Sport, at its Worst

I once wrote a fun fact that was meant to detail the finest of sports, in all of its warm and fuzzy, tear-inducing glory. Now, let’s do the opposite. Not a collection of the most unsportsmanlike, heinous things in sports, mind you. No one wants to read that. Instead, we’ll focus on literally the worst athletic displays in modern sports.

Maurice Flitcroft

In 1976, the professional golf world descended on the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England for the 105th Open Championship (now known as The British Open). The field was star-studded — Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Kite were all vying for the cup. A couple of unknown up-and-comers were there too — it was one of 19-year-old Seve Ballasteros’ first majors, for example.

Another new kid on the block was Maurice Flitcroft. He wasn’t a spritely young man though — this dude was 46. He showed up to Royal Birkdale a few weeks before the tournament and asked to enter the qualifying round. The people who ran the tournament assumed he was an amateur, and asked for his official handicap. Flitcroft, a “chain-smoking shipyard crane operator,” didn’t realize that he needed a handicap of one or less to enter as an amateur, so he declared himself a professional. With no internet (or common sense, apparently) to check this claim, the tournament folks signed up this “professional” for the qualifying round.

Flitcroft went back to his home in northwest England and got to work. He had become interested in golf just a few weeks earlier, when he and his wife Jean had gotten their first color TV. He saw the beautiful courses and the graceful swings of the pros and thought, “I can do this.” He studied a golf instruction manual that he borrowed from his local library, and a series of instructional articles he borrowed from a friend. He went out to local farmland and a beach the next town over and hacked around with a club he had found.

Maurice (right) with 19 year-old Seve Ballasteros

Prepared for the biggest stage, Flitcroft showed up for his qualifying round full of self-belief. This quickly evaporated as he began his round — armed with plastic shoes, a fishing hat, fake teeth, and a half bag of mail-order clubs, Flitcroft slogged through a horrific round, scoring a merciful 49-over 121 — the worst score in the tournament’s history. This record not only still stands, but it has not even come close to being broken. After he carded his 121, his mother was informed that he scored the highest-ever score in British Open history and she was elated. The reporter then had to explain that scoring in golf is meant to be low, not high. His playing partners, having to wait through his disastrous round, even successfully got refunds of their entry fees because of the inconvenience Flitcroft had caused them.

Maurice and his wife Jean

Maurice became somewhat of an instant cult hero, but the higher-ups of British golf were infuriated that someone would sully their beautiful game like this. An immediate rule went into place — never again could a “Maurice Flitcroft” sign up for a qualifying round for the British Open. They also sent letters to all of the major clubs around Flitcroft’s home, telling them of his blatant offense to the game of golf and asking no one to let him into their ranks.

Maurice wasn’t deterred though — he entered the Open’s qualifying rounds and several other British competitions over the next 20 years using various aliases like Gene Pacecki, Gerald Hoppy, and James Beau Jolley and sporting wigs and fake mustaches to throw off the scent. In the words of Cracked, “he would sometimes disappear for years on end, only to reappear and have officials promptly shit bricks as they realized they had the Maurice Flitcroft on their hands.”

Another amazing part of Flitcroft’s journey was his practice method. Because he couldn’t get a membership at any of his nearby clubs, he would sneak onto immaculately-kept soccer and cricket fields at night and just tear it up there after hours. By that I literally mean he would leave these fields chock full of divots, much to the janitors’ dismay.

His story does have a bit of a happy ending though. After years of trying to qualify for an official tournament in Europe, he got a call from Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1988. A tournament there was hoping to host Flitcroft and his wife as their guests of honor, and offered an all-expenses paid trip to the US for it. Flitcroft was psyched — it was his first time on an airplane or on a holiday abroad, and he arrived in Grand Rapids greeted by a beautiful suite at the Marriott with limo service.

And the next day, as the guest of honor, the tournament organizers asked Maurice to hit the ceremonious opening drive of the tournament. Nervous as hell, he walked to the tee box and took a few warmup swings. As he recalls:

I got set, swung my driver and hit a super tee shot straight down the middle of the fairway — approximately 225 yards!

People were stunned — was this the golfing imposter they had heard of? Or had they gotten trolled? Maurice set their fears down easy:

That first hole made some onlookers suspicious. But if any suspicions had been held, they were quickly dispelled when I settled down and topped a few fairway woods, thinned a few long irons and shanked one or two chips early on in the round.

