Sports in 2010: Anything but trivial

By JOHN LEICESTER AP Sports Columnist

PARIS (AP) _ In the greater scheme of things, sports shouldn’t really matter. Not like famine, war, natural disasters or the multitude of other agonies of our human condition that will and should always be more important than the mere trivialities of which team won and by how much.

In the same vein, no athlete, no matter how lionized, will or should ever be as important as a caring parent, an aid worker, a maternity nurse, a firefighter or the countless billions of unsung others who sustain life amid the chaos of life itself. No athlete can claim that their sporting achievements do that, which is why there will and should always be questions about whether it is right and proper that some of them are paid so obscenely well for doing what they do.

And yet, in 2010, one of the few times I wept was at a sports event. Watching Canadian skater Joannie Rochette glide on Olympic ice days after the death of her mother was a truly humbling and uplifting lesson in courage. For the entirety of her bronze medal-winning free skate, I willed her to hold her emotions together, trying telepathically to say: “You can do it. You can do it.” This wasn’t just out of sympathy for her, but for my own good, too. I needed Rochette to prove that there is a future after the death of a beloved parent, that life can go on. In the greater scheme things, those exquisitely anxious minutes of fretting about whether Rochette would crumble under the weight of her personal tragedy or, as she did, soar inspiringly above it should not have moved me as much as the birth, later in 2010, of my daughter. Yet, on both occasions, the tears tasted salty and curiously sweet.

Sports shouldn’t really matter. But they do.

In 2010, rarely was I angrier than at a sports event. When England midfielder Frank Lampard’s disallowed World Cup goal against Germany slammed against the crossbar and bounced a good foot over the line, I was furious that Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda failed to spot the blindingly obvious. I also was incensed at the technophobes at football’s world governing body FIFA for resisting the electronic goal-line aids that could have spared Larrionda from looking like such a fool and ensured sporting justice. “It’s like 1966 all over again!” I yelled to my Associated Press colleague and press box neighbor Robert Millward. Veteran sports sage that he was, Robert was already marshaling his thoughts for a story on how the injustice revived memories of the 1966 World Cup final, when Geoff Hurst’s shot for England struck the underside of the German crossbar, bounced down and spun back into play. “That time,” Robert penned from his encyclopedic football memory, “the referee consulted his linesman and awarded the goal.”

It was one of the last stories that Robert wrote. He died suddenly three days before Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Our efforts to revive him failed. I like to remember the frustration that he and I shared, his look of utter shock and sputtered guffaws of disbelief, over Lampard’s goal that wasn’t. Such passion and emotion. All for a mere game.

Sports shouldn’t really matter. But they do.

And perhaps never, in 2010 or any year, has the blink-and-its-gone frailty of human life been rammed home so starkly to me than at a sports event. One moment, Georgian Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was hurtling down the quartz-white ice of the Whistler Sliding Center, traveling at 144 kph or 89 mph as he funneled with a rattling, metallic roar into the last of its 16 corners, a giant curved bank named “Thunderbird.” Then, disaster. Just past a blue banner emblazoned with the Olympic rings and the motto “Des plus brilliant exploits” _ “Ever more brilliant exploits” _ Kumaritashvili flipped out of the ice walls and slammed backward into a trackside metal girder. Blood. Death.

Over the following days, trying to piece together the chain of events for a story, I asked other lugers what drives them to take such risks. I cannot say that I really understood their responses because there is no logic to hurling oneself down a chute of ice. I walked the length of the cold, hard track but it offered nothing more than stony silence. The ice felt no guilt about having helped a 21-year-old kill himself. It couldn’t care. It was just there. Like Mount Everest, a challenge for humans to pit their will against. Ultimately, the only meaningful answer I came away with was that Kumaritashvili died doing something that thrilled him. Not many of us will be able to say that. In trying to make sense from the senselessness of Kumaritashvili’s crash, that epitaph offers a crumb of comfort.

So, yes, sports shouldn’t really matter. But they do.

Sporting feats can be less difficult to wrap one’s mind around than our big, complex and pressing tragedies like human conflict and why we seem intent on ruining the only planet we have. Like trying to contemplate the infinite enormity of our universe, such problems can be mind-boggling if thought about too hard, for too long. Sports, on the other hand, deliver emotions and thoughts in neat and manageable chunks, which doesn’t make them less meaningful but simply easier to comprehend.

Disallowing Lampard’s goal: unjust. Rochette’s bronze: deserved. The longest match in tennis history, an 11-hour, 5-minute slog over three days at Wimbledon for John Isner and Nicolas Mahut: proof that humans always have untapped reserves of strength and will. The list of things that sports taught us in 2010 is rich and varied and too long to do it justice here. Not, perhaps, as important as life itself, but life-affirming nonetheless.

And that is why sports matter.

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