Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sarita and partisanship in sport

It was both poignant and heart-breaking. It was also at once both jarring and out of sync. It was a brave and risky move, but it also tilted at the spirit-of-sport windmill. It won her numerous fans and a great degree of respect, but it also invited the wrath of officialdom.
We are talking, of course, about L Sarita Devi, the braveheart Indian boxer who chose a novel and unique method to express her disappointment and displeasure at blatantly poor refereeing in the boxing competition of the Asian Games in Incheon. Sarita was by a distance superior to Park Ji-Na, the South Korean puligist, in the semifinal of the lightweight category, battering and pummelling her opponent. The result appeared a foregone conclusion when came the twist in the tale – Park was contentiously, controversially, declared winner on points, triggering jeers and boos in the stands.
The booing was not aimed at Park, the home boxer, but at the officials who seemed to have got their colours mixed up. If Sarita felt it was daylight robbery, she wasn’t in a minority. Even Park seemed sufficiently embarrassed when the result was announced; Sarita lingered on in the ring, confronted the judges as she eventually dragged herself away from the venue, and stunned the sporting world the following day when she refused to accept her bronze medal, instead placing it around the neck of her ‘vanquisher’ who herself was beaten in the title round.
It was unprecedented. No one quite knew what to make of it. If it looked bizarre, it was because that is exactly what it was. Sarita was taking a massive risk, and it wasn’t an impulsive, instinctive reaction. She had had 24 hours to ponder over the proceedings, and she decided enough was enough, a point had to be made. She knew she was putting her career in jeopardy, perhaps even flirting with a significant ban. And she told herself, ‘So be it’.
Was she right in doing what she did? Could she have handled herself with greater grace? Our answers, whatever they might be, are immaterial. Sarita knew the consequences of her actions and yet went ahead, so may the force be with her.
Women’s boxing is still in its infancy in India. The exploits of MC Mary Kom, both in the ring and in celluloid, have helped increase awareness and raise the profile of the sport, but there is still a long and rocky road ahead. Athletes like Sarita, with encouragement and support from understanding parents, have gone a long way towards exploding some of the myths linking women to contact sport. We can’t even begin to imagine what opposition and hurdles she has had to overcome, what sacrifices she has had to make, what barbs she has had to ignore. Like Mary Kom and many others, Sarita has emerged as a beacon of hope and inspiration. She didn’t lose in the ring in Incheon, it wasn’t a marginal call that went her opponent’s way. Again, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have done to her morale, to her spirit, to her psyche. So let’s not sit on judgement.
No axe to grind with Park, too. She was an unwitting victim herself, caught up in a controversy not of her making, dragged needlessly into a quagmire of accusations and allegations of bias. There wasn’t a Korean judge among the five scoring the bout, but amateur boxing has a history of favouritism and outlandish decision-making – exemplified further by a Mongolian boxer suffering the same fate as Sarita, on the same day against another Korean opponent.
Is this giving new meaning to home advantage? I don’t know, honestly. The judges weren’t Korean, even if the technical head of the International Boxing Association, Ho Kim, is. So while partisanship isn’t a factor, it still is – if you get the drift.
If cricket today is by and large free from accusations of biased officiating, it’s because of the presence of ‘neutral’ umpires in the international game. It is a bit of a shame that the integrity of the officials had to be called into question, but in the past, before live television and ultra slow motion replays and neutral umpires and DRS, patriotism took on a whole different meaning.
After John Parker was given not out by Fred Goodall, the umpire, Holding kicked out at the stumps and knocked two of them off the ground, an act captured for posterity by attendant photographers. © Getty Images
Teams coming to the subcontinent in general, and Pakistan in particular, repeatedly carped about how they had to forever battle a team of 13. Mike Gatting’s finger wagging at Shakoor Rana is one of the more unedifying images on a cricket field, but it was a reaction borne out of frustration and a perceived lack of fair play. And while India’s umpires didn’t escape criticism either, the general consensus was that they were biased in favour of the visiting teams, especially if they were England or Australia. New Zealand had a proud home record in the 80s and went unbeaten in a Test series in their own backyard for 12 years, thanks as much to the presence of a certain Richard Hadlee as to home officials, while Australian umpires didn’t escape allegations of bias either.
Some of the more dramatic, occasionally hilarious, events came out of New Zealand. On India’s 1976 tour of that country, it was as if it was impossible for an Indian appeal to win the umpires’ approval. During a particularly testing day, India had one appeal after another turned down even as they worked their way through the New Zealand batting line-up. BS Chandrasekhar, the soft-spoken and mild-mannered legspinner, dismissed the last batsman clean bowled, and then let out a vociferous appeal that was heard in Bangalore. The umpire pointed out to Chandra that the batsman had been bowled. “I know that he’s bowled, but is he out?” Chandra asked the umpire. Point made.
A few years on, it was Michael Holding’s turn to let go. An integral part of the fearsome West Indian pace quartet, Holding – like his fellow speed merchants – seldom wasted energy on sledging. He spoke with his eyes and with the cricket ball, but so incensed was he at a series of umpiring gaffes in Dunedin in 1980 that not even he could restrain himself. Hadlee alone had won seven leg before shouts in the game to put his team in control, and when New Zealand chased 104 for victory, Holding had John Parker caught behind off the glove. The batsman had peeled off his gloves and tucked his bat under his arm, heading to the pavilion when Fred Goodall, then New Zealand’s best known umpire, ruled him not out. Holding kicked out at the stumps and knocked two of them off the ground, an act captured for posterity by attendant photographers.
Imran Khan was so incensed at the umpiring being held responsible for Pakistan’s victorious run at home that he asked for, and got, neutral umpires to stand in international cricket for the first time, during a Test series against West Indies in 1986. Piloo Reporter and VK Ramaswamy have been immortalised as the first ‘neutral’ umpires in Test history, though it took six more years for the International Cricket Council to embrace that concept.
Officiating can sometimes be as flawed, and that is perfectly understandable given that no one is error-free. It is when the errors extend beyond the realms of the plausible that eyebrows are raised, accusations levelled, integrity questioned. Sarita Devi has done probably more than anyone else to highlight this malaise. What ramifications her actions will have, and how history will judge her, are questions she couldn’t care less about.

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