Is Novak Djokovic the Eric Liddell of our times?
Liddell was the Scottish sprinter who famously refused to run in the 100m event he was favoured to win at the 1924 Paris Olympics because the heats were scheduled on a Sunday.
Liddell, a Christian who insisted Sunday was a day of worship, was labelled selfish as a bad sport, a coward, and a traitor for putting his principles before the pursuit of sporting glory.
His only consolation was that all of this happened 82 years before the invention of Twitter which, if it had existed, would have gone into meltdown.
Politicians, sporting officials, reporters, and fellow competitors all pressured Liddell to change his mind. But he was as stubborn in his convictions as an unvaccinated Serbian tennis champion.
Liddell sat out the 100m event, running the 400m instead, for which he was not at all suited. History records that he won the gold medal in world record time.
Sprint forward to 2022 and another sporting champion is putting principle before glory – something so rare that for every person who admires him there are two who think him quite mad.
Then again, is it really that surprising that dead fish floating downstream refuse to acknowledge a live one struggling against the current?
Having missed the Australian Open for being unvaccinated (or was it for being likely to excite anti-vax sentiment?), Novak Djokovic has told the world he is prepared to miss out on playing tennis again rather than get the Covid vaccine.
‘The principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,’ he told the BBC this week. ‘It is the price I am willing to pay.’
If a Liberal Prime Minister had said something like that a year ago, I suspect he would be an unbackable favourite to win the upcoming election.
There is no future in politics for Djokovic, though. His refusal to twist and turn in the wind precludes it.
The ‘price’ Djokovic is prepared to pay for his principles includes missing out on millions of dollars in prize money, tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship contracts, the ATP points required to keep his world number one ranking, and the chance to be immortalised as the greatest Grand Slam champion in history.
Explaining his position to the BBC, the nine-time Australian Open winner presented as a perfectly rational and calm man, politely expressing his views without any bitterness.
This was in stark contrast to Australia’s embarrassing treatment of him at the behest of screeching hypochondriacs who had demanded he get the jab or be booted from the country.
The snarling and snitching social media bullies who hounded him out of Australia for supposedly disrespecting us by refusing to bow to a Medical Autocracy now sneer at his principled stance.
‘Let him be stuck on 20 Grand Slam wins then,’ insisted one person, who has certainly never won a professional tennis match but who very likely displays a couple of highly prized participation awards on the mantelpiece at home.
‘Imagine flushing your tennis career down the toilet over … a shot,’ exclaimed another Twitter user.
Maybe Novak Djokovic couldn’t imagine flushing his health down the toilet over … a shot that neither prevents you from getting, or spreading, an illness with a 99 per cent recovery rate.
‘I don’t care if we never see him play again,’ declared another.
Well it would be a great pity if we never witnessed Novak Djokovic hit a tennis ball in anger ever again.
But then again, maybe we have just seen him play his greatest shot – not with a racket, but with his insistence that, whatever the consequences, he will not be owned.
Novak Djokovic rallied when others gave in to group think. He hit back when others gave up on the dignity of the individual.
He would rather be a free man with 20 Grand Slam titles than a twice jabbed, once boosted, state-sponsored pin cushion with 21 slams to his name.
Good for him. I believe history will judge him kindly.
And who knows. Maybe 60 years from now, long after all the critics have been forgotten, they will make a movie just as they did for Eric Liddell, celebrating Novak Djokovic’s courage.
‘Rackets of Fire’ has a ring to it.
If I have great-grandchildren, I hope that they see it and are inspired.
You can follow James on Twitter. You can order his new book Notes from Woketopia here.
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