I didn't watch the Tottenham-Bolton fixture yesterday. My reasoning wasn't the usual, that I had slept in, that I didn't feel like streaming the match (I later discovered it was being broadcast on Fox Sports after the fact). My heart was simply elsewhere, with my first love: Syracuse Orange basketball. I tuned into CBS yesterday on no sleep, eager to watch Syracuse get to the Sweet Sixteen again and hopefully get over the loss of Fab Melo. A Tottenham-Bolton fixture outside of the FA Cup Final wasn't going to change my priorities. But I made sure to keep my Twitter feed open.
Towards the end of the second half in the Syracuse game, I began to see worrying posts on my Twitter feed. About how the match had been abandoned, and something horrible had happened. I had no idea what was going on, and wasn't seeing many details, and so kept with the Syracuse game even as they began pulling away. Finally the final whistle blew in Pittsburgh and I changed my television over to Fox Soccer. All I saw was an empty stadium and crying fans. I rushed over here to the game thread to find out what happened when someone posted on Twitter that Fabrice Muamba had collapsed. I learned in the comments that it was an apparent cardiac arrest. I went from elation at Syracuse achieving another Sweet Sixteen appearance to utter horror and dismay. I went from a great day that started with Wales achieving the Grand Slam to a Syracuse win to what appeared to be a massive tragedy in the making. My mind raced as I joined the community here in the comments and waited for word to come out. After Muamba having been removed from the field for an hour and with no further word coming out, I finally went to bed with my mind racing.
L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'être bien battu.
There has always been an undercurrent with regards to sports, that they are frivolous and not productive. Outside of personal fitness where is the benefit of sports? What intrinsic value does Tottenham Hotspur Football Club offer to the world outside of what some may call mindless entertainment? Sport to some people people is the pursuit of idle activity. Just look at the backlash against big money college sports over the past several years, academics and college professors asking what the is the point of an activity that to them, actively distracts people from tangible goals and breakthroughs. Imagine what the thousands of rabid Tennessee Volunteer football fans could do if they didn't devote their time and energy to a leisure activity and instead devoted their time and activity to research, human advancement. Instead of devoting four hours every Saturday at Neyland Stadium they devoted their time to building homes for Habitat for Humanity. After all, isn't life more important that sports?
Why do we care so much? Why do we devote so much of our time an energy caring about a team of eleven strangers with no bearing over our lives? Their successes, their failures, their ups and downs? What do fans get back from the pursuit of sport? If we're not participating then what is the point? What's in it for us? And in light of the plight of Fabrice Muamba, what is in it for the players besides money? Why do football players toil for years in a sport that turns their brains into Swiss cheese? Why irreparably break your body down and destroy yourself for the applause of fans who won't be there picking up the pieces twenty years down the line? Isn't life more important than sports?
Sport has a long history, and that history along with its nature has often mirrored and been compared to warfare. During the Ancient Olympic games Greek city states would come together and form a truce, setting aside wars that had been long raging for a few weeks to take part in athletic contest. The Olympics were peace, a time when conflict was set aside to come together and compete outside of bloodshed. Sport was war outside of war. It has remained that, a way for countries and people to settle their differences without the blade and barrel and instead settle them through athletic accomplishment. Sports brought cultures together to exercise their differences in the most peaceful way they could imagine.
This was the reasoning in Pierre de Coubertin's mind when he sought to bring the Olympic games back to the world again at the turn of the 19th century. He saw the Olympics as a way for disparate cultures to come together and help lessen the threat of war between each other. Most important of all though, was that he thought the Olympics would help advocate his philosophy for athletic competiton: that competition itself, the struggle to overcome and beat your opponent, was more important than winning. While this philosophy and thought is sometimes forgotten by us when we're watching sports, it comes through in the most dire and trying instances of our experience. This has been reinforced again and again and again.
The first thought through my mind after seeing Fabrice Muamba go down was Hank Gathers. In 1990 Hank Gathers was one of the greatest college basketball players in the country, a sure lottery pick and the leader of Loyola Marymount's basketball team. On March 4th, Hank threw down a thunderous tomahawk dunk off of an alley-oop with 13:34 left in the first half of a WCC quarterfinal game against Portland. On his way back on defense, he collapsed to the floor. He attempted to get up, telling trainers, "I don't want to lay down!", and then stopped breathing. He died of a heart attack at age 23. The tournament was cancelled and Loyola was given an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, who without Gathers went from dark horse favorites to a probable early loss.
