When death and sport collide



HERE in sunny South Africa, land of the freshly free and the boisterously brave, home to colonialists, communists and capitalists, country of Mandela, place of Gandhi’s political awakening, we have, in the space of a week, killed two of our best and brightest and jailed another.

Last Tuesday, Oscar Pistorius was put away for five years – more like 10 months if he behaves well – for shooting dead his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through a bathroom door. On Friday, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, the 800 metres silver medallist at the 2004 Olympics and in 2009 the world champion in the same event, died in a car crash on a lonely road. On Sunday, the South African football team’s captain and goalkeeper, Senzo Meyiwa, was gunned down in what would appear to be a burglary gone horribly wrong.

Death and sport are not supposed to collide. When they do, we are shocked – as if such a thing has never happened before and will surely never happen again. But it has and it will, and we will be shocked again.

We can live with sport stars winning, losing and drawing, with them saying and doing stupid things, or being caught in compromising positions with people who are not their significant others, or even falling foul of the law.

But we cannot live with them dying. When they win, we win. When they lose, we lose. When they draw, we draw. And when they die that part of our hearts reserved for them – and only them – dies with them.

The last time cricket in South Africa endured this pain was on June 1, 2002, when an aircraft carrying Hansie Cronje was waylaid by the weather and mangled on a mountainside.

That Cronje died a crook, banned from the game for life for his involvement in matchfixing, does not stop taxi drivers in every cricket country you could name hailing him as a great player when they detect a South African accent from the back seat.

In these memories, neither death nor dastardly dealings have dimmed Cronje’s aura. To them, nothing about Cronje matters more than his ability to play cricket as if he had the balls of 10 men. That he also had the ability to take money to under-perform – and to convince others in his team to do the same – is ignored by all except a few who still feel the sting of his betrayal.

How Indians feel about their own Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin, was confirmed in 2009, when they sent him to parliament. It is easy to ridicule Azharuddin’s election, to say it should never have happened and that it tells us much about the Indian mind.

Except that, had Cronje lived, it is entirely conceivable that his future could have unfolded in much the same way in South Africa. Whatever he ended up doing – he was a financial manager in an established company at the time of his death – he would have done prominently.

And he would have been forgiven. If South Africans can forgive those who perpetrated apartheid and all its evils against them, why not a mere matchfixer? In fact, there are people who remain adamant that Cronje did nothing he needed to be forgiven for.

Pistorius and Meyiwa, too, dipped into the dark side. Many refuse to believe Pistorius’ explanation that he shot Steenkamp because he thought she was a burglar, while Meyiwa was at his girlfriend’s house at the time of his death. His wife’s pain can only be exponentially increased by this highly public fact.

Cricket in South Africa should be thankful that it has, so far and Cronje excepted, escaped this kind of heartache. A game that likes to believe it is all about sunshine and fairness would struggle to recover from such catastrophe.

The other side of the equation is that, measured against this grim standard, no amount of ball-tampering or sledging or cheating or matchfixing committed by the current South African team will matter to those who support them.

Whatever else South Africa’s players are or are not or would rather the world did not know about them, they are alive. Here on the all too sharp tip of Africa, after a week of awfulness, that is a wonderful thing.


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