The Underdog

Every dog has his day. So too the underdog. And its day may be done. You’d be hard-pressed to find the underdog in the empty national stadiums watched either by people worried their season ticket was an ‘I-told-you-it’s-a-waste-of-money’ prediction come true or corporate guests who can’t tell the difference between a drum majorette’s bum and a rugby ball; you might just possibly have a sniff of the underdog in school teams on a cold Saturday morning with the mothers screaming like butcher dogs in heat and the fathers trying not to cry behind their Oakley’s.


Like most the myths that shape our lives, the underdog has been impounded by Hollywood, nabbed while limping home from a good thrashing, filling the air with the bark of ‘If we’d just run that line and if we’d had just kicked that touch and if we’d just fielded that sitter…’. The underdog is now an endangered cock-and-bone nameless stray condemned to exist triumphant only in the silver slippery world of cinema.

Blame it on television and sloppy sponsorship and gambling-addicted fanatics with access to too many cell phones. Blame it on the Me Decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s; blame the swamp-slurping Goldman Sachs muppets of the 21st Century. Blame bloated sports administrators who can describe every business class lounge in every city that has a stadium but couldn’t tell you the captain’s name of their national team. Blame your spouse. Blame the cat. Blame the referee.

But don’t blame the athletes.

Sir Sebastian Coe, one of the members of that all male club of sub-four minute milers (the women’s record is still 12 seconds off from a sub-four), told journalist Gary Smith that the members had ‘bond among us…which Lady Macbeth describes as a sickness: ambition and the pursuit of excellence’. That’s the true definition of an athlete.

The founding member of the club Sir Roger Bannister said, ‘I think the four-minute mile has been overrated. After all, it’s only a time. The essence of athletics is racing against an opponent rather than a clock.’ He was right: 46 days later, the Australian, John Landy joined the club, besting Bannister’s time by one second.

Bannister was not an underdog when he broke the four-minute mile barrier in May 1954. He was a determined athlete—and a medical doctor—who trained a paltry three times a week but he knew what the human body was capable of and he knew what he could achieve. Three months later, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, he was the underdog when he finally ran against John Landy in what the media billed as ‘the miracle mile’. It was the first time they’d met on the track. Landy led from the start only to be passed by Bannister in the final straight.

But being an underdog does not mean winning against a supposedly superior foe. That happens all the time. The allure of underdog, the thing that elicits a primordial growling and rumbling, that distant howl resonating with recognition and redemption, the thing for which myths are made rests on a single premise: honour.

We don’t just want our underdog to win. We don’t even care if they don’t win. Sure, we want them to win—but only with honour. That’s why there are no underdogs in top league football: you’ve just got crap teams and good teams. Occasionally a crap team will win and the usual shit will be thrown around about referees and diving and other matters of foul play. Or some one will get fired and some one bought and another sold.

Boxing? All boxers are underdogs so they don’t figure. Boxing’s a bewitching sport made mad, however, by men of feral cunning and rapine viciousness who never enter the ring except to hoist their boxer aloft in victory or haul him off the canvass in defeat. The only time anyone vaguely resembling an underdog got into a real boxing match was when Jake La Motta whipped Sugar Ray Leonard in their second meeting. But La Motta was not a honourable man: a great fighter but not an underdog. Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro portrayed that perfectly in Raging Bull. As the critic Pauline Kael said, Jake was a champ and a bum.

Cricket? Ever since Hansie Cronje praised the Lord, passed the ball and opened another Caribbean bank account, it’s been hard to watch any ‘underdog’ team triumph and not shudder, and feel the faint lick of some venal lounge lizard’s tongue tickling your neck.

Horse racing has the outsider—not to be confused with the underdog. The outsider is usually a horse with an iffy pedigree and, according to the New York Times study on horse racing in the United States, trainers that pump the horses full of ‘chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood-doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs’. And that’s just for the training sessions. No need to mention the owners or the anorexic, drug-fuelled jockeys.

The great and true stories of boxing and horseracing were the first to be ensnared by Hollywood, from Raging Bull to Seabiscuit. And to be fair, Seabiscuit was a true underdog, in every way. But, as the poet said, that was in another country, and besides the horse is dead. But Hollywood did what it does best and re-mythologised the underdog in Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and National Velvet. And if the movie ratings are to be believed, they will continue to do so.

Rugby. Now, that has all the ritual and reverence, all the fanaticism and murky fury and clarity required of myth. Rugby fans proudly support the underdog—there’s no room to mention that the underdog is perhaps now no more than a mangy mutt barking in the darker recesses of their brain.

They will tell you proudly and loudly that topdogs such as the Stormers pay their scrumhalf the equivalent of the ‘entire salary of the Cheetahs team’. They will tell you that the Cheetahs’ players turn up ‘110%’ for every game (maths not being a requirement for underdog believers). They will cheer for Argentina’s Pumas. They will tell you, as if speaking of their school mates, that the Pumas are a bunch of electricians, motor mechanics and café owners that get together after work, buy their own kit, pay their own airfares and play bruising, ‘real’ rugby.

The underdog believer yelled with delight at the Italian Azzurri, even before Nick Mallet made them into a team. When the Azzurri beat France by one point in the 2011 Six Nations —the first time in 31 encounters—their supporters told the les bleus fans that if they wanted to run with the underdogs they’d have to lift their legs high.

