Nick Butler

With the possible exception of a flurry of breaking doping scandals, such as we have been reporting on this afternoon, my favourite thing about multi-sport Games is the opportunity to get to grips with unfamiliar sports and events. 

Last night’s baseball final between the United States and Canada was a perfect example. Having been brought up on a diet of cricket, there were countless occasions where I had to frantically replace words like “bowl”, “crease” and “bat” with their more appropriate baseball equivalents, and I dread to think how often we misunderstood a key passage of play.

Yet, like most sports, it did not  take long to gain a reasonable idea of what was unfolding and by the time we reached the dramatic conclusion we were hooked.

After the US had put themselves 6-4 up, Canada managed one in response but were just an out away from defeat.

Spinning and hurling the ball with lightening reactions, replacement pitcher David Huff threw to first base rather than the hitter in a bid to pick-off Canadian runner Peter Orr.

As the crowd gasped, he succeeded in fooling only himself and his team-mates. The ball soared high and wide of the base and, following an equally erratic throw by right-fielder Brian Bogusevic, Orr sprinted home to score the decisive run in a 7-6 victory.

Canada celebrate after third remarkable Pan American Games victory ©Canadian Olympic Committee
Canada's baseball team celebrate after their remarkable victory against the United States at Toronto 2015 ©Canadian Olympic Committee

As spontaneous cheers of amazement erupted from the Canadian Olympic Committee offices next to our base in the Media Centre, even scholars of the game seemed just as shocked as us.

“Not sure how it happened, but Canada is on top of the #PanAmGames baseball world!” tweeted Baseball Canada.

Orr added afterwards: “It feels awesome…The way it ended, I’m still kind of confused. It doesn’t seem like it’s real yet."

Whatever way you look at it, the US had thrown away gold and the Canadians had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in an example of sport in its most thrilling and brutal sense.

It got me thinking about other examples of calamitous tactical misjudgements in sport. Not mistakes, that is something different, but times when failure has arisen from a bad choice or a moment of incomprehensible woefulness.

A team leading by a point in a rugby match turning down a penalty in front of the posts in order to score a try before ending up conceding one instead, for example, or fielding an extra or ineligible player in your team, as New Zealand did at last week’s Pacific Games in Port Moresby.

Christophe Dominici crosses the tryline before somehow failing to ground the ball ©AFP/Getty Images
France's Christophe Dominici crosses the tryline before somehow failing to ground the ball in a Six Nations match against Italy at the Stade de France ©AFP/Getty Images

A good example from rugby union came in the 2004 Six Nations when French winger Christophe Dominici was clean through against Italy at the Stade de France. He crossed the try line as the crowd roared but, instead of simply placing the ball on the ground to confirm the five points, he failed to slow-down and as the dead ball line neared, stumbled and dropped the ball.

“Totally unacceptable at international level," was the verdict of French coach Bernard Laporte. "It's a lack of respect for the team, for all the work that has been done during the week of training and for himself.”

His compatriots Robert Pires and Thierry Henry did something equally as stupid from the penalty spot in a Premier League football match for Arsenal the following year. Instead of simply shooting at the net, Pires attempted to pass to Henry in a manner reminiscent of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff in 1982. Unlike Cruyff, Pires confused only himself, missing the ball and being reduced to hopelessly remonstrating with gloating opponents as Manchester City defenders gleefully knocked it clear.

My favourite example of this, however, came at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin when American snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis held a huge lead in the women’s snowboard-cross final with two jumps to go. With the gold medal seemingly won she decided to play to the crowd, grabbing her board mid-jump in a show of celebration before losing her grip and tumbling into the snow.

Swiss rival Tanja Frieden cruised past to take gold in a way which was just as fortuitous as Orr’s run-in from first base last night.

Lindsay Jacobellis slides in the snow after somehow falling within sight of the finishing line at Turin 2006 ©AFP/Getty Images
Lindsay Jacobellis slides in the snow after somehow falling within sight of the finishing line at Turin 2006 ©AFP/Getty Images

Another case which deserves mention, albeit one which resulted from an opponent’s mind games rather than a personal moment of madness, concerned the final race of the men’s laser class sailing at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. Brazilian Robert Scheidt, a silver medallist nearly two decades on this week in Toronto, held a two-point lead over British teenager Ben Ainslie.

Knowing he could afford a bad result as a discard, which his opponent could not, the Brazilian deliberately false-started, tricking his rival and much of the rest of the field into following him and leading to a mass disqualification and therefore overall gold.

Four years later at Sydney 2000, Ainslie exacted the sweetest of revenge on Scheidt. Needing to finish 10 places ahead of the Brazilian, the Briton manoevered his opponent to the back of the fleet and forced him into a series of risky attempts to overtake, eventually resulting in his disqualification. 

Ainslie developed into one of the greatest sailors and tacticians in history with further Olympic titles at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, although he was disqualified from the 2011 World Championships for climbing onto a television boat in order to remonstrate after being supposedly impeded during his race.

Falling foul - or simply misunderstanding - the rules is another area where problems can arise.

French track star Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, involved in a fight with a team-mate following a Diamond League race on another occasion, took his top off in the home straight of the 3,000 metres steeplechase at last year’s European Championships in Zurich and was disqualified for breaking rules regarding vests and numbers

Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad paid the price for removing his shirt in the finishing straight of the 3000m steeplechase ©Getty Images
France's Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad paid the price for removing his vest in the finishing straight of the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich ©Getty Images

China's Olympic table tennis champion Zhang Jike was similarly punished for kicking over an advertising hoarding in celebration following a World Cup win last year.

You would be hard pushed to better the case of the South African cricket team in the 2003 World Cup against Sri Lanka, however.

In a match marred by rain which was being decided by the ingeniously complex Duckworth-Lewis method, a mathematical formula used to compile an adjusted total in a shortened game, South Africa’s Mark Boucher clubbed a huge six to get his side to the target of 229. Knowing a wicket would change things, he carefully blocked the remaining balls before celebrating, only to be informed he had been told the wrong total and they had in fact fallen one run short.

Given these examples, the US baseball team last night joined a vast pantheon a sporting blunderers, with even greats like Henry and Ainslie implicit.

And for all the excitement generated by a moment of brilliance, a moment of incompetence is just as dramatic and no less exciting and, much as it must pain those involved, we all secretly hope for many more similar instances in the future.