Would the losers please get off the stage

Andres Escobar was shot dead for messing up in a sports contest.

That’s as bad as it gets.


The Colombian footballer’s murder at 3am in a nightclub carpark in Medellin in 1994, six days after scoring an own goal in a world cup soccer match, wasn’t premeditated. Escobar, like many of the thousands slain in what was once the most violent city in the world, ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, with tragic consequences.

A decade later, true horrors were revealed in the basement of the building that served as Iraq’s Olympic Committee headquarters.

As the New York Times reported: “This building was equipped with torture contraptions that included a sarcophagus, with long nails pointing inward from every surface, including the lid, so victims could be punctured and suffocated.

“Another device, witnesses said, was a metal framework designed to clamp over a prisoner's body, with footrests at the bottom, rings at the shoulders and attachment points for power cables, so the victim could be hoisted and subjected to electric shocks.”

The horrific devices were just some of the tools employed by Uday Hussein, son of Saddam, and the head of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and Football Association, who favoured torture and murder as means of demonstrating his displeasure with underperforming athletes.

“He has beaten them with iron bars. Caned the soles of their feet. Dragged them on pavements until their backs are bloody, then dunked them in sewage to ensure the wounds become infected. If Uday stops by a player's jail cell, he might urinate on his bowed, shaven head to further humiliate him,” the Guardian reported.

Back in New Zealand, our netballers are, this column understands, deeply distressed at the way their unfavourable results at the Commonwealth Games have been characterised.

Perhaps a little dose of perspective, as outlined above, might help?

They might well say the same of their detractors, such as the authors of a piece that casually slotted in the members of the Silver Ferns at 243-255 in their comprehensive ranking of the 255 Kiwi athletes who represented their country on the Gold Coast.

Superficially, an exercise that must have taken one heck of an effort to execute appears harmless enough. Everyone loves a good list. And there are winners and losers in everything. So, what the heck? It’s just a bit of harmless fun. Right?

Unless, perhaps, you’ve just busted your arse for years to reach the pinnacle of your sporting career and your dream has turned into a bit of nightmare.

The issue is how we treat our losers – a category that always far outnumbers those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Is it OK to casually dismiss and demean their best efforts? The answer to that is: sometimes.

If you happened to be, say, Nicholas Southgate, a 24-year-old pole vaulter from Takapuna who, after failing to clear the bar at all, was awarded a ranking of 242 (meaning he was only a Silver Ferns defeat by Malawi away from being labelled the country’s worst performing athlete). Then the list might not seem like such a chuckle.

Brahm Richards, a 20-year-old wrestler from Whangaparaoa who trained 14 times a week in the lead-up to the Games only to lose both his fights and trundle in at 241 on the Herald’s rankings, might also have his reservations about the merits of the exercise.

Even David Nyika, the boxer who brilliantly won a second Games gold medal after stepping up a weight class, might raise an eyebrow at his placing of 23 (behind every member of the Black Sticks women, including the ones who mainly sat on the bench).

But this isn’t about ranking winners. The issue is how we treat our losers – a category that always far outnumbers those at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Is it OK to casually dismiss and demean their best efforts?

The answer to that is: sometimes.

Professional athletes who earn a good living, essentially from the public’s interest in their performances, can hardly bleat about a public critique of their efforts, however brutal.

Enthusiastic amateurs, however high-performing, should be accorded significantly more forgiveness.

Did Susan Curran, AKA No. 234, a blind lawn bowler who took up the sport at 65, really deserve the same level of cold-hearted assessment as Tom Walsh?

Surely not.

And what of the Silver Ferns? On form, it’s hard to quibble with their lowest of the low ranking.

But this is a national team in which even the most senior players have only a tenuous hold on the status of ‘professional athlete’.

Some will argue that the sensibilities of national representatives in a high-profile code shouldn’t be a barrier to a wholehearted critique of their efforts; that reporters remaining steadfastly happy clappy in the face of sub par performances would border on negligence.

True enough. But is it any less negligent that Clare Kersten, a Wellington teacher who battled her way to national selection for the first time at 28, should have her accomplishments on the Gold Coast recorded as: “none”?

It could be worse. Thankfully, none of our athletic failures will be subjected to electric shock therapy in the bowels of the NZOC’s Parnell bungalow.

Nonetheless, real people cried real tears when they discovered how their best efforts had been rated.

Almost certainly, they already felt like they let us down. By casually, thoughtlessly piling on to their misery, we do likewise to them.

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