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The Other News Round-Up: A Sporting Chance

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a round-up of some of the lesser-reported news from South Africa and further afield. This week: when athletes change sports.

Late last week, Daily Maverick sports editor Antoinette Muller posted a picture of a blood-spattered scene of an axe murder on social media. “Excellent idea,” she captioned it. “Send it to Marelise.”

She was not suggesting I perform said axe murder. The picture was a meme, where one posts the second-last text you sent as the caption. The original text was somewhat more mundane, but infinitely more pleasant: the tale of Gerhard de Beer, Pretoria’s giant discus-thrower turned Arizona footballer.

When it comes to the average attempt to change sports, however, the massacre image is not entirely inaccurate as a metaphor.

De Beer had been one of the world’s best discus throwers in his age group, but left it all behind to pursue college football, saying – bless those giant discus-grabbers – he “never realised it was this insanely big”.

“I didn’t realise how arrogant my statement was when I said I wanted to play college ball,” De Beer explained. Apparently he thought it would be him “going out for some team”.

According to ESPN, De Beer was recruited for several track programmes, but football coaches were more circumspect. Only Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez was willing to give him a shot – a tall order, it turned out, since De Beer basically responded to seeing pads for the first time with little more than “what the…?”

“How do you put these on?” he asked a team mate. He’d never seen pads before. He was also unclear on what the coach’s instruction to “block the corner” meant. And don’t get his team mates started on those very South African short, short shorts.

According to ESPN, he has made great progress. Rodriguez believes he will find his niche as a punter, but hasn’t been given the chance yet, largely due to his 145kg frame. His size, ESPN phrases it, is a case “of optics”.  But he’s doing well on the track and field as well, and he’s in with a shot at the Olympics if he goes back to the discus.

Despite his wonky start, De Beer is one of the more successful multi-sport athletes. South Africans in general aren’t too shabby. I don’t only mean triathletes and those of their ilk, now. I mean those nauseating types we all went to school with who could gracefully slide off a horse, swim across a lagoon and single-handedly moer you and your entire team with a hockey stick without breaking a sweat. Jonty Rhodes, for example, cricketer and hockey player extraordinaire. Or pro mountain biker Bianca Haw, who has a list of MTB titles under her belt and also just happened to win the junior women’s category in the Dusi Canoe Marathon three years in a row. (Don’t give her a hockey stick.)

For many athletes, their forays into a second sport has about much chance of survival as an encounter with Antoinette’s axe. Although many of the skill requirements for a successful athlete – namely co-ordination, fitness, strength – are useful across the board, others are most decidedly not. Ball sense, for example, will help you sweet bugger-all in the 100m butterfly event.

Some bombed attempts, like that of Michael Jordan, need no introduction. After 15 successful seasons and winning three consecutive NBA titles, Jordan announced he was going to switch to baseball, in line with his late father’s wishes. He lasted one season.

Certainly De Beer’s career change has a better prognosis than Usain Bolt’s, which was immediately stillborn. When Bolt announced in 2011 that he dreamed of being a professional soccer player for Man United, no less, and publicised a video of his moves, Sir Alex Ferguson let out a long snort. Man U: 1. Bolt: 0.

Larger-than-life is Emmanuel Yarborough, who wears a size 21 shoe (yes, you read that correctly), is 6-ft-8 and weighs 270kg. Unsurprisingly, having made the record as the heaviest athlete in the world, Yarborough found his niche as a sumo wrestler. Perhaps unwisely, he opted to change tack, trying the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He fought just three MMA fights and lost twice, which is quite a feat if you consider that in order to crush most people, all he has to do is lift one gargantuan foot.

A good few athletes switch sports after scandals of one sort or another. Marion Jones, for instance, had three gold and two bronze medals from the Sydney Olympics stripped after she admitted to using steroids. Following a prison sentence and a ban from athletics, she opted for the WNBA. She had been a gifted player at university level – emphasis on had been. Similarly, British sprinter Dwain Chambers – known as one of the fastest track and field athletes in European history, held the 50m record, made the 1997 junior record and was the all-time fourth-fastest on 100m. Chambers was banned for doping in 2003. He slunk off to the National Football League and rugby league, but bombed at both.

Special mention goes to Jose Canseco, a former Major League Baseball outfielder and designated hitter who won multiple awards during his career. Canseco admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. Unabashed by the doping scandal, though, he turned those lemons into lemonade and made a couple of bucks writing a tell-all book about his exploits. Not one to miss an opportunity, he took out the other players who were using as well. Canseco used his retirement optimistically, taking up boxing and competing in MMA. Except he didn’t win one fight and, memorably, he lasted a total of 76 seconds in his first fight.

Moral of the story: say no to drugs, kids.

Manute Bol, bless his 7-ft-7 skeleton, was best known as one of the NBA’s best blockers. He tried his hand at a number of other sports, and in fairness to his spectacularly failed efforts, these were mostly for fun or to raise funds for charity. This included boxing, horse riding and, best of all, ice hockey, for which he signed a one-day contract with Indianapolis Ice. He couldn’t skate at the time.

Not to be outdone is former ice hockey defence man Chris Chelios – who, mind you, made the fifth-most NHL appearances of any player in history – decided it would be more fun to take up bob sledding. He joined up with the Greek team in the hope of making the 2006 Winter Olympics, but that went, ahem, downhill. (Yes, we went there.)

“Elite athletes are often not the most modest of characters,” writes sports columnist Alfie Potts-Harmer, “(as) confidence in one’s own ability is often integral to success in sport, and as such, many of them think they can turn their hand to a new sport with no trouble.” Many of them are wrong. But if nothing else, they remind us that sport is eternally an exercise in optimism. Long may it live. DM


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