Sport in 2020 has been, not to put too fine a point on it, weird.
Cancelled comps, postponed comps, comps run in eerily empty stadia: never before has sport around the world been so drastically affected by something so microscopic as a virus.
But this doesn’t mean that disease and pestilence have not played their part in sporting history before now. Let us use our quarantined spare time now to look back on the most memorable moments of illness. These are the greatest sporting sicknesses of all time.
1. The flu game
At 2 am the day before Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan called his personal trainer to his hotel room to let him know that either he was a bit under the weather, or he had been possessed by a vengeful demon. Coiled in the fetal position on the floor, shivering and sweating and emitting substances that no man likes to see coming out of his body, Jordan was clearly in no state to play in the next day’s game, delicately-poised series or no delicately-poised series.
You know what comes next. The swelling of an inspirational orchestra, the rising of a still weak and shaking Jordan from his sickbed like Westley at the end of The Princess Bride. The series was 2-2, the Utah Jazz had won the last two games and were undefeated at home in the playoffs to that point.
The mighty Chicago Bulls had need of their greatest player, and though his stomach might lurch and his temperature might soar, he was going onto that court.
Against medical advice, Jordan got out of bed barely an hour before tip-off. The Jazz romped to an early lead, exploiting the great man’s listlessness. But bit by bit, he worked his way back into the game.
He scored 17 points in the second quarter and cut the Utah lead to four. In the third, an exhausted Jordan sat nursing his gastric system on the bench as the Jazz pushed out again, but he returned in the fourth with what can only be described as the kind of effort that should be cut into a montage backed by Joe “Bean” Esposito’s “You’re The Best”.
He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, hit a free throw in the last minute to level the scores, and then sank a three-pointer for what would turn out to be the game-winning lead.
The Bulls won and went on to claim the series in the next game. Forevermore, the legend of the flu game would be talked about in reverent tones, because it was catchier than the more accurate “the food poisoning from a bad pizza game”.
2. The Invictus bug
It was destiny that South Africa would win the 1995 World Cup. The rainbow nation, so recently freed from the atrocity of apartheid, coming together to cheer their team and their president Nelson Mandela, resplendent in his No. 6 Springbok jersey.
When Francois Pienaar hoisted the cup before a delirious Ellis Park crowd, the world was united in one sentiment: this would look even better if it was Matt Damon up there. It was the perfect fairytale ending.
Unless, of course, you were a New Zealander. It was the All Blacks who were forced to play the bad guy in the script of that day, reduced to props in South Africa’s triumphal march. On an intellectual level, they could probably appreciate the good that the Springboks’ win did for the world. On an emotional level, it burnt like fire.
It burnt all the more because there was something a bit…weird about that final. At full-time, the score was 9-9. The teams traded penalties in extra time before South African flyhalf Joel Stransky slotted a drop goal to settle the matter. It was a tight and tense battle all the way through, which is all very well, but no tries were scored in the whole 100 minutes.
That alone was a little odd, because the 1995 All Blacks were one of the most devastating attacking machines in rugby history. Before the final, they’d outscored their tournament opponents 315-104.
In the semi-final, they had splattered England across the Newlands turf, mainly via the efforts of 20-year-old Jonah Lomu, who played the part of freight train to the English defence’s terrified rabbit. This was not a team that seemed capable of going tryless for a whole game: in fact, most observers would’ve agreed that New Zealand that year were a class above everyone else, including the Springboks.
Yet on the day, they were curiously sluggish and incohesive in attack, unable to breach the South African wall even once.
Of course, this may have been simply a combination of a Springbok team playing out of their skins with the winds of history filling their sails, and the timeworn truth that everyone has an off day sometimes. Or it may have been, as has been often alleged, that the All Blacks were defeated less by South Africa than by a debilitating illness that tore through the side prior to the final.
It may even have been that the crippling case of food poisoning was part of a sinister plot by malign forces intent on ensuring the final went the “right” way to eventually be adapted by Clint Eastwood. The All Blacks were certainly off-colour – maybe they were indeed nobbled.
Or maybe not. We’ll never know. All we can be sure of is that unlike Michael Jordan, New Zealand couldn’t overcome its tummy bug, and that the result of the 1995 World Cup final warmed the world’s heart so much that even mentioning the illness can make you come off a bit churlish.
3. Paynter’s masterpiece
Brisbane, 1933. In stinking Queensland heat, the Lancashire batsman Eddie Paynter staggers off the field midway through the second day of the fourth Test. Found to have a temperature of 102 (Fahrenheit – he wasn’t on fire), he is rushed to the hospital.
England manager Plum Warner tells autocratic captain Douglas Jardine that Paynter has been diagnosed with tonsillitis and may not be able to return for the rest of the match. Jardine retorts, “What about those fellows who marched to Kandahar with fever on them?” making it clear that Jardine was fairly insane.
