Category: sport

Saturday night’s alright for fighting

 

On Saturday, 1st April, there was an event which gave you a few more stories than most Saturday nights. It was the 22nd, and my 2nd, instalment of Dynamite fights, a series of boxing matches organised at the TNT Boxing Academy in Guelph, Ontario. Read a rather breathless summary of the last one here. If it was anything like that last one, this means the potential for thrills and technical kills, displays of superior skill and brutal power. This one carried an extra special edge to it however, as TNT got international. Thanks to Boxing Canada, one of the fights featured a boxer specially flown in from England. Jade Ashmore arrived Thursday to face Canadian Olympian Mandy Bujold. Given that Bujold is a ten-time national champion and a two-time Pan-American champion, while Ashmore has recently been elevated to the GB Podium Potential squad, expectations and excitement were running high. A sprinkle of glamour to complement the scent of canvas and sweat.

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Full house at TNT. Picture from twitter.com/MercerRecord

The promise of a trans-Atlantic war wasn’t the only thing that had got the locals excited. Got them skipping dinner to head down to the ring at 5:00pm to grab the last of the seats. Got them snapping up every ticket left, right and centre. Some 200, maybe 250 in attendance. They were drawn by the prospect of epics, of grudge matches, of super heavyweights, young unknowns and old favourites. It’s a heady cocktail, and the place was buzzing. Standing room only, onlookers jostling on benches at the back, craning necks round corners to catch a glimpse of the action. Hungry for a taste of it, feeding off the glamour, the aggro, the coiled energy from the boxers stalking though their warm-up routines. There are many different routes to a properly entertaining fight, and we were blessed with a full range of match-ups.

 

First there are the unknowns. Three fights featured two out of town fighters, so their prospects were harder to judge prematurely. We scrutinised the fighters beforehand, trying to judge who was faster, cleaner, meaner, by their warm-up and the set of their jaws, like watching thoroughbreds out in the circle before the Derby. The bell rings and we lean forward eagerly, keen to have our hunches upheld or quashed. In the first we’re proven right, Dustin Howick of Caged Dragon, living up to the gym’s name, came out like a hurricane, flying into Hansel Espino, Gideons, from the off, cashing the cheques his uber focused warm-up wrote. This brutal assault won applause from the crowd, but a puzzling lack of response from Espino in blue. His corner exhorts him to get over his trigger shyness, but he never does, and Howick takes the unanimous decision.

The other two fights involving non-TNT boxers follow similar patterns to each other. Jean Benoit, Celtic Hammer, and Daniel Payne, Battle Arts, both had a reach and a class advantage over their opponents: Erik Hodgons, Paschtime boxing, and Adrian Calestani-Winacott, Celtic Hammer respectively. Payne looks good, fast and with some crunching blows that lead to three standing eight counts in the 2nd round, the last of which ends the fight. Benoit also looks tidy, ripping out rapid strikes that repeatedly have the crowd groaning. Hodgons, in his first fight, does well to last it, having some success when he gets in close, but ultimately is unable to pin down his opponent. He takes an eight count, and a call from his corner to “walk in with something, not just your head”, while Benoit takes the unanimous decision.

A good match has ebb and flow, attack morphing to defence, big leads cut down by resolute resistance. The first fight of the night followed the latter path, getting the crowd going, suggesting the pre-night promise would be met. Kyle Allen, TNT, gave us a scare against Mathankan Ivanjan, Gideons. For the first two rounds crashing over-hand rights weren’t quite enough against the slicker Ivanjan’s rapid combos. Still Allen came on, his connections drawing roars from the crowd, Ivanjan’s corner bawling at their man: “Don’t stand in front of him!” (“Stand in front of him!” is the reply from a wag in the crowd). For my money Ivanjan is up heading into the final round, but Allen digs deep in the third with a heroic effort, chasing him around the ring, giving everything. Was it enough? We wait on tenterhooks. Yes, by split decision. Thrilling.

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Bynol takes the win against Bongelli; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

Unfortunately, two TNT fighters can’t quite pull off such comebacks. Craig Bongelli probably needed one more round to complete a turnaround, but as it was his giant (225lb/102kg) opponent, Randy Bynol, Battle Arts, took their super heavyweight contest after some heavy blows in the 2nd led to a standing eight count, and ultimately the win. There was a case for Greg Holley, TNT, having done enough at the last against the tall, cocky O’Neil King, Dewith’s. In a classic clash of styles King evidently did just enough off the back foot to take a split decision. Desperately unlucky for Holley, but definitely an improvement over his last fight.