There’s a bone always gnawed over during this tail wagging: filthy lucre. The dog in the litter always picked up, the runt, is the one that can’t be sold. The one that can’t be bought. It’s not part of the mythology that the athlete born with a silver Nike on his foot can be the underdog. The underdog is one of us, the kid who struggles to make the U13 team, the adolescent hungering to run on with the First XV, the young man dreaming of donning his country’s colours.

But way back in the ‘80s high schools in the US sports management types started their culling. Kids were getting the message: if you don’t have megabuck potential, don’t even try out for the college team. Sport was no longer an extra-curricular activity: it was a career choice. The talented and goofy guys, who may have made sport fun to watch, went skateboarding or surfing or created digital games (where they always won). That’s a short way off from happening in South Africa. (I know, it’s not happening at your child’s school, and neither are the first team taking steroids.)

And so we follow the money trail and it leads back to… television. As Roone Arledge, who when he ran American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Sports in the ‘70s, told US Sports Illustrated’s Steve Rushin in 1995, ‘everything is magnified by television’. He would know. He’s the man who stuck a microphone in a dead zebra so viewers could hear what it sounded like being chomped by a lion. He’s the man who pioneered the instant replay in the ‘60s—and television sport was never the same again.

With that television magnification came the munificence of advertising. Wodges of splonga. When ABC bought the rights to broadcast the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, it cost $3-million. Eight years later the 1976 Montreal Olympics cost R25-million. The same escalation was happening in professional sport, as players became commodities to be bartered and exchanged, usually for huge sums of money. Teams became franchises with more marketing and branding staff on the team than players.

And we sucked it up. We installed DStv, not for the educational channels for our kids to watch, but for the six or seven or nine channels of 24-hour sport. Re-runs. Hand-held videos of unintelligible fishing competitions filmed on drab grey dam water with incoherent commentators. Black and white documentaries of boxing tournaments in dodgy halls between equally dubious fighters. Golfing play-0ffs at three a.m. in the morning. Mind-numbing views through camcorders mounted on ugly, shiny insect-like vehicles showing the backside of a similar vehicle travelling at 300kmph down a swath of asphalt.

And, of course, football and rugby and cricket. TV gives us a chance to watch the underdog, without having really to support him—like buying a ticket and showing up at the game. This is where myth was deflected, overtaken and even altered. In what some one once called ‘the boom bard bombardment board’ — television. With it, the original myth was fractured.

Consider the Cheetahs of the Free State Rugby Union—excuse me, the ‘Toyota’ Cheetahs. In the heart and bones of its supporters there is no more magnificent team. This is the underdog who not only is triumphant but whose triumph—and defeat—is cloaked with honour, whose players are the archetype honourable warriors. These are local boys made good. Who cares that Ashley Johnson comes from Wynberg or that Kabamba Floors is from Oudsthoorn. To the underdog believer, they are of the same ilk as Heinrich Brussouw and Adriaan Strauss. The Cheetahs don’t have draw-card foreign players past their sell-by date. Some may say they simply can’t afford them. Others will say that’s not their game. But as the song goes, ‘the truth bites and stings’ and both sides will come out bleeding and itchy.

That’s what happened to supporters watching the Cheetahs—the underdogs—in their SuperRugby 15 game against the Crusaders on Saturday. With a weak front row, the Cheetahs scrum was crushed. It was not a pretty sight for those of us who still refer to Os du Randt as ‘Sir’—and those less impressed call ‘god’. The Free State breeds props as easily as it grows mielies so what was happening? Coach Naka Drotske was obviously equally crushed.

Then it was down to uncontested scrums as all of the Cheetahs front-row forwards proved crock. We are 63 minutes into the game and the Crusaders are leading 21-11. Within 12 minutes the scores are even, and there’s less than five minutes to go. The Crusaders rampage like—well, like Crusaders—but the Cheetahs snarl and scramble and keep them out. Then the line breaks and Israel Dagg crosses over for a try and Taylor slots it to make the final score 28-21. The underdogs were bruised but proud. Bliksem, even the Kiwi commentators couldn’t hold back the praise bites.

But something was licking at the back of my neck. The uncontested scrums had definitely helped the Cheetahs. Was it a tactical move? And if so, so what? There is talk of dropping one of the South African SuperRugby teams to make way for the new franchise, the Southern Kings, in 2013. With that hanging over your head, any South African team—meaning the Lions or the Cheetahs—would do what it could to make sure it’s not left holding the wooden spoon—and an empty purse—at the end of this season.

But if it was tactical, the Cheetahs are no longer our underdog. They are mere pack dogs hounded by Mammon to tow the line. A management decision like this would besmirch even the colossus Os du Randt, the last of the South African players who started his career as an amateur and ended it in the professional era: an honourable and good man.

We need our mythologies—the underdog—in our life to lure us closer into the pool of understanding that leaves us sated by the ‘pursuit of perfection’ embodied in 80 minutes of methodical savagery and physical virtuosity; or in a one-mile long three minutes and 59 second of oxygen-depleting epiphany. We need our underdogs because without them we can no longer keep our head above water in the swamp pool of social constructs, ritual and regulation, taboo and transgression through which we sink or swim. And then get up and go to work every day.

After watching re-runs of that game and talking to a few trusted rugby observers, the Cheetahs are still the underdog, the beast that we cradle in our belly.  But the decision made in the last quarter of the Cheetahs vs. Crusaders game may be a faint hint of Gabriel’s hounds howling, warning us of the imminent death of the underdog, and that desolate moment when myth becomes nostalgia.

[This first appeared in Sports Illustrated August 2012]