The Joy of Six: sporting heartbreak

1) John White and Esha Ness, Grand National, 1993

One of sport’s many affirming beauties is its intimacy: we get to see people experience the most ecstatic and most mortifying moments of their lives, live. Yes, they’re seeking fulfilment and validation in the wrong places and yes, this is your super soaraway Joy of Six about to volunteer an unsolicited self-help tip but, immeasurably wise though The Awakened Family is – if you’re a parent or a person, read it – how many titles, belts or majors has Dr Shefali Tsabary won? Exactly.

Which is to say that, though quality time with family and friends is affirming and uplifting, it’s also predictable and universal, so arguably dissimilar to a transcendent crescendo releasing the pressure of a lifetime and enshrining a person in the annals of humanity for evermore. Just ask John White, the journeyman jockey who rode 50-1 shot Esha Ness in the 1993 Grand National.

The start of the race was delayed when animal rights activists invaded the course, then again when the tape tangled around various riders, forcing Keith Brown, starting proceedings for the final time before retiring, to signal a restart with his red recall flag. So off they went again only for a second tangle to occur – except this time, Brown’s recall flag failed to unfurl. Consequently, 30 of 39 runners set off with White and Esha Ness finishing first, in the second-fastest time ever.

There’s not much that’s harder than being a jockey: hundreds of races a year, wrestling with a gigantic beast, at terrifying speed, risking death and serious injury, while starving oneself as a matter of course. So, though we cannot for a second grasp how White felt celebrating a joy he feared would never come, we can assume that in the moment, a complex and stressful world suddenly made ecstatic and blissful sense.

Briefly. Very quickly, the awful truth became apparent: the race was null and void, White’s face contorting in horror before he covered his eyes, unwilling to believe what he was seeing. “Didn’t you realise that there were a lot of horses missing?” wondered Des Lynam afterwards. “You ever ridden in the National?” came the bitterly grinning response. “You don’t have time to count horses.”

Undeterred, Des went again: “You’ve come second in your time, haven’t you?” he asked rhetorically, White nodding his assent. “Well, you’ve come first this time but afraid it won’t stand, old boy.” “No, I suppose not,” replied White with calm and devastating understatement. “Bad luck on the owners.”

2) Bayern Munich, Champions League final, 1999

Though all sport necessarily creates a world suffused with adrenaline, ego and chaos, football intensifies those aspects like nothing else. Its rolling, roiling nature, along with the relative scarcity of its goals, means it can change complexion in shocking fashion. But what really elevates things is the way it tracks life and establishes identity. Players do not just compete for themselves but for cities, communities and families, ordered to deliver superhuman feats of skill, endurance and imagination in front of a baying crowd and worldwide audience.

As such, it’s no great surprise that the game generates histrionics beyond those generally enjoyed elsewhere – but even in that context, what happened to Bayern Munich in the final of the 1999 Champions League was something else. Leading Manchester United 1-0 with stoppage-time remaining, they conducted themselves as though victory was assured, because it was – Lothar Matthäus was so certain, he celebrated with fans while milking his late substitution. But then United equalised and seconds later scored a winner, completing not just the most discombobulating end to a major football match ever, but the most discombobulating event most of the 90,000 people in the ground will experience in their lifetimes.

That included both sets of players, Bayern’s staggering and collapsing with the shock, like they had been hit by a spaceship, full of bad acid. Bodies strewn everywhere and faces contorted in agony, they attempted to process in the moment a trauma that will last for eternity – with predictable success. So it was left to the referee to rouse them, whether slumped against posts or beating the ground, yanking and coaxing them from the depths of hell to restart the few remaining seconds of the game – while, all around them, their equally hysterical opponents and the vast majority of the crowd cavorted with equal incredulity.

Referee Pierluigi Collina checks on Sammy Kuffour after Manchester United stun Bayern Munich in the dying moments of the 1999 Champions League final
Referee Pierluigi Collina checks on Sammy Kuffour after Manchester United stun Bayern Munich in the dying moments of the 1999 Champions League final. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

3) Jimmy White, Crucible Theatre, 1981-eternity

Most sporting heartbreaks are in the moment: first someone’s winning, then they’re losing, and even while that’s in progress, you know the victim will never be the same again, their sense of self diminished by regret, their public persona suffused by it. But there are also losses that scald slowly – though no less profoundly – taunting and tantalising with hope that isn’t really hope at all.