Contrast the raucous crowd for these duels with the pin-drop silence for our international events. Sheer anticipation gagged the crowd for two fights featuring TNT’s past and prospective Olympians. In the latter category, Sara Haghighat-Joo is a big draw, the gym’s golden girl, having won a recent international event in Sweden, and generally considered a medal chance that the next Olympics. She faced Ali Rosen, representing Caged Dragon, who flew up from Miami. Rosen is taller and heavier than Haghighat-Joo, and perhaps this worries the crowd, who are deathly quiet. They needn’t have been, Haghighat-Joo is clearly faster, and stays on top throughout a cagey encounter to take the unanimous decision. Her career marches resolutely on. Mandy Bujold, Team Canada, also looks faster than Jade Ashmore, Team England, in the eye-catching trans-Atlantic bust-up. At one point Bujold darts in an in a flash delivers a three punch combo the English woman can’t even get her gloves up to. The crowd, whispering at the start, get louder as the result becomes more clear: Bujold on all cards.

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Bujold takes on Ashmore; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

This was not lacking from the remaining two fights. What adds a bit of spice to any encounter is a touch of history, and that came in the fight between home favourite Carolyn Redmond and Max Turcotte-Novosedlik, Celtic Hammer. They had previously met in the provincial finals, with Redmond beaten to gold by Turcotte-Novosedlik. A bit of a grudge match then. Huge roar from the crowd for this one. Its a hell of a fight too; two very good, very well-matched, very committed boxers putting it all on the line. Perhaps it’s the desire for vengeance, perhaps it’s the roar of a home crowd; Redmond takes the fight to her opponent, demanding that gold back. She never lets up. Turcotte-Novosedlik was the champion. Past tense. Redmond takes the unanimous victory, crowd going wild, 10/10 on the volume.

Somehow though, it went up again for the final fight. Before the night, and aside from the international element, this was main thing people had been talking about. Brock Stumpf, TNT, and reigning Canadian heavyweight champion, against Daniel Akota, Dewith’s. We had been promised entertainment the value of the entire admission alone from this one by half a dozen people. Appetites whetted by the previous nine courses, we still hungered for a 10th. They didn’t disappoint; I’m not sure its in them to fight cute. Even all the little extras were there to make it particularly enthralling; chest bumps after the bell, sparks of outrage when it is his punches, but not yours, that are slightly out of order, corners adding their words of the maelstrom of action. Alongside this side-show the fighters are doing their best to drop bombs on each other, that one huge punch to fell a man and make the crowd howl. Stumpf gets his gum shield punched out, but to the tune of 200+ people chanting “Brock, Brock, Brock” he launches himself forward in a flurry of punches. We double up with nerves when we hear it’s a split decision, but Stumpf takes it. The crowd roar with delight for a final time. We grin at each other, and eventually start clearing out. A fitting end to a dynamite night.

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Competition coach Stevie Bailey, and boxers Carolyn Redmond, Sara Haghighat-Joo, Mandy Bujold and Brock Stumpf after their wins. Picture from twitter.com/MandyBujold

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

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Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.

 

 

 

 

*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.

Fight night

 

They promised to train like beasts and fight like monsters. We came to see if they were true to their word. In a simple square ring, in an old garage, at the back of an unheralded industrial unit, down a small road in the city of Guelph. The smell of deep heat and old sweat hangs in the air, like every pre-match changing room I’ve ever known. Some flicked though the last few combinations with their trainers, others chatted with well-wishers, others buried themselves in a hood and their own apprehension. I felt nervous for them, paired up and walking out in a Saturday night for the TNT boxing academy 10th anniversary. The cake would come later. The cake was a joke to the fighters, who had been fasting and sweating to drop that last pound to make the weight. Lean, wiry and chiselled, some tall, some short, male, female, junior, older, but all filed down to the necessary sinew, muscle and heart for the task at hand.

