F1: It's ok to choose sides but to boo Vettel was silly

SINGAPORE - The Sunday boos in Singapore at the F1 had no powerful cause, no sudden provocation, no comic underpinning. They were not a spontaneous reaction to an unworthy act nor a chorus of disapproval against a racist, hateful figure. No, the boos on Sunday were just a dull weapon in witless hands.

Aimed at race winner Sebastian Vettel, the boos came from an unknown crowd. They were a minority but the boo, an unseemly single syllable, can cut harshly through any cheer. The booers know this for they come not to make a point but to be heard while shrouded in a mob. They come to attract attention and steal a man's moment. The boo is many things but it is rarely brave for it leaves the athlete with no comeback.

The boos were annoying but flicked off by Vettel as he did the headband of sweat on his forehead. He'd driven 300km in Singaporean humidity with the effortlessness of a tourist on a city-drive in a fancy car. He is fabulous without fuss and a man who leaves the world behind him does not stop to worry about boos.

The boos have been following Vettel around like a personal soundtrack. Partly they are born of his overtaking of team-mate Mark Webber in Malaysia even after the team ordered he should not. It was a calculated, crude, opportunistic move and he was rightly criticised. Then the sport moved on but not the boorish.

Boos have since chased Vettel across continents as if his transgression was worth an extended humiliation. Now these righteous hecklers are beginning to smell like bullies. If Ferrari folk, for instance, despise him, they might remember their own German, who swept through races like the Sirocco, a wind hot and fast. Michael Schumacher was a devilish talent but scarcely a saint either.

Partly the boos appear connected to Vettel's superiority - three straight F1 titles - for somehow, as with even Schumacher once, the formidable athlete can become unloved for his dominance. Fans relish change but refinding excellence every week, every month, every year, as Vettel does, can never be routine. It is, in fact, breathtaking. If we boo great skill then we don't deserve great sport.

Booing isn't new but it is now harsher, it is the audible version of the Twitter troll who believes rudeness is clever. Booing is orchestrated to put off a rival and aimed at anthems to make a feeble nationalistic point. It is born of tribalism which is the most disquieting child of modern times.

"My team" in sport now means the only team and there is a blindness to this philosophy - if you can only see your football club or your car racing team then you only see half of sport. In his superb, recent piece on booing, my friend Greg Baum, a columnist with The Age in Melbourne, wrote of crowds: "There has been an overall change in tone and temper, less informed by humour, more personal, more shrill ... nearer in disposition to a lynch mob."

Tribalism has sparked an exaggerated competitiveness, even in tennis, where a delight at the Roger-Rafa duet increasingly became a divided tale of Federer and Nadal. To elevate one now, sadly requires diminishing the other.

In a world where they, the athletes, hug generously, fans see no reason to embrace another's view. Even if, ironically, it is impossible to admire Federer without praising Nadal - and vice versa - for one man's gifts, and limitations, are seen clearest when in the company of the other man.

Sport, of course, will always be about choosing sides, it will always evoke tears when a team falls, for it is an intensely emotional and personal activity. But as we take our kids to these arenas, preaching the value of sport, surely there is more at stake than taking sides and scarfs worn and boos uttered.

Perhaps sport is also, even if grudgingly, about acknowledging a victor's courage and appreciating his varied skill. After all, in seeing a rival as worthy, we make beating him a finer deed.

If sports, too, is reduced to this primitive idea where you are either with your team or against it, then we are bringing a black and white view to one of life's most colourful landscapes. Sport, of all things, should not be so crude; sport, of all places, should summon the better parts of us.

And then sometimes it does.

On the morning after the booing of Vettel, I ran into a religious United supporter, now washed in irritation after defeat by City.

I asked him about City's first goal, an improvised dance by Nasri-Kolarov-Aguero and he did not pause, or curse, but said this: "Just beautiful."

United for him is the best team, but he understood that on some days there can be a better team. Even if it is a disliked, rival team. And by choosing not to jeer City, he was, in his own simple way, actually cheering football.


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