After this round, Flitcroft’s role as a plucky underdog, folk-hero really stuck. The sport warmed to him and he had a loving reception for the rest of his life. When he passed away in 2007, Golf Digest even wrote him a gracious obituary.

“Maurice Flitcroft finds trouble during his famous British Open qualifying round”
We shall see that these are the accidents of fate from which immortality is fashioned, for on that day Maurice G. Flitcroft took his place in golf’s pantheon of iconic figures, a man who reached for the stars, only to fall off the ladder into a bucket of paint. His stature had been set for all time — and set so well that his fame extended all the way across the Atlantic.

Ivan Ukhov

Ivan Ukhov grew up as a promising young basketball player in a suburb of Moscow. From ages seven to sixteen, he was the best player in his town, Chelyabinsk, and even the surrounding region. He was a bit cantankerous and brash, and after 9 years of basketball, he grew tired of it and got into a big argument with his coach. He gave up basketball and switched to discus-throwing. He qualified for the Russian Junior Championships in 2004, and decided to yolo enter the high jump event too (no one knows how he got away with this). With literally no experience or coaching previously, he leaned on his basketball experience and cleared a mind-boggling 6 feet, 11.5 inches at the meet. He dropped discus like it was Russian, and focused entirely on high jump. He took to it extremely well, and a year of training later, he had broken the Russian junior record. In the 2005 European Junior Championship, he won gold with a jump of 7 feet, 3.8 inches. When asked about it after, he said, “I feel a bit confused. I still can not believe that I am the winner.”

For the next few years, Ukhov continued his ascent to the heights of the high jump world. He pushed his personal best to 7 feet, 9.7 inches, setting a new Russian national record. Though he was getting better and better, he was often mercurial and inconsistent. One meet he would clear 7 feet, 9 inches, the next he would struggle to get to 7 feet, 3 inches. There was no denying his raw talent, however.

In mid-2008, however, he hit a big setback. He hoped to qualify for the Olympics in Beijing that year to compete for Russia, but his up-and-down performances conspired against him and he performed substantially below his best in the Olympic trials. A few weeks later, Ukhov and his long-time girlfriend had an explosive fight — things were spiraling out of control a bit for our friend Ivan. In September, just a couple weeks after the Olympics, 22 year-old Ukhov was still stinging from his rejection from the Olympic team. The next major event was the annual Athletissima competition in Lausanne, Switzerland. Ukhov was in “1000% fuck it” mode, and decided to pregame the competition with a copious serving(s) of Vodka and Red Bull. So much so, in fact, that journalists wondered if he had been “bathing in the cocktail for the last week” before participating.

It cannot be overstated the degree to which Ukhov was proper sloshed (s/o Lefko) when he went to attempt his jump. The only proper way to describe it is the following quote from Cracked that accompanies the video. Enjoy.

The woozy “Waitaminnit, where am I again?” shuffle at the beginning. The drunken terror as he slowly realizes that everyone in the stadium is watching him and expects him to do something. The dread when he realizes said something is high jumping — which, despite its name, requires an utterly ridiculous amount of body coordination. The part when he removes his warm-up shorts in the exact “Wait, how do clothes work, again?” fashion so familiar to all of us after a long night out. The “FUCK YOU, CARL, I CAN DO THIS!!!” body language at the fellow athlete who comes up to check his condition. And, after a lengthy “Ohshitohshitoshit” buildup, a near cop-out, and an intervention by an annoyed official, the glorious, glorious jump itself. Witness the human body in its full grace and might.

Ukhov and his manager immediately apologized after he came down off his bender and reimbursed the tournament for all of their entry fees. He was not invited to the Grand Prix IAAF competition that year as punishment for his intoxicated actions.

In the time since, however, he has made quite a name for himself. In 2009, he won gold in the European Indoor Championships. In 2010 — the silver in the European Outdoor Championships and the gold in the World Indoors. And finally, his crowing achievement — gold at the 2012 Olympics in London.

His personal best of 7 feet, 11.3 inches is legendary — it puts him in 3rd for the highest jump in track and field history. But he may never live down his glorious jump of approximately 0 feet, 6 inches on that fateful day in Lausanne in 2008.