In reply to Australia’s 340 in the first innings, England makes a strong start, but on the third day wickets start to tumble. Feverish and weak in his hospital bed, Eddie Paynter makes a decision: he will not let his lunatic captain down.
He hops up. The ward sister is furious. She tells him that if he leaves it is against her and the doctors’ wishes. Paynter ignores the advice of Australians, like all good Englishmen should. As Gubby Allen walks out to bat at 198 for 5, Paynter shuffles into the dressing room in his pyjamas.
Allen is caught behind with the score on 216. Paynter, having swapped the pyjamas for more traditional cricketing attire, walks slowly and painfully out to bat, wearing a Panama hat to keep off the sun and make himself look ridiculous. He looks like death.
Australian captain Bill Woodfull asks if he wants a runner – a sporting gesture given how savagely his team had been assailed by bodyline all summer. Paynter refuses the offer.
Les Ames falls quickly and Paynter, keen as mustard but nowhere near as robust, hangs on against all logic, unable to hit the ball hard enough to reach the boundary but determined not to get out.
At the end of the day England is 271 for 8 and Paynter is, miraculously, not only still alive but not out. He returns to the pavilion, puts his pyjamas back on, and goes back to the hospital.
A good night’s sleep does him the world of good, and he bounds out of bed the next morning and heads back to the Gabba with pockets full of medicine. With tailender Hedley Verity sticking fast, Paynter begins to lay into the Australians, who flag under the blazing sun.
He cracks Tim Wall, Bill O’Reilly and Bert Ironmonger about the place freely, hitting powerfully to leg. He cruises past his fifty and with Verity adds 92 for the ninth wicket. England sneaks past Australia’s total before Paynter wearily chips a catch to end his innings on 83 – the gutsiest 83 ever seen.
He comes out to field for the second innings but soon has to return to the hospital as per the now-regular routine.
A deflated Australia, hot and bothered from their time in the field and dispirited by England’s extension of its innings far beyond the expected, collapses in the face of the England fast men, and Jardine’s team needs just 160 to win the match and secure the Ashes. They do it with four wickets down, the winning runs belted high and handsome into the Gabba crowd by – obviously – Eddie Paynter.
In that summer of bodyline, when Australians’ hatred of England reached fever pitch, it took a frightful fever to get an Aussie crowd to give a standing ovation to a Pom. In a Brisbane swelter, Eddie Paynter won hearts and minds all over.
4. One lap too Phar
Nobody really knows what happened to Phar Lap. That he died is not in question, but how? How did this magnificent beast, who had conquered Australian racing and was on the brink of doing the same to the world, come to such a premature end in Menlo Park, California, in April 1932.
Phar Lap’s strapper Tommy Woodcock found the horse in agony on the morning of April 5, and within a few hours Phar Lap was no more. It was an ignoble demise for the animal who had been described by many good judges as “very fast”. Phar Lap’s stomach and intestines were inflamed, leading some to speculate that he had eaten too much Mexican food after winning the Agua Caliente Handicap before coming to California. Further research revealed far darker forces than burritos at play.
It was believed that Phar Lap died of duodenitis-proximal jejunitis, which as we all know is one of the worst kinds of jejunitis you can get. It was later discovered that he had ingested a large dose of arsenic before dying, which some say may not have been a coincidence – often the ingestion of large doses of arsenic and death soon afterwards are connected.
It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that Phar Lap was the victim of foul play by American gangsters who feared the havoc his flying fetlocks could wreak on their crooked bookie business – let’s be honest, that’s exactly the kind of thing those guys do. But it’s entirely possible the poisoning was an accident: back in the 1930s, it was quite common for horses to be given health tonics which contained a hefty amount of arsenic.
This is the origin of the phrase “people in the past were idiots”.
Whatever the case, it’s a shame that Phar Lap never got to prove himself as the best horse in the world – or at least the fastest horse in the world, as “best” is a very subjective term.
5. Serena’s struggle
Serena Williams lost the first set of the 2015 French Open semi-final to Timea Bacsinszky, looking slow and lethargic as she dragged herself around the court. It was no surprise to those who knew she’d been struck down with flu sometime around the third round, and was suffering from fatigue, nausea, sweating and coughing fits.
It was clearly Bacsinszky’s lucky day: catching the GOAT mid-disease.
But though the coughing fits continued throughout the rest of the match, the slowness and lethargy did not. Somehow, the afflicted Williams flipped the switch to champion and crushed her hapless opponent in the next two sets, reeling off ten games in a row to claim victory.
Williams then went to bed for 36 hours, preparing for the final against Lucie Safarova with an intensive regime of shuddering and moaning. Three full sets on a warm Paris summer day seemed like a hellish ordeal for a sick woman to put herself through.
Most human beings could not stand it. Luckily for her, Serena Williams, if she’s a human being at all, is definitely not “most”. She stood fast, fought it out, and at the end of the day lifted the trophy with arms that must have felt like molten rubber.
What hope did anyone have of overcoming Serena, when she could beat you even when her training schedule was sleep and vomiting?