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Smoke screen: Sportsmen still refuse to stub it out

They are worshipped for their physical prowess yet for decades these sportspersons have poisoned their bodies. As Wilshere’s indiscretions prove, they’ve still not wisened up. Rohit Bhaskar reports.

india Updated: Oct 12, 2013 02:06 IST
Rohit Bhaskar
Rohit Bhaskar
Hindustan Times
cigarette,Smoking,sportpersons smoke

Some images just don’t look right. A surgeon with a butcher’s knife; a matador with a green muleta; or a world-class athlete with a cigarette.

And while the former two will mostly be found with scalpels and red muletas, you can find reams of smudgy newsprint and terabytes of digital archive stacks capturing sporting legends with a lit death stick on their fingers or between their lips, inhaling or exhaling, with cloudlets of smoke billowing out of the frame and into impressionable minds.

Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere was last week snapped smoking outside a London pub. His immediate reaction was to tweet a photograph of Zinedine Zidane puffing, while adding that he isn’t a smoker.

The literary equivalent of which would be the phrase ‘having said that’. As comic genius Larry David might agree, it’s like having your cake and eating it too.

He later added that it was all a part of a prank (evidently British pranks are more Benny Hill and Mr Bean than the American Jackass and Punk’d). Wilshere’s transgressions were just the latest episode in a long-running saga.

Long association

Tobacco’s association with sport stretches back to the latter’s formative years. By the turn of the last century, tobacco companies across both sides of the Atlantic had started clinging on to the mass appeal of sport.

The tool was a similar one — trading cards. In Britain, cigarette packs came with cards of football players, in America baseball was the sport of choice.

By the 1920s, there were audacious advertisements that would make the medical establishment shake their heads in disbelief. American Wimbledon champ Bill Tilden promoted Lucky Strike claiming the cigarettes ‘protect his throat’. The most outlandish of these newspaper and magazine ads were by Camel.

In 1933, after the New York Giants won baseball’s World Series, Camel ran an advertisement claiming 21 of the 23 players on the team were dedicated smokers of their brand. If that wasn’t enough, their catchphrase was “it takes healthy nerves to win the World Series”. You don’t need to be a neurologist to call the advertiser’s bluff.

Legendary England winger Sir Stanley Matthews, unlike many of his peers, wasn’t a smoker.

However, that didn’t stop him from plugging for Craven A, in his own advertorial words “a clean cigarette”.

Not that football was short of legends who enjoyed a fag. Sir Bobby Charlton was a tireless runner. Franz Beckenbauer, who marked him in the 1966 World Cup final, said he had the lungs of a horse.

Oddly enough Charlton, and his brother Jack, were chain smokers. In fact, during that memorable 1966 final Charlton satiated his nicotine cravings at half-time, lighting up at the Wembley dressing room.

Johann Cruyff smoked all through his playing career and only after a heart-bypass surgery in 1991 did he finally stub it out.

Diego Maradona was another who regularly lit up, on rare occasions some of the cigarettes even had tobacco! Maradona’s one-time coach Cesar Luis Menotti was a constant smoker on the touchline.


Cricket’s list of smokers is equally illustrious. Shane Warne smokes his B&Hs religiously. In 1999, he lost out on $200,000 after he was caught smoking by a teenaged paparazzi despite pledging to stay off the habit at the behest of a nicotine-substitute manufacturer.

It was said that Kris Srikkanth was so addicted he would leave a lit cigarette in the dressing room before going out to bat, just in case he was back in the pavilion early.

Ian Botham’s fondness for tobacco or reefers was no secret.

Basketball superstar Michael Jordan loves his cigars and celebrated each of his NBA championships by blazing a big Cuban. He can still be found on golf courses today smoking his cigars.

However, the man who gave mass acceptance to the idea of the victory cigar was legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who would light up on the bench in the closing seconds of title wins.

Present imperfect

It would seem that the ultra-competitive modern day cauldron would not allow the fostering of such harmful habits, yet Wilshere wasn’t the first blowing out smoke.

Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Ashley Cole, Mario Balotelli, all have been captured smoking. Tour de France and Olympic cycling champion Bradley Wiggins was caught smoking while on holiday in Spain last year.

The question remains - is an athlete partaking of a cigarette any worse than him indulging in unhealthy dietary activities? The answer isn’t one that concerns just health matters.

As Arsene Wenger put it while admonishing Wilshire, “I disagree completely with that behavior... there are two things - first of all when you are a football player you are an example and as well you don’t do what damages your health. The fact is that you can damage your health at home, you can smoke at home and you can drink at home, and nobody sees it, but when you go out socially you also damage your reputation as an example.”

First Published: Oct 12, 2013 00:33 IST