BY RIZWAN REHMAT
DOHA: Former world number one Monica Seles has urged dialogue between players and organisers on a regular basis to improve security at sporting events around the world.
Almost 18 years ago, the American was stabbed by a deranged fan of Steffi Graf in Hamburg, leaving a traumatised nine-time Grand Slam champion to stay away from the sport for more than two years.
Speaking at a two-day Sports Security Conference organised by Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, Seles underlined the need for detailed deliberations to improve player safety.
“Considering what happened to me way back in 1993, I think there’s a long way to go (in terms of security at tennis events). From the time I was stabbed, I think the security hasn’t changed. It’s good that we are opening up a dialogue through this sports (security) conference. I think it would be better to have extensive dialogue, maybe decide on special budgets that anyone would want to go with (to improve security),” Seles said yesterday.
“I do worry and hope that no other athlete has to go through what I went through. You are out there by yourself. It’s you and your opponent. And in tennis, the distance from the fans is pretty close,” the 37-year-old pointed out.
“I was able to make a great living out of tennis because of the fans who are part of the games. When we practice is the time when an athlete is really most vulnerable. When you are going out to the practice court, you don’t have that barricade that you want to have when you play the French Open or the Wimbledon.
“The athlete’s job is just to focus on the play and try to win the match without having to worry about such things. When you step into that arena, when you have so much on the line, and you are so focused on every single point, so much of your life has been spent to reach that position of winning a tournament, you really don’t want to be thinking about such issues. This is where the role of people (who manage and organise events) comes in and it is their job to ensure that everything goes smooth. There should be a set standard of security. One way could be that the top tennis players got together and try to find a level and get the ITF, WTA and ATP on board,” the former Qatar Open champion said.
The American said sports personalities are entertainers and must be protected at all times.
“As a former athlete, in my case, when I stepped out on a court, your job is to try and win that match. It really is to entertain the fans. And once when you step on the courts you feel like that’s your safe haven. Unfortunately, what happened to me, I didn’t feel that it was my safe haven for an extremely long time. And then you hope it never happens to another athlete because that feeling should not be taken away from you. It really damages your confidence I guess,” Seles said.
In January 1993, Seles defeated Graf in the final of the Australian Open. However on April 30 the same year, during a quarter-final match with Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg in which Seles was leading 6–4, 4–3 Gunter Parche, an obsessed fan of Graf, ran from the middle of the crowd to the edge of the court during a break between games and stabbed Seles with a boning knife between her shoulder blades, to a depth of 1.5 cm (0.59 inches). She was quickly rushed to a hospital.
Parche was charged following the incident but was not jailed because he was found to be psychologically abnormal and was instead sentenced to two years’ probation and psychological treatment. The incident prompted a significant increase in the level of security at tennis events.
But Seles yesterday revealed that she arranged personal security at tennis events.
“For each sport, it is different. For soccer it is different, and I can only speak individually about tennis. I felt after what happened to me that I had to provide security for myself. I had to take my own security measures. For me to have my peace of mind, that’s what I had to do. For other athletes, they may not do it but I had to do it,” Seles told a select gathering at Aspire Academy.
“I can’t speak for other (tennis) players. Each player has a unique situation, geographically, what fans base they have… but one of the things I see as a former athlete is that you want to have peace of mind on the court. Whatever issues I had in my personal life were forgotten once I stepped on the court. I was totally focused on what I was going to do.
“It is very important to have security measures so that you don’t fall into the whole liability issue.
“What I did outside tennis was my responsibility but once I stepped on to the court, it was their responsibility,” the Yugoslav-born American added.
Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic and an eight-time world champion, said sports security usually gained importance for an athlete during an event.
“I don’t think that most athletes put the security aspect that high at all. It definitely is thought about. I don’t know how the security’s been over the last few years, especially at the Olympics level. Most athletes don’t think too much about it maybe because we feel we are safe. Because we know this aspect is taken care of by the organising committee (of any sports event). But it is certainly on the mind of an athlete when you go into a competition. Because, as we understand, there is a balance that we have to put up with,” Johnson said.
Would Johnson skip an event if the security was patchy?
“When it comes to Olympics, you don’t have a choice. Once you get there, you don’t want to miss the Games. That’s pretty much the standard. That’s the event (where) you don’t have low level of security,” Johnson said.
“The security aspects shows how powerful sport is. How passionate the fans are. And how seriously athletes take their sports. But there has to be a balance.
“We need to educate the fans so that it allows them to express their passion the right way.
“It is hard for an athlete to know what type of security would be best (at sports events). For example, there was an issue at the Commonwealth Games last year because of the (terrorist) attack (in Mumbai) before that (in November 2008). That (attack) caused some of the athletes (to think) that it would not be worth it (to go there). I understood their (the athletes’) concerns. You would have to look at individual situations and in my situation, as world champion and an Olympic champion, I would skip Commonwealth Games.
“I don’t know what security arrangements were like in New Delhi. But I know what was reported. I am sure there was more security than the monkeys shown on television to keep other monkeys from attacking people. That’s what was shown on television.
“It is difficult for an athlete to know. How does an athlete find out about the security? That’s for the governing body of any event to look into,” Johnson said.