since his cancer treatment.
Ferrari agrees to work with him starting him on a course of Erythropoietin or EPO. EPO increases the production of red blood cells thus increasing VO2 max in athletes.
Armstrong is the leader of the US Postal Team winning the Tour De France seven consecutive times. Armstrong institutes a doping culture within the side that includes Floyd Landis who is seen as the logical successor to Armstrong when he retires.
Armstrong considers himself bigger than the sport itself believing himself to be untouchable; he feels that the integrity of cycling would be compromised if his positive test results are disclosed to the world at large.
Armstrong manages to appear above it all; challenging his opponents in court and in the court of public opinion claiming that he has never tested positive.
He takes Walsh and the Sunday Times to court and wins damages.
Armstrong also wins a case against SCA Promotions who attempt to withhold his $5 million bonus.
The Texan retires after claiming a record seven Tour De France titles. He is widely considered the greatest ever cyclist.
Following his retirement, his former teammate Floyd Landis wins the 2006 Tour De France. He later tested positive for an unusually high ratio of the hormone testosterone to the hormone epitestosterone (T/E ratio).
Landis first denied the allegations but later testified to the same accusing Armstrong among others.
The Federal investigation leading from his allegations was dropped but a later United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation found Armstrong guilty. He was banned for life.
With his lies unraveling, Armstrong finally comes clean to Oprah Winfrey on national television.
Ben Foster plays Armstrong with a conviction that conveys his single-mindedness in pursuit of cycling’s Holy Grail. He brooks no opposition in pursuit of his goal. He can be both charming and charismatic. He rubs shoulders with the high and mighty and the best of Hollywood. He has no qualms about cheating believing that the sport is riddled with them.
Jesse Plemons is Floyd Landis, a conflicted rider who sees Lance as his mentor but is devastated on being left out in the cold when he’s caught. He gives up Armstrong and his former teammates turning whistle-blower.
The movie though leaves you cold. Armstrong has no redeeming qualities–even his work for his own foundation Live Strong leaves the audience unmoved.
Catch it if you’re interested in the Armstrong saga. But don’t expect fireworks or thrilling sporting action. There is very little to redeem a movie that could well have been a documentary.
Eugenie Bouchard is not playing nice anymore.
WTA’s Most Improved Player of 2014 is suing the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the United States National Tennis Centre (USNTC).
The Canadian beauty slipped and fell in the women’s locker room after a mixed doubles match at the US Open suffering a concussion the ill-effects of which have not worn off a month later.
The accident was caused by a cleaning agent that was left overnight on the floor and meant to be applied when the room is no longer in use.
Bouchard claims that there was no warning sign highlighting the state of the floor.
Bouchard’s lawyer, Benedict Morelli, said:
“If they were going to do that, they should have closed the door and locked it off. And they didn’t do that.”
“We could be talking about millions and millions, we don’t know the extent yet.”
The World No. 39 has played just one match since retiring midway last week against Andrea Petkovic at the China Open and withdrawing from tournaments in Wuhan, Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Bouchard is seeking actual, compensatory and statutory damages along with punitive damages, and wants a jury trial.
Chris Widmaier, the U.S.T.A.’s managing director of corporate communications, refused to comment saying it was against policy.
The suit states:
“Ms. Bouchard entered the physiotherapy room of the women’s locker room when she was caused to slip and fall by a slippery, foreign and dangerous substance on the floor.
The Defendants caused or created this slippery, foreign and dangerous substance to be on the floor, or knew or should have known that the slippery, foreign and dangerous substance was on the floor.
The Defendants failed to provide Ms. Bouchard with any warnings whatsoever regarding the aforementioned dangerous condition.”
Bouchard was named the world’s most marketable athlete last May by SportsPro, a UK-based magazine.
She was 2013’s WTA Newcomer of the Year.
It was in 2014 that she had her best results making the semi-finals at the Australian and French Opens. She was a finalist at Wimbledon and made the fourth round at the US Open. She attained a career-high ranking of 5.
This year, she suffered a slump in form but was regaining lost ground when she suffered her accident prior to her fourth round match against Roberta Vinci at Flushing Meadows. Vinci went on to make the final losing to compatriot Flavia Pennetta.
Concussions are a rare occurrence in tennis. It is a non-contact sport, after all.
WebMD describes it as “the most common and least serious type of traumatic brain injury. The word comes from the Latin concutere, which means ‘to shake violently.’ It is usually caused by a sudden direct blow or bump to the head.”
“The brain is made of soft tissue. It’s cushioned by spinal fluid and encased in the protective shell of the skull. When you sustain a concussion, the impact can jolt your brain. Sometimes, it literally causes it to move around in your head. Traumatic brain injuries can cause bruising, damage to the blood vessels, and injury to the nerves.
The result? Your brain doesn’t function normally. If you’ve suffered a concussion, vision may be disturbed, you may lose equilibrium, or you may fall unconscious. In short, the brain is confused.”
