Ilie Nastase – the kind of ‘character’ sport doesn’t need
The oafish behaviour of Higgins and Nastase was once celebrated. Those days are gone
Ilie Nastase in a Davis Cup tournament. “It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments,” said Serena Williams. “This world has come so far, but yet we have so much further to go.” Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Where have all the old “characters” gone from sport? You know. The sort of men who could smoke 20 fags, shag a Miss World, insult a racial minority, drink two bottles of scotch and score five goals before falling unconscious in the back of a Black Maria. There’s nobody left for the kids to look up to.
Thank goodness for Ilie Nastase. Last weekend the former tennis player, then still coach of the Romanian Federation Cup team, light-heartedly referred to British captain Anne Keothavong and British player Johanna Konta as “f*cking bitches”.
He also hilariously propositioned Keothavong – who is married and pregnant – during a press conference. Ilie asked for Anne’s hotel room number, and joked that “we keep getting attracted”. How could she resist?
As if he hadn’t yet confirmed his status as a total ledge, Nastaste then went on to make some side-splitting remarks about Serena Williams’s unborn child.
He was heard wondering whether the baby would be “chocolate with milk”. Because the mother is black and the father white, you see. Get it?
This was too much for the PC-gone-mad mob. “It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments,” Serena said. “This world has come so far, but yet we have so much further to go.”
Typically for her generation, she has taken the easy route from childhood in South Central to a cosy life honing every muscle in pursuit of gruelling triumph across two bruising decades. What a snowflake!
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, in case you hadn’t noticed, I was being sarcastic.
Every now and then some dolt writes a column mourning the robust rough-and-tumble of earlier decades. Nobody was hung up about racism. We brushed our teeth twice a year. Children played gaily with hatchets. People could write “gaily” without being misunderstood. That sort of thing.
Such pieces will often allude to the great “characters” who dominated sporting arenas in these supposedly idyllic eras. Remember John McEnroe insulting umpires and telling the crowd to shut up?
You don’t get “characters” like Alex Higgins in snooker any more. Everything’s too polite and buttoned up. I suppose the snowflakes would object to Alex head-butting that tournament official in 1986.
Remember that hilarious run-in he had with the endlessly polite, famously decent Dennis Taylor? “If you ever come back to Northern Ireland I’ll have you shot,” Higgins remarked following a dispute at the 1990 World Cup. Nowadays that would be classed as “threatening behaviour”. You can’t even threaten to murder somebody without the PC Gestapo bursting in the door.
Such “characters” were all over the place in the 1970s and 1980s. Higgins was great friends with the actor Oliver Reed, who could be almost as sexist as Nastase when well oiled. Reed’s “character” was expressed by falling from chairs on chat shows after insulting the female guests.
He was actually only mildly drunk when making a notorious appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in 1975. “The women are quite good in England because they’re always in the kitchen. So you can’t hear them when they shout,” he said when asked about women’s liberation.
“When did you ever go to a great restaurant and find the chef was a woman? Shakespeare wasn’t a bird!”
A few seconds later Shelley Winters, an actor who took no prisoners, dumped a glass of whiskey on the Reed head. The crowd roared, but Reed continued with the comic misogyny for decades.
It is one thing (and a wrong thing) to forgive somebody their bad behaviour and vile attitudes because you respect their genius. It is another thing (and an altogether worse thing) to actively celebrate a star for boorishness, rudeness and poor sportsmanship.
At the peak of his powers Nastase chatted up spectators, demanded the umpire call him “mister” and – in one famous incident – borrowed an umbrella and attempted to play using it as a parasol. None of this was very amusing if you were at the other end trying to win in sportsmanlike fashion.
The sporting world is not a poorer place for its decreased tolerance of oafishness. It is a better place. Such varied competitors as Pele, Seve Ballesteros and George Foreman have demonstrated that it’s possible to swell with personality without becoming a full-on jerk.
Boxing is one area where boorishness has continued to be seen as vital to effective promotion. The pre-fight badmouthing is now an essential part of the hype.
It is, thus, stirring to note the relative civility with which Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko have treated each other in the build up this weekend’s big heavyweight bout. Respect the other chap. Speak decently of him. Honour his achievements.
Then punch him really hard in the face.