ALDOUS Huxley, the English writer and humanist who enjoyed language, once wrote in one of his novels that "Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly - they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced."
Sport is somewhat unfamiliar with this idea, for most of its words are piercingly inane. Managers gripe. Officials obfuscate. Athletes often take refuge in tired cliche and even Usain Bolt retreated from his amusing "a bit s***" quote. Yet now and then, a refreshing honesty will leave us a little shaken. This weekend it came from Derek Wong after his defeat in the Commonwealth Games badminton final.
This is what he said to the New Paper of the concluding stages of his match:
"I wasn't steady enough during the final moments. (Rival Parupalli) Kashyap was mentally stronger. During the rubber set, a lot of it was psychological and he was also a lot more aggressive. That was what my coach said after the match - I didn't take the initiative as much, and I should have."
His words hardly seem profound, yet they are nevertheless remarkable. Singapore athletes can be coy with words. Athletes, even across the planet, can be lost for words when it comes to forthright self-assessment in public. Yet Wong was clear and candid on what he didn't do. One might say he did not mince words.
This was not easy. Sweaty on Sunday, exhausted, victory in touching distance before it was yanked away, his effort in vain, disappointment wrapping him like cling film - in such a time words can be hard.
Defeat can take days to percolate and so often athletes prefer self-preservation: They slip on an impenetrable, defensive mask, they lapse into cliches of "I gave 100 per cent", they refuse understandably to let us see their pain, they sink sometimes into denial. But by showing us his unguarded self, Wong let us understand him and his sport better.
His words were not laced with artifice. Unlike his sport of spin, there was none in his speech. He did not claim his rival was lucky, he did not speak of fate, karma and assorted gods who had combined against him. He did not whine nor whimper. No, Wong admitted, Kashyap was "mentally stronger" and by inference that he was weaker. It was a stark, telling and generous acceptance.
Wong is only 172cm, yet it takes a larger size of man to be both proud of a historic silver - and he rightly was - and also tell us what distanced him from gold. Weakness, for athletes, can be an inconvenient admission - don't ever show it, coaches say - yet he did not flinch from it.
We cannot fault Wong for an absence of toughness. Not when he was 15-19 down in the second game of his semi-final, after losing the first, and won six straight points and eventually the match. Not when he arrived in his first major singles final, lost the first game, fought to win the second, trailed 17-19 in the third and yet levelled it at 19-19.
Courage he most certainly had. Yet he told us, for this little, last sliver of the match, he wasn't tough enough, aggressive enough, forceful enough. It was a truth both tough to swallow and yet also to tell.
Words in sport can be cheap. Athletes often lie to us and worse, to themselves. If only, they think. But for a net-cord, they say. Wasn't my day, they reassure themselves. Yet you cannot fool yourself in sport, you cannot fake ability: Within the lines, amid the brutality of competition, the impostor is always revealed. Here, the only truths are talent and sweat and the finest athletes have always embraced this idea.
Martina Navratilova morphed from an over-eating, over-weight player into a lean, athletic machine. Rafael Nadal, almost every year, arrives on tour with a more polished shot in his arsenal. Improvement is only born from rigorous introspection, learning only arrives from ruthless self-criticism. And in that regard, by plainly decoding his defeat, by holding up a harsh mirror, Wong has taken a mighty step.
Of course, for all the romantic talk of winning hearts in Glasgow, Wong lost a match. He was second best. No words can alter this truth. It must hurt, it must cut him, and it should.
But if he, just 25, takes this pain, channels his rage, grabs his strong new-found confidence, holds onto his honesty, embraces his determination and brings all this to the practice court, he has no idea what he might become. In becoming a better player, only he can have the last word.
This article was first published on August 05, 2014.
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