Hey, you, the plodding runner with headphones on, lost in your contented world amidst a crowd during a community leisure run or competitive race. Have a nice day, but unplug your ears. Listen for my footsteps. Move left. I’m coming through. This is my Sunday, too, this is my race as well, this is my trail also. Not just yours.
Hey, you, the hand-holding lovebirds during a mass cycling event. Hey, you, the blase golfer walking in my putting line. Hey, you, the fan with the unmusical, distracting camera. Here’s a suggestion from those who sweat alongside you at an event: Have fun. Strive. But take a moment to remember Emily Post.
A gentle guide from an older time on good manners, who wrote about which forks to use, Post also said: “Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honour.” At a dinner table, but also a sporting field.
Tramping feet and humming wheels are the alluring sounds of a nation finding its athletic feet. But the masonry of this sports culture we are building does not extend only to helmet to wear, technique to adopt, litres to drink.
It is also, especially when citizens of varying skill-sets gather together, about etiquette. What is sport, after all, but human engagement; and so to disrespect each other and sports’ unwritten laws is to disrespect sport itself.
Cultures take root slowly but formidably and discourtesies on a field – like diving in football – become hard to erase. As Singapore yearns to find its athletic identity, it must be alive not just to the spread of sport but the sweep of manners. When the Sports Hub is built, foreign athletes will descend on this nation along with officials, fans and media. Just as we speak of their lands, they will make notes about ours: how well we play sport, and in what spirit?
Sport is a tapestry of precious threads – rules of play, safety regulations and unwritten codes. The presumption is that on a field so much can be found – joy, pride, fulfilment yet also character.
The handshake at match end is not inscribed in any rule book. It is elegant tradition. The slow runner sticking to the left to give way is not a by-law in an athletic manual. It is essential to its spirit.
Manners may seem archaic amid a clattering planet of druggies and taunters, yet sport must cling to them. Footballers still kick out a ball so a hurt rival may be treated and tennis folk refuse to cheer a rival’s double fault.
They do this not because there is any punishment, for breaking this code brings no real penalty. They do it because it elevates sport beyond the mundane and the mad. For at the precise point when rugby players, of torn ears, line up to shake hands after a match, sport distances itself from war and finds a necessary civility.
But this responsibility of protecting sport’s unique identity is scarcely the sole preserve of the paid performer. We cannot only look to the young, untutored football star – who often lives by the craven philosophy of “anything goes” – to set every example.
We, the amateur, who exist in far greater numbers and play for no real stakes, must demand our own standards. To apologise for a net-cord point won in tennis is an act of decency to be demanded as much at Wimbledon as it is on Yio Chu Kang’s tennis courts.
The basic nicety cannot be ignored, it must be expected. And so we must gently reprimand the cyclist during a leisure ride whose showing off is not in tune with the crowd or the moment. We must remind the golfer who hasn’t raked a bunker or allows his shadow to fall on a putting line.
We must have a quiet chat with runners who jog three abreast and block a path, and the spitter whose saliva colours the socks of an overtaking citizen, and the fellow, who for reasons simply of ego, will go stand in a starting pen with runners much faster than him, only to hold up those behind him with his lumbering style.
At an event, and in a crowd, the amateur is expected to have an awareness beyond himself. One man’s fun cannot impede another’s, for this is everyone’s day.
We need to articulate these unwritten laws, for they offer us perspective. The professional tennis player shaking hands after a loss reminds him, and us, that no life is being saved here. This is a game, it is play, it is sport. For amateurs, whose only reward is bragging rights, it is more vital. Nothing is being settled at a weekend tennis hit nor on the Sunday golf course. We do not become better people if we win, but we might if we compete the right way.
To shake the hand of a neighbour when defeated is not always easy, for even amateurs are powered by a competitive drive. But it is precisely because it is not easy that it matters. It makes us reach within for qualities we weren’t sure we owned. We discover humility and generosity, and it is what makes sport meaningful.
People are not wilfully dismissive of etiquette, most are simply unaware. So we must write down unwritten laws, list them in golf clubs, print them on race websites, preach them at schools. If sport is a teaching tool, it is a useless education without etiquette.
These customs which have travelled through time are integral to sporting heritage and connect us to history. But these codes don’t live on by themselves, it’s up to us to keep them relevant. We err if we see sport as a beautiful place in itself. No, it is only beautiful by how we play and maintain it.
by Rohit Brijnath
This column was first published in The Straits Times, 11 April 2014.