Forget the smugness of Platini. Sport can rescue us with a single quote, gesture, or act of excellence. My favourite moments from 2015
If you’re too young, it’s hard to believe who the now pudgy, suited Michel Platini once was: a wild-haired footballing bard whose feet wrote verse. If you’re closer to my age, it’s hard to believe who Platini has become: just another balding, footballing phoney of unbearable smugness.
What happens to athletes?
Actually we know and still we’re surprised. It’s why I prefer to begin a new year reflecting on Charlotte Brown, a high-school athlete whom I’ve never met except through repeat viewing on YouTube. She gave me something valuable in 2015; in a pole-vault pit she offered me a renewed sense of faith in sport.
Sport is what I do for a living. Sport has to matter, sport must have meaning beyond technique and entertainment, sport has to be something more than chicanery, Tyson Fury homophobia, Nick Kyrgios sledges, Russian doping, Fifa arrests.
And sport is more. But it’s only when we curate our private collections of clips, photos, goals and catches that clutter our brains that we find that sport, which can often be repelling, has also rescued us—through a single quote, or an act of excellence, or a gesture, or a passing moment of affection.
In May comes one such incident. East of Manila, in Marikina City, there is violence unfolding in Freedom Park. I am standing with factory workers, housewives, children, and security guards, all of us watching Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather on a TV perched atop a truck when it begins to rain and the signal goes off and everyone runs for cover and no one riots but just prays for its return. The TV eventually works but Manny doesn’t and yet no one picks up a stone or hurls an insult. They mutter, they disperse quietly, they do not abandon Manny. Faith holds for a hero.
It’s almost my favourite moment of the year. So is mid-December in a small room near the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel in Dubai, when a rangy fellow appears and a Chinese TV host bows and says, “You are my super idol.” It’s The Fed, taller close-up than you think, yet not 14ft tall as Muhammad Ali once appeared when he rose from saying his prayers.
I’ve never interviewed Roger Federer one-on-one and he’s full of tales spoken in unhurried, polite sentences; of a love for ice skating (“I like beauty in motion”) and why Rafael Nadal is tennis’ greatest teenager (no, it wasn’t a backhanded compliment) and how he needs a coach (“I can’t do it all by myself… I need them to squeeze out the last bit out of me”).
Federer reaffirms our faith in the decency of champions, but then so does Andy Murray, who speaks admiringly in public about women coaches, and Novak Djokovic, who says of the refugees in Europe: “Of course they’re going to search for a better place to live. And it’s an obligation of all countries to give them this right from the international constitution of human rights.”
So much, as I look, reaffirms my faith in sport. Volunteers who show up for long hours for little or no pay. Amateurs on public tennis courts who call lines honestly and others in football boots who shame professionals in parks by refusing to dive. And surfer Mick Fanning, who is attacked by a shark, escapes with nothing but fear and re-enters the water less than a week later.
And swimmers who devote entire chapters of their lives to excellence yet still retain a humanness within their competitiveness. The gifted Australian backstroker Emily Seebohm says to me about the equally talented American backstroker Missy Franklin: “We both want to win (at the Rio Olympics) but if I come second (to her) it’s still great. My friend won. You feel a little better.”
Of course we need Stephen Curry and Luis Suárez and Usain Bolt for they reaffirm our faith in the fantastic. But there is also sport beyond familiar champions, outside the limelight, past the routine cut-throat ambition. Athletes do “great” in more ways than the word is conventionally used.
In December I met James Wong Tien Yu at the Asean Para Games in Singapore; a short, lean swimmer who slips like a lazy seal through the water with only a single, fully-formed arm. All he talks about is going faster. So must Myanmar’s Aung Nyein Oo, whom I never met, but there is a photograph of him so arresting I make my young nephews, both aspiring swimmers, look at it on holiday. Oo is pictured launching off the blocks. Just like any other swimmer. But he is not any other swimmer. He has no arms.
How does he not drown, one nephew asks. Drown? Or set a breaststroke Games record in his category.
And then there is Charlotte Brown. We speak of extraordinary athletes trusting their skills, but she stretches that idea of faith so far that it is bewildering. This year she, 17, hurtled down a runway, planted a vaulting pole and ascended 3.50m into the air to win bronze at the Texas state high-school championships.
Which is unexceptional till one considers that Brown can’t see the runway, can’t see the pole-vaulting box, can’t see the bar, can’t tell where she is. “If I am going to challenge myself,” said the blind teenager, “why only challenge myself a little bit. I want to make it hard.”
Brown is assisted by instinct, sustained by practice, abetted by her competitiveness (“I need to be on that podium,” she told her parents) and aided by a beeper which tells her when to plant the pole. But really, Brown is lifted by confidence and as she rises on faith she somehow reaffirms mine. “I’m not out changing the world jumping over a crossbar,” she told EspnW, but for all her humility she is lifting sport just a little. Out of the muck and into the meaningful sunshine of possibility.