We grabbed a beer, a seat, and exchange greetings with old friends or made new ones. Joel Yip Chuck said some words of thanks to those deserving. The bell rang, and the first bout commenced. Two juniors. Probably less than 10 fights between them. Proud parents urged them on. Proud parents take every blow with their sons. Romano Watt, TNT, Guelph, took a few stiff punches to the head from the stockier Keeyan Trotman, Boomerz, London. Watt took his standing 8 count impatiently and tried to get his rhythm back. “Forget his head”, “Work the body” offer the crowd. Trotman by unanimous decision.

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Red and blue leave the ring, red and blue enter. Old opponents, new champions each time. This time red claimed Hunter Lee, Windsor amateur boxing; blue took Satwinder Thind, KingOfTheRing, Brampton. He was tall. Thind towered over Lee, a wonder they were the same weight; does Thind have a bird’s hollow bones? It is Lee who does the early flying, crunching Thind with some meaty blows. Thind’s coach is too letting fly, a constant stream of advice, instruction and critique. “Let your hands go, let your hands go.” He does in the 2nd, “Oh yeahs!” rising from the crowd as his long brown limbs flash out. Lee gets back on top in the 3rd, only for a white towel to flutter out from the blue corner, and the fight ends in puzzlement. The crowd ripples with energy, the climax taken from us like the snap of a guitar string. A Muhammed Ali poster watches on. How many millions of fights have 1000s of Ali posters in 1000s of boxing gyms around the world watched?

TTNT2.pnghe crowd regain their energy for the next fight. Home fighter Mary Anne Zamora-Grepe, red corner, to go with her hair, 37 and her first fight, commands a vocal following. Visibly moved by the volume of support, it is not surprising she doesn’t start fluidly. Samantha Rhodes, BigTyme, Orangeville, forces her back with furious blue gloves. Not many are clean strikes though, and Zamora-Grepe goes well off the back foot. The fast start was hard on Rhodes, longer on her chair between the rounds. Rhodes lands a few solid shots that worry the crowd, but despite a slip to the canvas Zamora-Grepe does enough to take a unanimous decision. The crowd raise their voices with another volley of “Lets go Mary Anne” and nerves are washed away like sand by the wave of genuine happiness for the home fighter. She looks thrilled.

Lucca Coppala, Rough boxing, Windsor, defeats a hunched Clay Whiting, Jamestown boxing club, Oshawa, in a fairly one-sided bout, Coppola’s pounding body shots causing a pale Whiting to grimace his way back to his chair. The 2nd standing 8 count in the 2nd round brings a welcome end. You wonder which you would be if you wore the red or blue and did this. Graceful victor or battered loser. Gently squeeze your hand into a fist and imagine letting your hands go. Do they find the target or only air? The boxers who have been know the answer.

Greg Holly, TNT, apparently lost 5lb in a day to make the weigh for his bout with Jesse Maillet, Motor City, Oshawa. The hours in the sauna in a sauna suit, the effort of sweating out all that water. Its therefore a bit of a shame that he loses by decision to his tattooed opponent. He made a hell of a fight of it mind, coming on hard in the 3rd, a baying crowd urging him on, advancing relentlessly, landing some good shots and occasionally walking into one from the retreating Maillet. In the end it was not quite enough, a standing 8 count in the 2nd probably sealing the deal, although that clearly hurt Holly’s pride more than his flesh. Its all smiles later, playing keepie-uppie with some of the kids, but steel enters his voice when he talks about why he does this. “You play soccer, you play hockey, you don’t play boxing”. Can’t say I doubt that, its like so many other sports events I’ve been to; the nerves, the opponents, the support, but its different as well. A bit rawer, a little bit more fear living in the eyes alongside the bravado.

The penultimate fight is perhaps a victim of this, a scrappy, cagey affair between Philip Conlin, TNT, and Dylon Shankland, Clubb Canada, Scarborough. Its punctuated by shouts of “Fuck him up Phil”, which is easier to say than do, and “He’s off the couch” which is easier to say than understand. Eventually Shankland gets on top in the 3rd, Conlin never really gets going. Shankland by unanimous decision.

