Tuesday, Apr 22, 2003
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Racing : Motor
By Nirmal Shekar
GRIEF has many faces. But rarely will you get to see it reflected as it was on the face of a great German champion on the podium at the Imola Formula One race track on Sunday.
Heroism has many faces. But seldom will you see it reflected quite as handsomely as it was on Sunday when one of the greatest sportsmen of our times just got on with the business of the day at his office _ the race track.
Nobility has many faces. But rarely, if ever, will you get to see it enacted nobility is what nobility does as on Sunday by a remarkably single-minded world beater and his younger brother.
Awe and admiration have many faces in sportswriting; but seldom might they have been reflected as unabashedly as in this column because on Sunday, like millions of others around the world, this writer was witness to one of the most stirring and heart-rending acts of heroics on a sports stage.
What, oh what, does it take to prepare for a car race when your mother is lying comatose in a hospital? What, really what, does it take to pull on the overalls, don the helmet and step in behind the wheels of a racing car when your mother is lying dead and funeral arrangements are being made?
The simple answer is it takes a pair of brothers with the Schumacher surname. But the truth is, none of us will ever know.
You have to have gone through it to even touch it with your being in terms of experience.
But what an extraordinary act of sporting courage it was on Sunday when Michael Schumacher and his brother Ralf not only got on with their business hours after their mother Elizabeth's death but also managed to finish first and fourth!
What is the significance of a Grand Prix race when the woman who gave birth to you is lying dead? What price the few championship points won when you couldn't be with her at the moment of her death?
How cold-blooded do you have to be to steel your heart and leave behind your comatose mother to fly back to the race track perhaps sure in your mind that she may not be alive when you get back?
Understandable questions, logical questions, on the face of it. But if you are the type that is willing to dig deeper than most, these are irrelevant questions.
For, grief is a very personal thing. It has many dimensions, several of them rarely touched by a third person.
Little 12-year old Ali, handsome young Ali with those beautiful eyes, lying in a hospital bed in Baghdad with short, bandaged stumps for arms and his whole body burnt... You see that picture in a newspaper, you see his face on a television programme, and you think you can understand grief, his grief. Hardly so. You feel sorry, you feel pity, you even rage at the pointlessness of war.
But none of us can ever understand fully what it is to be in his place, to have lost his entire family, his two arms and the future of young Ali's dreams.
Ditto the Schumachers. You and I will never know what went through their minds when they visited their mother, then made up their minds to go back and race and finally Michael got on the podium after his first victory of the year, bit his lips and fought back tears.
Indeed grief is very personal. And the Schumachers had no obligation to prove to the world how much their mother meant to them or how shattered they were that she was gone.
Eight years ago, at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, another heroic champion of our times was doing his best to get on with the business of playing tennis when his heavily-burdened mind was a million miles away.
Pete Sampras was playing his friend and arch-rival Jim Courier in a late night match at the Melbourne Park a few days after his coach Tim Gullikson, terminally ill with cancer, was flown back to the United States for treatment.
The world did not know how much Sampras was suffering. For he is not the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve. His grief was his own and he had no wish to share it with a global television audience.
Then it happened. As Sampras went down two sets to love, someone in the crowd shouted: "Do it for Tim, Pete. Do it for your coach.'' The next 10 minutes threw up some of the most extraordinary scenes this writer has witnessed on a big sporting stage. For a full minute, Sampras stood still, staring into the Rebound Ace court. Then he bit his lips and finally broke down.
Tears started rolling down the great champion's cheeks, he tried to toss the ball up to get on with his job but checked himself mid-stride. Courier, full of concern for his friend, walked up to the net and said, "We can do this another day Pete.''
What was essentially personal grief had been forced to go public.
But the remarkable aspect of that memorable night at Melbourne Park was that the great man authored one of the greatest comebacks of his career to win that emotional roller-coaster in five sets.
There was no such drama on Sunday at Imola. But the meaning of those acts of courage enacted by the Schumacher brothers goes beyond the strictly defined parameters of sport.
Motor racing has had more than its fill of tragedy. It is not a world unfamiliar with death. Indeed, it was on this very track Imola that the most gifted Formula One driver of all time, Aryton Senna, lost his life exactly nine years ago.
This time, it was a tragedy of another kind. And it took a pair of heroic brothers to turn it into a triumph of sorts, for themsevles, and for their sport as well.
Elizabeth Schumacher would have been a very proud woman if she were alive. What we witnessed at Imola on Sunday was a lasting tribute to her memory.
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