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This is a thank-you note. Not a conventional thank-you note. It is not addressed to an individual, or a group of people. It is a thank-you note to an entity, a thing, a concept really. It is a thank-you note to sport.
For just being there. For its ability, if not to literally heal, then to simply take a load off. For its life-affirming nature. For its positivity, its stimulation, the way it can provoke a conversation that lasts an hour or two, and that’s an hour when you are not submerged in whatever grim reality might have occupied your thoughts otherwise.
We lost Mum last week. In the small hours of Thursday to be specific, but we knew for some time. She had one of those cancers. You know the type. From beginning to end, three-and-a-half years, but from January without any hope at all.
Maybe you know someone. And, if you do, maybe you are taking small pleasure from whatever gets you high: the concertos of Rachmaninov, the films of Humphrey Bogart, a good play on Radio 4.
But us, in our house, we like sport. We like watching it, we like playing it, we like arguing about it. And while sport won’t save a person from metastasising tumours, it can perhaps save those in the vicinity. It can, for a moment, occupy their minds or lift their souls.
So, in that spirit, dad went to the Olympics this week. We had tickets for the gymnastics and he took the train with Arthur, his grandson. Not much has brought a smile to his face in the past week, but the prospect of this outing did.
We didn’t expect him to take it up, actually. It was a desperate throw of the dice on a very bleak day. And sport isn’t going to beat the agony of loss. We know that. But every now and then it scores a goal on the break against the run of play. It is unpredictable like that, bless it.
Unpredictable like three gold medals in a stadium on one special night, or Murray beating Federer; unpredictable like Chelsea in the Nou Camp; unpredictable like Manchester City winning the Premier League with the last kick; unpredictable like the conclusion of the 2012 Open. And even when it is predictable, it can be beautiful, too: beautiful like Frankel or Spain in the first half of the European Championship final. We’ve thrilled to them all.
For this is not just a paean to Olympic sport, as easy as that would be to write today. “All sport for all people,” said Pierre de Coubertin, and this is not an address to a select few, the heroes of the last seven days.
It’s a thank you also to Didier Drogba, Vincent Kompany, Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo, to Ernie Els, to Sir Henry Cecil, to Alastair Cook, to Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams.
It is a thank you to those who have, throughout this year, given my dad somewhere to go beyond the obvious when the telephone rings.
Lord Coe said he met a volunteer on public transport last week, and instinctively thanked him for his work. The man was working on the medical team at the boxing arena. Coe asked what he usually did. He said he was a consultant at the accident and emergency department of a major London hospital. He described his Olympic duty as closure.
He had been there, he said, on July 7, the day after the bid had been won, when four men tore parts of the capital to smithereens. “I saw the worst of humanity that day,” the doctor explained, “and now I’m seeing the best.” Sport did that. Sport teased that goodness out of mankind. Sport won the day.
“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball,” said Rogers Hornsby, who played 23 seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the St Louis Cardinals. “I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
What would my father have done these last three years, without the opportunity to lose his thoughts on the 18th green, or the square at Headingley?
If sport can earn the odd away point in days of unremitting darkness, imagine its potential for good when given a level playing field; or any playing field at all…
Imagine the possibilities if those in power considered the inspiration of a generation as more than a neat slogan.
Wonderful things have happened at Eton Dorney for British rowers, but few sights were as heartening as the moment when Sizwe Ndlovu helped guide South Africa to gold in the lightweight men’s four. Ndlovu is rowing’s first black African medal winner, and further evidence of social and cultural change in the region.
Yet looking at the make-up of Team GB’s rowing squad, he has no equivalent on these shores. “This inspires people back home in a big way,” said South Africa’s chef de mission, Patience Shikwambana. “Sizwe has proven it wrong that blacks can’t swim or be in water. We are encouraging our youth to not just focus on netball or football, but to get involved in any sports.”
What if Sizwe’s inspiration extended beyond South Africa’s borders, breaking down barriers in our own society? Is there a nobler representation of what modern Britain is about than 10 000m champion Farah? He did not win a distance race because he is from Somalia. He won despite being from Somalia. He won despite being uprooted from his home in Mogadishu at the age of eight and taken to a foreign land.
Somalia is the easternmost point in Africa but it shares none of the Olympic history of its neighbours. The country first competed in an Olympics in 1972 and have never won a medal. Their best athlete is Abdi Bile, who came sixth in the 1 500m in Atlanta in 1996. Neither Farah’s country of birth, nor his homeland make him a natural fit as a 10 000m champion.
His success is testament to what can be achieved by a driven individual, with support. It is a wonderful tale, one that should be taught in schools, as a way of demonstrating that life does not have to be lived with limitations.
Sport mattered this week. It reached out beyond the arena; it tried to touch hearts and minds. And it will continue to perform, to stir the blood or provide momentary escape.
So thank you. From the gentleman in the navy jacket at the gymnastics, from anyone who needs that portal from reality right now, from those who seek inspiration or simple entertainment, thank you all so very much. –