Jimmy White first played at the Crucible in 1981 and he’s still trying to do so now, 42 years a pro and regularly the oldest competitor in qualifying. In between times, though, he reached six finals, losing them all in horrendous fashion – an 18-16 loss to Steve Davis in 1984 prompted his graduation from coke to crack.

It was in the following decade, though, that White really felt the searing anguish of human existence. In 1992, he led Stephen Hendry 14-8 only to miss when he shouldn’t have, losing that frame … and the next nine. But his most devastating defeat came in the 1994 final – his fifth on the spin, four of which were against Hendry – when, playing a decider, he was ensconced at the table and looking good, only to miss a black off its spot.

Unable to get out of his seat fast enough, Hendry duly cleared up, but White – celebrating his birthday for extra life-blighting horror – was only 32, giving him plenty of time for redemption. Except he didn’t reach another ranking final for six years.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps not until 2015 that grim reality finally dawned, when Stuart Bingham surprisingly won the world title and, as he celebrated, the TV camera picked out White, sat in the front row applauding with brave generosity. But his face told us everything his hands couldn’t, a generation of deferred despair finally catching up with him. It was over and he knew it.

4) Ian Woosnam, the Open, 2001

One of the best – and worst – things about individual sport is that it’s all on the competitor: you win, it’s because of you; you lose, it’s because of you. Apart from when it isn’t.

Playing the 2001 Open, Ian Woosnam finished Saturday joint top of the leaderboard, and though he was a shot off the pace by the time he began his final round at Royal Lytham, a birdie at the first hole drew him level. Which was when he learned that his bag contained not one but two drivers, giving him 15 clubs rather than the permitted 14. The penalty for this infraction was two strokes, and a woozy Woosie not only had to accept it but grass himself up to the authorities – elation rivalled only by that of Miles Byrne, the culpable caddie who had delivered the glad tidings to his boss.

Woosnam, 43 at the time, had never won the Open – he had tied for third in 1986, and repeated that finish, unable to overcome a mind consumed by fury, nausea and distress. Generously, Byrne was allowed to remain in post – until the following month, when he overslept and failed to arrive for the final round of the Scandinavian Masters – though the error cost Woosnam second place, £220,000, and a shot at taking home the Claret Jug. “I’ll just have to win it next year, won’t I?” he said afterwards, but he didn’t – and never would.

Ian Woosnam and his caddie Miles Byrne stand apart on the fifth tee at Royal Lytham
Ian Woosnam and his caddie Miles Byrne stand apart on the fifth tee at Royal Lytham. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

5) Monica Seles, Hamburg, 1993

Though sport is famed for narratives of what could’ve been, tales of what should’ve been are rare, because a largely meritocratic system means that generally, people get what they deserve. But when the greatest ever tennis players are discussed, Monica Seles is rarely named – for reasons that have nothing to do with her.

There have been few phenomena of Seles’s calibre, so dominant so young. In April 1993 aged 19, she and the double-fisted forehand punished with such joyful aggression had won three French Opens in a row, three Australian Opens in a row, two US Opens in a row – and her grass-court game was progressing. The universe was hers.

But then, playing a match in Hamburg, someone put a knife in her back during a change of ends. And, though she fought back with characteristic yet unbelievable moxie to take one more grand slam and lose three major finals, she was neither the same player nor, more importantly, the same person, spending the next years of her life facing depression and eating disorders. But if you know, you know.

Monica Seles after being stabbed on court in Hamburg
Monica Seles after being stabbed on court in Hamburg. Photograph: Sipa/Shutterstock

6) Sport – all of it

Sport is about a lot more than the hitting and kicking of balls and faces, incorporating family, identity, history and entertainment – aspects of existence that affect everyone. For that reason, its ability to cross borders, whether geographical or cultural, and speak to the entirety of the world’s population, is unrivalled.

Normal people have always known this, likewise various despots, but in the last 30 years guileless corporations and human rights-abusing plutocrats have twigged too. Consequently, we can no longer simply enjoy things, but must regularly confront ourselves by remembering how many people have suffered and died – are suffering and dying – for our pleasure. And there’s little more heartbreaking that that.