Why do sportsmen let anger get the better of them?

It's rather surprising why professional sportsmen of the highest order fail to control their raw emotions from overpowering them.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | New Delhi | Published:July 6, 2014 1:00 am
A billboard shows Uruguay’s Luis Suarez in action (Source: Reuters) A billboard shows Uruguay’s Luis Suarez in action (Source: Reuters)

If Luis Suarez had waited four more days, his now infamous “bite” on Giorgio Chiellini would have garnered historical weightage. For, Uruguay’s World Cup pre-quarterfinal was scheduled for June 28. The same day on which 17 years ago, Mike Tyson, another world-class sportsman with a flair for the inexplicable, had chomped a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear. A moment when “contact sport” took a whole new meaning.

Both Suarez and Tyson chose the grandest stage of their sporting lives to bare their fangs. The result: they not only became the subjects of global ridicule, they were also heavily fined. Neither was very forthcoming with his apology. Suarez denied the whole incident till a few days ago, outrageously claiming that he had lost balance and fallen on Chiellini. Tyson to date insists that Holyfield “started it” by repeatedly head-butting him during the bout.

For all their skill, it’s safe to say that the aggressive duo may not be the most temperamentally sound. And also that they suffer from anger issues, which manifests itself in extreme fashion. In Tyson’s view, Holyfield had used unfair tactics to stifle him and the referee had refused to take notice. Suarez was agitated with a 10-man Italy thwarting his advances. But does that justify them snapping and assaulting an opponent, or biting them?

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini Uruguay’s Luis Suarez with Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini Mike Tyson bites Holyfield’s ear during a match in 1997 Mike Tyson bites Holyfield’s ear during a match in 1997 Zinedine Zidane at the 2006 FIFA world cup Zinedine Zidane at the 2006 FIFA world cup

These are professional sportsmen of the highest order. Why do they let this “temporary insanity” besiege them? Why do men with such staggering skills in their respective sports fail to control their raw emotions from getting the better of them? John McEnroe was renowned as much for his unique ability with a tennis racquet as for his theatrical temper tantrums. If anything, going berserk helped his game on court. But once he took it too far. It was at a low-profile tournament in Sweden where he looked set to go down to an unfancied Anders Jarryd.

One questionable line-call was enough to set off one of McEnroe’s worst but most-watched maniacal rants at the umpire. This was a champion enjoying the finest year of his career — his win-loss record in 1984 eventually read 78-2 — losing his head in a moment of weakness. Some theories focus on this particular McEnroe outburst to explain the “raw emotion that marks the inevitable pain of being great”. And also the quest for perfection that results in displays of extreme emotion whenever they feel they’re cheating their own greatness. Or worse, when there is an opponent or obstacle that could affect their greatness in any way. They are men who set standards and stakes for themselves that their peers can only dream of. They are dream-makers, achieving the improbable. But they are as fallible as the rest, especially when they realise an imminent threat to their date with destiny.

Like McEnroe in 1984, Zinedine Zidane had come out of retirement in 2006 with a sole motive. To win France the FIFA World Cup for a second time, after he had spearheaded their triumph eight years earlier. His country’s run-up to the final was a rollercoaster ride, which he had himself piloted. But when he smashed his head into Marco Materrazi’s chest in those dramatic moments of the final, time just froze. “I would prefer your sister the w***e,” is what the burly Italian was alleged to have said to provoke Zidane. It was a comment that would have earned you a head-butt in a bar brawl. But in a World Cup final with millions watching around the world? From a guy who was set to finish a glorious career with the most glorious high of his life?

Being a sporting hero can be a lonely job. But it’s this potential date with their temporality or fear of being counted among the mere mortals that perhaps sets off a “bite” or a “head-butt”. It’s up to them to realise that sport indeed is the great leveller and that they, too, will someday come second best in bouts and matches and face-offs. That cannot justify sinking your teeth into a fellow competitor’s flesh.

The story appeared in print with the headline Chew on This

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