Ali Dia

In 1995, a Liberian by the name of George Weah had taken the world of international soccer by storm. He had played from 1992–1995 at Paris Saint-Germain. In the 1994–95 season, he was the leading goal-scorer in the Champion’s League, scoring one of the “wonder goals” of the year.

In 1995, he was signed by AC Milan and won the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year the following season, becoming the first African to ever win either award. Needless to say, he was a renowned figure in the international soccer scene. He was particularly noteworthy given that he was the first true African superstar. Many soccer clubs, jealous of Arsene Wenger, who discovered Weah at Monaco, were eager to dip into what seemed to be a new talent pool of African strikers. This premonition was right — in the next decade we saw players like Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o make waves.

So in 1996, when Graeme Souness, the manager of Southampton, got a call about a new Senegalese striker named Ali Dia, he was interested. Better yet, the call was from George Weah himself. Weah described Dia’s past record — Dia had played with Weah at PSG and scored 5 goals for Senegal in international play. Souness was sold, and called Dia in for a trial on November 21st, 1996. He trained with the side the next day, Friday, November 22nd, and was asked to join the team at training the next week to round out his weeklong trial.

On Saturday November 23rd, Southampton got some bad news. They were playing Leeds United that afternoon, but another couple players on their team were declared unfit to play from injuries by the team doctor. With Southampton’s squad already decimated by injuries, Souness had to dig deep into his reserves to just fill out his bench. So deep, in fact, that Ali Dia got the call to be the last guy on the bench that day. What a day for young Ali.

32 minutes into the game, one of Southampton’s starting strikers, Matt Le Tissier, came up limping. He had to come off injured, and Souness looked down his bench for a replacement. He pointed at Ali Dia and gestured to the field. Dia ran on and had the first Premier League action of his career.

As soon as he was subbed on, he joined a Southampton attack, running down the right side on an overlap. Another player slipped him the ball at the edge of the 18-yard box, and he took an ill-advised shot from a tough angle… it was meekly collected by the keeper.

This was just the beginning of a what turned out to be a horrendous 53 minutes on the pitch. Keep in mind, 32+53 does not equal 90. This means that Dia, a subsitute himself, was called off the pitch with 5 minutes to go because the manager couldn’t bear to continue to watch. The only appropriate way to describe his time on the pitch comes from Matt Le Tissier, the man Dia subbed on for.

He ran around the pitch like Bambi on ice. It was very, very embarrassing to watch. We were like: ‘What’s this geezer doing? He’s hopeless.’ Souness named him as a sub and we couldn’t believe it. I got injured after 20 minutes and when I saw him warming up, I’m going: ‘Surely not?’ Graeme put him on and he was fucking hopeless, so he took him off again. It was crazy.
His performance was almost comical. He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wandering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. I don’t even know if he spoke English — I don’t think I ever said a word to him. In the end he got himself subbed because he was that bad. — Matt Le Tissier (striker)

Souness, for his part, blamed the gaffe on a lack of options at the club… surely he could have had someone else more competent on the bench though?

I sent him on today having never seen him play Premiership football. But I do not have any strikers. Am I enjoying this? Do you enjoy a kick in the bollocks? It just goes to show the state of things at the club at the moment that a player I have never even seen, let alone watched playing in a game, was able to play in the Premiership. — Graeme Souness (manager)

This amazing graphic was created this past November, on the 20th anniversary of the famous day to sum up Dia’s illutrious 53 minutes as a Premier League player.

So how did this all happen? Dia had been bouncing around the lowest leagues of European football for some time when he signed with a seedy agent. This agent promised him better opportunities. Apparently the agent called a bunch of clubs pretending to be George Weah and recommending the Senegalese star, Ali Dia. The credentials that Weah had supposedly cited to Souness on the phone were all made up — Dia had never so much as sniffed PSG nor even played for the Senegalese national team. This agent had conned his way into getting Dia trials with a bunch of different teams, but each team would dismiss him quickly after realizing how truly awful he was. Souness just happened to be the only one to fall for it.

I was able to scrounge up some footage of his time on the pitch — its truly ghastly. The Southampton fans, to this day, haven’t forgotten it. One of their more famous chants traces its origins to Mr. Dia — listen in below.

Sources:

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