The Cheating Underdog

One of the few things that lets me know that I’m still me is being able to turn on the television, watch thirty seconds of a game and then settle in to support the underdog. You know, the guy who appears to be losing, supporting David against Goliath, simply based on size and not who’s righteous. Or supporting the homeless people being forcibly moved from the public park they are occupying illegally. That sort of thing. It reminds me that I’m still ok.

But lately, there’s a new trend of the  underdog giving me reason not to care. The underdog using ‘any means necessary’ to win. The underdog cheating. That’s just wrong, it robs me of the opportunity to celebrate as though I’ll get a share of the prize money. The opportunity to tell the top dog, see, it’s not “the size of the dog that matters, but size of the fight in the dog”.

There’s been scientific research into why we tend to support the underdog. “The researchers propose that those who are viewed as disadvantaged arouse people’s sense of fairness and justice — important principles to most people.”( I would agree with that but I think there’s more to it than that. Underdogs allow us to dream.

I was just a teenager when Ben Johnson was found to have used drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea(there I go giving away my age again). He had beaten the then fastest man on earth, Carl Lewis, in the 100m dash. We had no Satellite TV , Twitter, Facebook, cell phones or the internet back then but the news spread quite quickly around the world such that, even I, in rural Limpopo, South Africa got the news: Canadian Ben Johnson had cheated to win an Olympic Gold Medal.

Johnson had not only cheated the legendary Carl Lewis out of a gold medal, he had cheated millions of us who support the underdog. By getting caught, he had introduced the world to an ‘underworld’ era of winning at all costs, where only prestige and multi-million dollar contracts mattered. I’m one of those people that automatically root for the underdog, I haven’t figured out why, but where Manchester United FC or Kaizer Chiefs FC are not involved I always go with the underdog. So when the allegations came that Johnson was a drugs cheat I so wanted it to be not true. My underdog had to be clean.

Little did I know that in years to come my innocence would be scandalized over and over to the point where my interest in certain sports would dwindle down to zero. When South Africa was re-admitted into international sports in the early 90’s, our cricket team played an instrumental role in building social cohesion. South Africans of all colours could be found cheering for one team in a sport that was previously the preserve of only one section of the population. Sport has that ability, to go beyond artificial societal barriers and bring together people in a manner unlike any other activity. And then came the match-fixing scandals.

Some of our beloved cricketers were alleged to have been involved in fixing the outcome of matches. Our national cricket captain, Hansie Cronje, came out publicly and tearfully confessed to having taken money from bookies to influence the outcome of games. This was a man who had the nation eating out of the palm of his hands. He played a huge role in getting us to know we can punch above our weight in the international arena. But, like Ben Johnson, he took away our innocence. He shattered our ability to believe in Magic, in Santa Claus. Now every time a favourite loses a game in cricket I always have that nagging doubt about the little possibility that somebody, somewhere knew what the outcome was before the game was played. The underdog’s victory parade is being dampened by the possibility that the outcome may have been fixed.

I know it’s difficult to think of Lance Armstrong as the underdog, I mean the man ‘won’ seven Tour De France titles. But just think back, when we all discovered that he had beaten cancer to get back on his bike he became an instant underdog. Let me hasten to admit, my knowledge and appreciation of cycling is limited to that one time in the middle of each year when the Tour gets underway. But like Tiger Woods did for golf, Lance Armstrong took cycling out of relative obscurity and put it on the front pages of National newspapers. People who didn’t give a hoot about cycling wished Lance would keep on winning, beating the cancer over and over again. Even the unfit on a spinning bike in their local gym kept repeating their hero’s mantra:”it’s not about the bike”.

The underdog was on top. Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s Not About The Bike” was on my to-read list. My faith in the underdog was being restored. And then of course came the rumors that he was a drug cheat. The underdog supporter in me went into denial. No, not Lance. I mean, have these people got no shame? This is a cancer survivor we are talking about. No, not my underdog. The evidence kept on coming, the threats he had made to people, the reputations he had destroyed trying to protect his own, still the underdog supporter in me wished it would all go away. When it didn’t go away, I started wishing for some remorse. I watched both interviews with Oprah hoping the cheating ‘underdog’ would break down and ask for the world’s apology. It never came.

I’m not into American baseball but I know it’s huge over there. They even have a World Series, and like soccer is to all kids around the world, playing in the World Series is the stuff of dreams for the majority of American kids. In my impressionable days as a ‘youth’ I even took to wearing a Yankees baseball cap. The game also has a social cohesion element over there. Like in most sports, this is one sport where the least privileged in society can make it right to the very top, simply based on talent and hard work. So a few weeks ago when it was announced that A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, had been found to be a drug cheat I understood the deep disappointment that must have been felt by most people across America. This is one of baseball’s all-time greats. The ‘underdog’ had cheated once again.

Kids on the Asian subcontinent dream of one day being a Sachin Tendulkar, playing in the cricket World Cup. American kids dream of the World Series and the NBA, the rest of us feel we have a stake in Maradona, Pele and even Messi. They are not necessarily our role models but they represent a possibility that even the less than ordinary amongst us can achieve the impossible. They allow us to dream.

When they cheat, in a subtle round-about way, they cheat us out of our dreams.

You don’t have to be Argentinian to appreciate the role Diego Maradona played in world football. Some even dared to deify him, the God of football. Like most football fans i remember his mesmerizing run that seemed to take out the entire English team in that 1986 World Cup semi-final win over England. It’s even said that in South America, Brazil in particular, football is a religion. People elevate their sports stars onto pedestals. Not once have I had heard of one of these stars refusing to cash in on that popularity. I’ve said it before in one blog, if your livelihood depends on being liked by huge numbers of people, you have a responsibility to those people.

Watching Usain Bolt retain his title of ‘fastest animal above sea level’ a few days ago in the pouring Moscow rain, I couldn’t help but pray that he doesn’t dash the hopes of millions of kids and adults around the world one day. That this underdog from Jamaica will remain just what he appears to be, an underdog that fights clean. So that you and I can keep dreaming, without being rudely awakened by the news that the “the greatest of all time” is now the “greatest cheat of all time”. Think Lance, think Marion Jones. Enough.


5 responses

  1. Brilliant. absolutely engaging and very aptly written


    1. Thank you Divya, much appreciated.


  2. Deusilene Matos | Reply

    Good post. People like Pele, Maradona and others are rare today. We live in the age of money. Money talks louder than character most of times…Yes, in Brazil Football/Soccer is a “religion”. Parents dream their son be a soccer player…Unfortunatelly, here Education is not too valuable as football…We have a teacher earning a miserable salary and soccer players earning millions…This is just one the points of social injustice here.


    1. Hi and thank you for reading. I think it’s the same everywhere, whenever educational opportunities are limited parents look to talent, sports and entertainment as a way out of poverty for their children. The thing is, abundant talent attracts huge money, leading to elements of cheating and match-fixing.


  3. It sometimes seems to me that sport has gone mad. There’s too much money and this leads people into temptation. They rationalise their cheating by saying to themselves that ‘everyone does it’. It’s happening here, too and the saddest thing is that it filters down to amateur level. There’s a really bad example being set to our kids by these ‘sporting heroes’. Maybe we should look a bit wider afield for heroes – what about scientists, artists, writiers?


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