The website adds:
“Concussions can be tricky to diagnose. Though you may have a visible cut or bruise on your head, you can’t actually see a concussion. Signs may not appear for days or weeks after the injury. Some symptoms last for just seconds; others may linger.”
Writing for Yahoo! Sports, Canada, Stephanie Myles cites the case of Sarah Borwell, a British player who was hit by American Lilia Osterloha’s ball at a WTA doubles tournament in Stanford, Connecticut in July 2010.
“‘Girls aren’t like boys where they go around you. She kind of went at me. I turned, and it hit the back of my skull, bottom left,’ Borwell said in an interview with Eh Game.
She kept playing, felt fine, and they won the match.
‘As soon as the adrenaline wore off I was a mess. I was feeling sick. I was dizzy, and my face swelled up on the lefthand side,’ Borwell said. ‘They monitored me for the evening, kept checking every hour and the next day, I had an MRI in San Francisco and they saw a bruise on my brain.’
Borwell was told she would probably be fine in a week. She went to San Diego for the next tournament but she still felt groggy, and had to stay in a dark room. She then flew to Montreal for the Rogers Cup, where they underwent what she termed some “basic tests” and was told she could go out and play.
She tried to practise. ‘I couldn’t walk straight, get my feet straight or anything,’ Borwell remembered.
A specialist who dealt with hockey players administered the SAC test. Orwell was asked to count backwards, month by month. She got as far as May. She couldn’t balance on one foot with her eyes closed. Her speech was slurred.
Orwell missed the US Open; she returned to action at the Quebec City tournament in mid-September, about six weeks after the original accident. Then she flew to India to compete in the Commonwealth Games, where she began having panic attacks just being around people and talking to them.
By the 2011 Australian Open (where she teamed up with Canadian Marie-Eve Pelletier), more than five months later, Borwell still was having issues, especially with verbal communication.
‘I’ve been hit before and if it hits you on the skull, you’re fine. But right at the base of my skull, it got a bit of the brain,’ she said. ‘When you have balls whizzing at your head … that was kind of the end of my career, to be honest.’
Borwell says it took her about a year to feel 100 per cent again. She continued to play, but she still didn’t feel like herself. ‘My short-term memory’s still not great. I’m finding it a lot more difficult to remember things, and my speech,’ she said.”
Wikipedia details post-concussion syndrome thus:
“In post-concussion syndrome, symptoms do not resolve for weeks, months, or years after a concussion, and may occasionally be permanent. About 10% to 20% of people have post concussion syndrome for more than a month. Symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, anxiety, memory and attention problems, sleep problems, and irritability. There is no scientifically established treatment, and rest, a recommended recovery technique, has limited effectiveness. Symptoms usually go away on their own within months.The question of whether the syndrome is due to structural damage or other factors such as psychological ones, or a combination of these, has long been the subject of debate.”
Genie Bouchard has not been loquacious about the nature of her complaint on social media.
These are her latest posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram respectively.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 lists the duties of an employer as follows:
“SEC. 5. Duties
(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees;
(2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.
29 USC 654
While the USTA and the USNTC are certainly not Bouchard’s employers, they are duty-bound to ensure safety of the players on their premises during events they conduct.
We can only hope that Bouchard returns to the court soon putting aside the acrimony and recriminations that will certainly ensue from her legal action. WTA, too, wouldn’t wish to lose another rising star given that recent Grand Slam winners have been in the latter stages of their career opting out soon after realising their Grand Slam dreams. Li Na, Marion Bartoli and now Flavia Pennetta are the most recent additions to that brigade. Kim Clijsters is another.
The WTA tour’s marketability ebbs and flows with its players’ saleability.
One of their contemporary campaigns’ featured the tagline, “Strong is beautiful.”
Strong, in this case, is concussed and very much dizzy.
What is the meaning of sports? Why do they mean so much to us?
Why do you and I invest so much time, money and emotional energy in following them?
These are some of the questions Michael Mandelbaum attempts to answer in his book, ‘The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.’
Mandelbaum’s publication is divided into four chapters, three of which devote themselves to each of the team sports that dominate the American hemisphere. The first chapter deals exclusively with the questions outlined at the beginning of this article.
I have attempted to present a synopsis of this segment of this work.
According to Mandelbaum, baseball, basketball and football are modern creations.
Team sports have become popular as childhoods have grown lengthier in the modern age. Children no longer help out in farms and at work and thus have more leisure time than earlier. Childhood is now the most enjoyable phase of an individual’s life and it is nostalgia for a pleasant, carefree time of life that sustains interest in games into adult lives.
Schools have taken over from hearth and home when it comes to teaching skills that need to be used in the workforce. It is also the institution where organized games are first encountered.
The growth of American cities are crucial in the rise of team sports.
