“Tell me, in a world without pity
Do you think what I am asking’s too much
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch”
– Bruce Springsteen, ‘Human Touch’
THIS IS a personal recollection of how I saw the year 2014 through the lens of sport. Thus, it is bound to have a bias towards events I was intricately tied with or teams and sportspersons I follow. But as the purpose of this blog is to chronicle how the sporting world ties up to my life, that is the only appropriate way in which I can present a sporting review of 2014 to you. I do hope that there is something of your own that you can take out of this almost ritualistic reminiscing that happens every year end.
Sport might be about celebrating superlatives and the pinnacle of physical achievement – the fastest, the strongest, the highest – but it is at its most powerful when the sportspersons we are so mesmerized by show that rare glimpse that they are after all very much human, vulnerable, sometimes indecisive and prone to fail as they feel the weight of millions of wishes hitched to their star. Hypercommercialization and excessive rent seeking from administrative bodies ruling lucrative sports has in the recent past led to a predicatble avalanche of avarice under which the human nature of sport has been almost completely buried. (Think of the ICC, BCCI, FIFA, NFL and the likes). But repeatedly in 2014 I caught that glint of the human touch and spirit shine through at various places with various people reminding why we love and follow sport in the first place.
I caught it when a student of mine uploaded a photo of her young son in a Seattle Seahawks jersey with a Seahawks flag (they live in Washington state) a week before the SuperBowl in February and the Denver Broncos fan in me marvelled at the brash confidence he had in a team and a sport he hasnt yet formed many ideas about. Needless to add, the Seahawks romped home to victory and I was taken back to my childhood and how you fall in love with sports and teams in the first place.
I caught it right across the table of my conference hall classroom as I broke the news to my two South Korean classmate that Yuna Kim, the legendary figure skater had just lost the finals of the figure skating event at the Sochi Winter Olympics and watched a national heartbreak first hand as their faces turned ashen and even the Professor hushed the class discussion to join in on the chorus with them that she was robbed of a legitimate gold by the judges. (South Korea did lodge an official complaint about the judging that led the Russian skater to win the event). It was a lesson on how we place faith and pride in our sporting icons and heroes which are unshaken by the vagaries of performance and circumstances. A tiny sporting anchor that we cast in the rough seas of life.
Unshaken faith it was for me in April when I sat in transit at Heathrow and followed the Liverpool v Manchester City game at a pub at the airport with a bunch of strangers – a surreal feeling to be witnessing a famous Liverpool win on British soil (kind of) and celebrating it with people I was sure to never meet again. But the connection of being Liverpool fans made it all worth it, the heady feeling of watching your team win only amplified in the company of strangers.
Or when you are connected by a common purpose in a sport with thousands of strangers like I was during the World 10k race in Bangalore – a race I was participating in for the seventh time. As always we egged each other on to the finish, becoming a bundled mass of energy that spread the vibe of how great a feeling it is to finish a race; a personal milestone, but an achievement made sweeter by the fact that you could share it with so many around.
And even when you are not as emotionally invested in the teams but in the sport you witness stories that rekindle the hope for the human spirit. The way a young Colombian side played some magnificent football at the World Cup in Brazil, for example. Their biggest star, James Rodriguez, was barely born when the tragic events transpired for a promising generation of Colombian footballers in 1994 (the team made an unfortunate exit from the World Cup in the first round and later came the tragic killing of its most well known face Andres Escobar) as was most of the rest of this team who left that ugly past behind and let the beautiful game take centerstage.
Or when Germany decimated Brazil in the semi final 7-1 and you saw the haunted faces of the passionate Brazilian fans both inside and outside the stadium, the tears rolling with a ferocity to rival the Amazon – we hitch part our dreams to sport and it hurts to see them crumble. The most amazing bit was how even the professional and clinical German unit that would eventually win the World Cup understood the prevailing sentiment and celebrated the later goals with politeness and restraint, proving themselves worthy ambassadors of the values we hope to imbibe from sport.
But values are a tricky thing. Everyone felt the righteous anger and heartbreak as we saw a bawling Sarita Devi refuse to accept her bronze medal in boxing in the Asian Games after losing a highly controversial bout in the semifinal to her South Korean rival. But questions were raised about her sporting ‘spirit’ (she was later suspended by the IBA) – a term which is quite fluid and ill defined in these modern times when administrators want everything to be politically correct and neatly conforming to official lines. But sometimes the rebellion reminds you that it is people like you & I who play sport and they have the same notions about fairness that we do. And in Sarita Devi’s defiance a tiny part of us felt like we were sticking it to the system.
And of course while sport maybe all the pomp, pageantry and gaiety that it is, sometimes the inescapable doom of death pays it a visit to mortifyingly remind us of the meaning of it all. Phil Hughes’ unfortunate passing after being hit a bouncer during a Sheffield Shield cricket game was exactly that kind of an event. One that had us heartbroken everywhere not just because of the loss of a good talent so young but at the unfairness of it all. But it also brought out the best in the human spirit and its connection to sport in how the bowler (who bowled that delivery to Hughes) Sean Abbot returned to the very game where he had faced his worst nightmare and began perhaps a healing process; in how there were no administrative lines drawn in showing support to the bereaved friends and family; and in how the response was equally heartfelt whether in Queensland, Australia or in Quetta, Pakistan.
Sport remains an escape but it is also a microcosm of everything about us and our emotions. And that is what makes it so unique. Because if you are following sport in any discipline or any form and do not feel at least a gentle tug on your heart from time to time, you are not doing it right. Us passionate sports followers, to paraphrase Springsteen, are not ‘looking for a crutch to hold on to’. We are just looking for that human touch.