His best friend since high school, Bo Kimble vowed to shoot his first free throw of every game in the tournament left handed in tribute to Gathers, who was a horrible free throw shooter and had attempted shooting left handed at one time to try and improve. Against New Mexico State, he got fouled with 14:46 remaining in the second half. For one moment, the entire country became Loyola fans. Bo took his left handed free throw. He sank it. Loyola won. In the next round, he did it again, and Loyola won. Finally, against eventual champions UNLV, he did it again. He made all three. It didn't matter that Loyola didn't win the tournament. They competed for Hank. They brought the country together behind one goal.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the biggest cheer did not come from the Dream Team dazzling the sports world with a dominant performance in the Games. The biggest cheer did not come from anyone winning an event, coming in second, or even coming in third. The biggest cheer came from a crowd of people from all different nations, for a single athlete who finished in dead last. Prior to the 1992 Olympics, Derek Redmond was a star runner for Great Britain, winning gold in the 4x400m relay at the 1991 Tokyo World Championship. He was the fastest British man in the 400 meters, but he had never achieved Olympic glory. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics he had withdrawn from the 400 meter event before the first heat due to an Achilles injury. Prior to the 1992 Olympics he had had eight operations for various injuries performed on him. As a runner he wasn't making a lot of money from a pro circuit, he put himself through all of this pain and suffering purely for the happiness of his own effort, which de Coubertin preached. At the 1992 Olympic Games he had posted the fastest 400 time of the event, and won the first round and the quarterfinal. Time finally came for the semifinal. He was in the best form of his entire career. However, on the back stretch of the 400 meter semifinal his hamstring snapped. Redmond collapsed on the track, once again his body had betrayed him and he was never going to have a chance to win an Olympic gold medal.
He didn't give up though. He got up and began hobbling in incredible pain towards the finish line, wanting to finish the event. He wasn't going to let his body stop him from achieving his goal. By the time he had gotten back up and started hobbling everyone else had finished. It didn't matter. Towards the final stretch a man ran onto the track trying to get to him, his father. His father gave his son support as Derek cried into his arm. His father helped him the remainder of the way, finally crossing the finish line. Even though, because of his fathers help, his result went down as a Did Not Finish, everyone knew that the result didn't matter. We all saw him finish.
"You don't have to do this, you don't have to put yourself through this."
"Yes, I do."
"Well then, we're going to finish together."
Almost seven years ago to the day, Wales prepared to take on Ireland in what was to be the biggest Rugby match for Wales since 1978. Wales had not achieved the Six Nations Grand Slam for almost three decades, and during that time had gone from pure dominance of the Six Nations contest to by that time falling long behind England in the standings for grand slams achieved. This was especially big to Wales, as since the last grand slam the government in London had gutted the mining industry in Wales, putting the region into a depression that was still being felt before that game in 2005. The grand slam meant more than just another notch in the belt, it meant a return to a time when Wales was great, and had great pride for its blue collar identity. So it felt only fitting that Max Boyce perform before the game. In the 70's Boyce had documented the height of Welsh rugby power in his song 'Hymns and Arias', which became the de facto Welsh national song for the Rugby side. Following the decline of the team in the wake of its recording, it felt only right that Boyce update the lyrics for the 2005 match, starting a sing along for the 75,000 Welsh countrymen in attendance. In a way the match and achievement brought pride back to a nation that had been on hard times for a long time, the success of the Rugby team signalling the return to success of the region.
So heres to our stadium...
It's the finest one around!
And we lend it to the Irish,
cos' they knockin' theirs down!
They say its got a sliding roof
that they can move away,
and they slide it back when Wales attack,
so God can watch us play.
Sports are not frivolous, and not without substance. They speak directly to the most basic needs and feelings that we as humans have. The need to come together, socialize, to know each other. The need to compete with each other, to prove our worth and measure ourselves as men and women. They speak to our need to go beyond the call of duty and persevere above all possible opposition. We as humans always strive to go beyond what is possible, and sports are a reflection of that. We struggle to finish what we set out to do, we fight and compete for an esoteric ideal that unites a nation, and we challenge ourselves to go outside our comfort zone to honor others.
We are incredibly lucky that Fabrice Muamba did not end up becoming another Hank Gathers. We are also incredibly lucky that the grave misfortune that befell Fabrice helped to remind everyone once again what's so important about sports. Life is not more important than sports because sports are life. This is not an either or situation. Fabrice Muamba devoted his life to sport to pull himself out of a life of fleeing violence and poverty with his families situation in Zaire. He became a model for what sports can achieve for us. As a force in the midfield he brought the people of Bolton together behind their team, and he brought the people of England together in his performance for the U-21 team. We gave him love and adoration because he gave us community. His ability as a football player, along with thousands of others, gave us a league where men and women from around England, and in contemporary times from around the world, can come together and meet and share our different cultures and ideas.
That is the great thing about sports. While we root for our team and care for them above all else, underneath it all we care about the whole league, above all when tragedy strikes. I would like to think the global reach of sports has helped to curb the tide of war around the world and helped us come together more peacefully. I would hope that. as Pierre de Coubertin had hoped, sports has allowed us to gather a larger understanding of each others cultures. I also hope that Farbrice Muamba will be able to play football again.
When Muamba went down so did the thin veneer we as fans put up, to make it seem as if we detest everyone but our own. 36,000 Tottenham fans became 36,000 Muamba fans at the drop of a hat, not just because his life was in danger, but because they had been Muamba fans all along. We just put up the facade of rivalry and vitriol because it adds to the fun of it all. And whenever the match is resumed again, I imagine the facade will still be down. For that Bolton-Tottenham game no one will care who wins and who loses. The essential philosophy of de Coubertin will come out, that it's not about the triumph of one side over the other but struggle.
Though personally, for that one day I will be a Bolton Wanderers supporter.
L'important dans la vie ce n'est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l'essentiel ce n'est pas d'avoir vaincu mais de s'être bien battu.
The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. - Pierre de Coubertin