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Rowbottom: Forget the Usual Suspects; Here is the Sports News to Warm Your Heart

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Sergio García after making a birdie putt on the first extra hole Sunday to win the Masters, his first victory in 74 starts at a major. García and Justin Rose each finished regulation at nine under par. Photo: Tannen Maury/European Pressphoto Agency

So the Rio de Janeiro Mayor has become embroiled in another 2016 Olympics-related corruption scandal. And Kenya’s 2016 Olympic marathon champion Jemima Sumgong has tested positive for EPO. And yes, six international riders have been provisionally suspended by the International Equestrian Federation after their horses failed doping tests.

Another typical week in sport, I hear you say. But if these turns of events have a dismally unexceptional feel to them, it should be pointed out that they have occurred in parallel with some quite exceptionally positive behaviour from sporting figures – and followers – which has revivified the quaint but widely cherished notion that sport can, on occasions, be ennobling.

Warm and fuzzy feelings commenced on Sunday night as Spain’s 37-year-old golfer Sergio Garcia finally cracked it at the Masters in Augusta, earning his first majors victory after 74 attempts – and four second-place finishes.

The man who publicly admitted at Augusta five years ago that he was “not good enough” to win had, gloriously, won.

But what made the occasion even more likely to be celebrated down the years was the exponential sportsmanship displayed by Garcia and England’s Justin Rose as they contested the most glamorous prize in golf all the way to a sudden-death play-off.

As the balance of power tipped one way then the other between them, these friends and sometime Ryder Cup colleagues were unwavering in their mutual courtesy, often congratulating each other on their shots.

A comment from one viewer on the BBC Sport website probably sums up the effect this had upon the watching world as well as any. Posted by BosBrit, it read: “At what is probably the pinnacle event in the sport, and under such pressure, for the whole afternoon Rose and Garcia were a credit to themselves and their sport. Glad my son got to watch two champions battling hard to win but with class and respect. Well done Sergio!”

Rose himself tweeted after the contest: “Congrats @TheSergioGarcia Incredible battle out there. Sport in the moment can be tough. But it’s just sport. Hope you guys enjoyed it.”

Just sport indeed.

The 2017 Masters provided sport with one of its indelible feelgood memories. A similar service was performed by New Zealand’s former boxer Sonny Bill Williams two years ago when, having helped the All Blacks secure the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham, he handed over his winners’ medal impulsively to a young fan who had raced onto the pitch to celebrate before being flattened by a security guard.

The scenes which followed, in which the youngster in question and his family struggled joyfully to comprehend the magnitude of the gesture just made, were unforgettable – moments when sport transcended itself.

This week, once again, Williams has offered sports followers the glimpse of a world beyond the margins of play in seeking and receiving permission from his club and country to avoid the displaying of any logo on his kit from banks, alcohol brands or gambling companies.

Auckland Blues and New Zealand Rugby have “accommodated” a request from Williams, who said his objection was “central to my religious beliefs”.

Williams, a Muslim, will continue to wear the New Zealand kit, which features sponsorship from insurers AIG.

The 31-year-old said it was important to him to “do the right thing”, adding: “As I learn more and develop a deeper understanding of my faith I am no longer comfortable doing things I used to do.”

Williams already had a “conscientious objection” in his central contract that meant he was not asked to do sponsorship work with companies related to finance, alcohol, tobacco or gambling.

These are granted by New Zealand Rugby “on the basis of genuine family, ethical or religious grounds”.

It has been noted by at least one experienced observer of world sport that Williams is likely to be enjoying a salary that is partly paid for by the sponsors he is shunning.

Maybe so. But the upside of this principled stand is that it starts to apply some leverage against hook-ups between sport and sponsors that appear counter-intuitive, or even damaging.

Sports sponsorship from breweries and betting sites is not likely to go the way of tobacco sponsorship any time soon. But Williams’s stand will stimulate debate over how fitting it is for sports such as rugby and football to be depicted as an automatic prompt to getting into a bar with a TV, drinking lots of beer and impressing your mates with your hard man prowess on the smart phone spot betting sites.

Further good news on the sporting front arrived with the announcement by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that seven athletes from Russia – currently banned from international track and field competition following evidence of a deep and widespread doping culture – had been cleared to compete internationally under a neutral banner.

The seven included two current world champions in high hurdler Sergey Shubenkov and high jumper Maria Kuchina.

Russian commentators have remarked acidly on the fact that Shubenkov and Kuchina were among 68 Russian athletes who applied for similar clearance ahead of last year’s Olympics, in which only one Russian athlete – long jumper Darya Klishina -was permitted to compete as an independent.

One can only presume that it has taken this long for the IAAF’s Doping Review Board to be fully satisfied that they were “not directly implicated in any way (knowingly or unknowingly) by their national federation’s failure to put in place adequate systems to protect and promote clean athletes”.

However, in what has been an extraordinary sporting week, the fuzziest and warmest feelings were created by the reactions of two rival sets of football fans in the wake of the terrorist bombing of the Borussia Dortmund players’ coach before their scheduled home Champions League quarter-final first leg which left defender Marc Bartra with a broken wrist and other shrapnel damage.

When news got through to visiting Monaco fans already in place at the ground, they began chanting their support for Dortmund. And once it became clear that the match would be postponed to the following evening home fans responded by offering emergency accommodation and food to the stranded visitors via social media after setting up the hashtags #bedforawayfans and #tableforawayfans

The match itself rewarded both sets of fans as Dortmund came from 2-0 down at half-time to narrow the final gap to 2-3 and go into the second leg with an outside chance of progressing.

But the more important and highly elusive result had already been obtained the day before – a win for both teams, and a validation of sport’s power to bring people together.

By Mike Rowbottom

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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