The transport revolution made these sports a national phenomenon. This also led to a series of similar formats and uniform standards given expectations of similar quality.
Mandelbaum compares sports to organized religion.
Because they share the following features:
Sport is a way of ‘disporting’ i.e. diverting oneself.
Human being need to be diverted from the wears and cares of modern life.
We seek diversion in staged drama.
Drama is simply tension and its release, that is, uncertainty ultimately relieved by a definite conclusion.
Sports provide audiences compelling drama.
Outcomes are unknown—for both individual games and the season.
Team sports are epics. Their protagonists overcome a series of challenges to meet their ultimate goals.
Coherence is another basic human need.
All cultures seek order and intelligibility.
Team sports is a low or “mass” form of art accessible to the majority of society. They are supremely coherent. They provide a haven from the vagaries of modern life.
Games are models of coherence.
They are transparent and they are definitive.
Hence, their appeal.
Team sports have evolved much like Hollywood.
At first, the major production companies were all-powerful. They decided which movies were to be made and who would feature in them.
Now, it is the actors who are arbitrators. They rule tinsel town and command astronomical fees.
Similarly, team owners were omnipotent—at first. But now, players rule the roost and decide which sides they turn out for.
Labor in movies and sports cannot be readily replaced. The best performers enjoy enormous leverage. The public pays to watch them.
Sports stars, unlike movie stars, are real and spontaneous. Sports supplies heroes.
Heroes are objects of admiration and emulation. They can be exceptions or exemplars. The latter embody virtues that everyone can aspire to and everybody can practice.
Sports stars are both.
Extraordinary mortals yet role models.
They display diligence and performance under pressure.
These are qualities much suited to the modern world. Who wouldn’t want to be described as diligent and yet graceful under fire?
Sports stars, however, possess a narrow range of skills. They are specialists—outstanding ones.
America is a democratic country.
Costumes (uniforms) worn by participants reflect its social egalitarianism. They express equality.
Team sports also express the principle of merit.
No side begins with an advantage. The score is always 0-0 at the start.
Preference is for achieved status.
Team sports is a division of labour.
It has two main parts: Specialization and Interdependence.
No player can win a game singlehandedly. Each team needs to cooperate within themselves.
Each game and each series also embody the opposite principle: Competition.
This is a parallel to modern life.
Everyone who works in an office or factory is a part of a team. These teams compete with other teams to survive and prosper in the marketplace.
Rules are overridingly important in sports.
Rules, like laws, have three main properties:
Referees and umpires are the equivalent of judges.
Clarity and simplicity of rules in these three sports distinguish them from individual sports such as diving, gymnastics, figure skating or even boxing. There is very little discretion applied by officials.
Questioning and protesting an official’s decision is actively discouraged. Players can be removed from games if they are felt to have transgressed a certain boundary.
The most serious attack on the integrity of the game is not when an individual or a team tries too hard to win but when a player or group of players deliberately set out to lose.
When a contest is ‘fixed’, its outcome pre-decided, it is no longer a game. Cheating is thus the ultimate sin. This is the reason why doping in athletes is met with virulent condemnation.
Equality of opportunity and merit are deeply ingrained in North Americans.
The US is more deeply committed to ensuring the wherewithal needed to take advantage of opportunities.
The amateur draft and salary cap are the mechanisms used in professional leagues to restrict the role of the free market and make teams more evenly matched on the field.
European societies, on the other hand, are more committed to equality of results i.e., draws or ties are more common in games like soccer, cricket and rugby.
Overseas, identification with teams has a polarising effect.
You support one side and rail against the other.
Team sports reflect and aggravate social and political divisions.
Not so, in the States.
They are both sources of integration and division.
They promote social solidarity.
American team sports do not have international competitions. They are self-contained.
These games are barely played elsewhere.
There is very rarely violence visited on team competitions. If fights break out, they occur over high school games.
Geographic mobility is a part of an American’s life.
He or she will move for college education and jobs—several times in their lives.
So too sportspersons.
High school teams may have co-located players.
But colleges and professional sides draw upon persons from all over, even overseas.
Professional sports are also melting pots for various ethnic groups, much like the larger cities.
Sports is thus a microcosm of cosmopolitan America.
The above are similes and metaphors for why sports is so important to sports lovers and what it actually means to all of us. Some metaphors could apply to other societies as well. It would be interesting to compare the reasons why sports in gaining traction in India as an industry to its evolution in the States. The proliferation of leagues in multiple sports as vehicles to promote them and provide means of livelihood to many is a recent phenomenon. Are there more parallels than differences?
Some metaphors may resonate with you more than others. Some of them might make you think. Aloud.
I know it certainly struck a chord with me and opened my eyes as to how and why sports can be a way of uniting rather than dividing. Sports recognizes no class barriers—in theory.
I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I did Mandelbaum’s chapter. If you don’t, blame me and not Mandelbaum!