The scene for one of the most famous moments in the history
of sportsmanship was Royal Birkdale, just outside Liverpool, in the Ryder Cup
of 1969. The two finest golfers of their
generation were battling it out on the final green of the final match in a team
contest between America and Britain. The
teams stood at 15.5 all; and whoever won between Jack Nichlaus and Tony Jacklin
would win the Cup for their country.
Jack Nichlaus, the American who ended up winning 19 majors, was the greatest
player of all time. America had never
lost the Ryder Cup. Tony Jacklin was
Britain’s best player. Both took two
shots to get to the green; Jacklin then putted his third shot to 2 feet away
from the hole; Nicklaus putted his third shot to about four feet away, before
sinking one of the highest pressure putts of all time; then, instead of
watching to see if Jacklin would miss, he simply walked over to him, put his
arm around his shoulders, shook his hand and conceded him the putt. By doing so, he conceded America’s chance of
winning and he shared the match with Britain.
Nicklaus simply said to his opponent “I don’t think you would have
missed that, Tony, but I did not want to give you the chance”.
The great heroes of sport, and indeed of life, are not those
who are simply the best players. Some of
you may have seen a video clip from the 2005 Ashes series, when an amazing last
wicket stand of 59 runs brought Australia to within 3 runs of victory against
England and an almost certain series win.
The importance of the game at the time was huge; this was almost like a
World Cup playoff. Dramatically, England took the wicket of the Australian
Number 11 when they were within 2 of the England total and the Birmingham crowd
and 10 of the England players went jubilant beyond measure. The 11th player, Freddie Flintoff,
realised immediately the significance of the moment for his opponent. Far from celebrating, whilst the rest of his
team were cheering and hugging in the bedlam of a full stadium, Flintoff went
straight over to commiserate with the Aussie batsman. Arm around him, face a picture of concern, he
had kind words for his opponent at the most emotive of personal moments. There
were some great photos of this iconic sporting gesture on the front pages of
newspapers all over the world the following day. The win became secondary; the manner of
Flintoff’s reaction was the big story.
People never forget these moments; I suspect you can think
of a few instances yourself, whether on the sporting field, or simply in daily
life, where someone has stepped out and done something magical at a time when
you might have expected self-absorption.
It takes a special person to feel compassion for someone else at the
very moment of their own triumph. You
also never forget the opposite. Treading
on an adversary when he is down is one of the least attractive sights in
life. It smacks of arrogance, aggression
The fact is that moments of high emotion bring out the best
in the best people and the worst in the worst people. They tell you what someone is really like,
under the skin. It is one of the many
reasons why sport is such a good teacher.
When people are put under pressure, how will they behave towards
others? You can tell so much about someone’s
character by watching him both fail and succeed at sport. Consider this when you next take to the
field; and you can do the same in life.
The first two stories today were very famous; the last is
not, but is perhaps the most remarkable.
It is the Ladies’ Olympic final in the snowboard half pipe in Sochi.
In this example, the race had not even begun. These ladies had trained for years for this
moment – years of getting up early, painful fitness sessions, strict
diets. This was probably the only chance
to win an Olympic medal in their lives.
Kelly Clark had qualified in first place from the semi-finals, but the
practices for the final had gone so badly that she had not completed a
run. Shortly before the final race, she buckled
under the pressure, panicked and had a complete melt-down. At the top of the run, her biggest competitor
saw that she had been crying and went over to her and gave her a huge hug, then
looked at her and said “you need one more” and gave her another one. It may not seem much, but Kelly Clark was so
touched by this amazing gesture from her closest rival in an Olympic final that
she regained perspective and ended up alongside her on the medals podium.
The effects of great sportsmanship, it seems, last far
longer than simple results.