C'wealth Games: Brownlee brothers embody ruthless spirit

Sporting life

"HAHA, haha, haha."

Greg Chappell, 65, is chortling down the phone from Australia. He, one of his land's most gifted and obsessive cricketers, loves this story I'm telling him. The one from the Commonwealth Games. The one about the Brownlee brothers in the triathlon.

The one where Jonathan, the younger, reportedly asks Alistair, the elder, for some water in the bike section of a hot race. Alistair says no.

In the midst of the race, fraternal affection bends to ferocity.

For some to withold a sip of water is petty. For others it is an acceptable part of the competitive instinct. My father, from the old world which celebrated John Landy, who stopped in a race and went back to help a fallen runner, would not like this story.

He believes sport has space for compassion and he's not wrong, when instead we've turned ruthlessness, in all its shades, into a virtue.

If Greg Chappell's laughing, it's only because he knows brotherhood, rivalry and ruthlessness. As a boy he was tested yet taught by his older brother, the equally legendary Ian. Their backyard was a Test arena, their matches unrelenting, with one dispute ending in Ian twisting his arm. "I learnt how to cope from him," says Greg, "I learnt to be competitive."

Ruthlessness isn't a modern invention, it's a human condition. Way back in 1967, Muhammad Ali showed us that. Infuriated that his rival, Ernie Terrell, continued to call him Cassius Clay, Ali tormented him while asking "What's my name?" It was brutal, yet in a later interview to USA Today, Terrell shrugged: "If he don't like it, so? I did it on purpose. We were fighting. What was I supposed to do, give him Christmas gifts?"

Yet if there is a line on ruthlessness, Ali crossed it. He didn't look single-minded, he looked mean. He wasn't interested in winning but humiliation. But not everyone is and not every act of perceived ruthlessness is unseemly. Tennis players often win a set 6-0 and still brutally grind their rivals, fearful of letting confidence and momentum slip away.

If this execution of a skill arrives without showboating, we applaud; if there is pity for a rival, we can be appalled. Years ago, in Argentina, Andre Agassi was beating local hero Martin Jaite 6-2, 6-2, 5-0 in the Davis Cup and decided to gift his rival a game. As writer Barry Lorge wrote: "Serving at 0-5, 40-0, Jaite just missed an ace. Before the second serve, Agassi turned to his then-coach, Nick Bollettieri, and mouthed: 'Watch this.' Jaite served his second ball and Agassi caught it with his left hand." It gave Jaite the game, but it was also undisguised disrespect.

But the Brownlee incident has its own subtleties for brotherhood causes its own confusions. These men lived together, trained together yet duel together. Alistair once even told Hello!, "we've been bitter rivals for as long as we can remember". Friends surely, brothers forever, yet for a short period of their lives also competitors.

And perhaps during a race they need a separation to avoid competitive confusion. Need to see each other as only a person to beat. Need to ensure their focus - in an event so ruthless in what it does to the body and demands from the mind - does not wander in fraternal sympathy of the other. Maybe that's their pact, a sort of necessary emotional detachment from the other.

You wonder, would Jonathan, 2012 Olympic bronze medallist, ask water from any other competitor but Alistair? You think, was the refusal from Alistair, 2012 Olympic champion, a message to Jonathan, sorry buddy, you didn't prepare well enough?

Neither of these brilliant brothers offered a whine or explanation. The water was perhaps an insignificant aside to them - certainly not some deplorable act - yet a fascination to us. Perhaps they've raced so long, found a balance, carry no grudges, shake hands and restore their brotherhood. Perhaps, long ago, they drew their own line on acceptable ruthlessness and this was within it.

Sure, part of me wishes the story were different. In a world where ruthlessness is an idle compliment, where coaches are dismissed in parking lots and players informed by e-mail that they have been sold, perhaps the water should have been given. As if to remind us that amid an insane competitiveness we can still retain our fundamental humanity.

But I also know this. It's complicated. When I called my middle brother, Rahul, in England and asked if he'd ever give me water during a competitive race, he said:

"A 100 per cent, yes."

But then he quickly added:

"But that's possibly why we're not triathlon champions."


This article was published on July 29 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.