The main event arrives to put a cap on proceedings. In blue, a few months post-childbirth, is Sukhpreet Singh, another from KingOfTheRing. Facing her is home favourite Sara Haghighat-Joo, TNT, queen-elect of the ring. Gold at the recent provincial finals, ranked #2 in Canada, its clear to see why this fight received top billing. Its clear too she’s a class apart. Lithe, focused and viper quick. Where others try and land combinations she’s already hit home, working head and body, slicing in and out. Canny as well, catching Singh whenever her hands drop. Haghighat-Joo is all smiles on her chair, unlike her opponent, which tells enough of a story. Singh survives a brace of standing 8 counts but not the judges. Haghighat-Joo by unanimous decision. Never in doubt.

It’s a good end to the night. As the fighters unwind their hand-wraps, we grab a last beer and bask in the reflected glow of their honest endeavour. Puzzlement still reigns over the fluttering towel in the 2nd fight. Rival gyms mingle. The ringside doctor packs up; no one sad they were not required. It was a packed house and a good show; the next instalment of the Dynamite fights will not doubt be equalled well greeted. By then the limbs that are aching will be refuelled with nervous energy, the scent of deep heat will be back in the air and another set of boxers will be wondering if they will sting or be stung. But for now, as we slip out into the night, visiting teams head for the highway, and the last of the sweat dries on the blue canvas, those questions are answered. Promises kept.

Keep moving, just to be still

New country, new me. New sports, new food. New people, new office, similar routine. New bars, new beers, still get drunk, same old hangover. New job, same mission. Same blog, but from Canada.

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Pretty much what I was expecting (Jessica Wood, thecord.ca)

Having finished wandering through Morocco, Spain, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, I am now becalmed in Southern Ontario, Canada. I have a new job, a new(ish) culture to learn about, but more importantly I have new sports to take in! Wintry, white framed sports. Apart from a minimum of skiing on a glorious and impromptu day in Iceland, and the compulsory skidding down a hill on a farm fertiliser bag in my childhood, I’ve never really dabbled in winter sports. The same is true for the vast majority of the world’s population, which does make me wonder whether they can capture what makes sport such a global phenomenon. But a Miracle on Ice, Eddie the Eagle and Jamaica’s bobsled team, these titular tales suggest the medium of movement, the degrees of the air, may not matter. But currently its summer, the ripe Ontario peaches fill the punnets of the market traders, and I have to find something else to talk about.

So Xingyi it is. A relative of Tai chi and Bagua in the Chinese martial art family, it is an “internal” art. This means that the focus is on activating body structures such as the ligaments, tendons and the skeletal system, to generate powerful motions and strong positions rather than the big muscle groups used more heavily in the “external” arts such as karate. It is part meditation, part fighting skill, and, perhaps because I get to wield a spear some of the time, I really like it.

Despite years of rugby, drinking in pubs, and being ginger, I’ve never got into a proper fight. So I’m not dreaming of cutting foes down or being admired for my prowess in the ring. Was always probably a bit scared of getting hurt. Probably afraid of getting knocked down by someone I didn’t expect it from. Probably just didn’t care about anything enough to want to fight someone for it. But I digress. For now, what I’m really loving is the constant, near mindless repetition.  Now that sounds daft, so let me explain. Learning is enjoyable, new things are enjoyable, and James Saper and the others at Stone Lantern are enjoyable company. Buts it a different aspect to it that I’m enjoying. You do an action: a cross-cut or a drill or the dragon, and then you do it again. Again. You or someone else tweaks it, and you go again. Something else now goes wrong. Tweak it, go again. We march relentless up and down (or for Bagua, step in endless circles) towards some distant ideal of the perfect form. The after work squat merchants grip, clean and jerk after us, they too in search of it. Dancers like us stare at the mirror, move, assess, criticise, and go again. Until skin chafes and blisters pop and blood seeps into seat-soaked socks. Have you ever been doing something and thought “nah that’s not what I wanted, I need to do that again”. Scoop up the can and aim for the bin you’ve just missed. Go for that keepy-uppy record again. Delete that last line and write it again.

James Saper (the boss, sensei, coach at Stone Lantern) set me up, going up and down with the crushing fits, or perhaps the pounding fists, and then went to help someone else. I stepped up and down, squeezing my punches closer to the midline of my body, or trying to spring off my back foot a little sharper each effort. James came back after a time, to see how I was getting on. “Fine” I remarked, and carried on. “Oh yes” he said, “you’re a rower aren’t you. I had one before, very happy with the repetition; just leave them to it”. I stopped then, as that link hadn’t occurred to me. In the year before leaving for Canada, rowing, specifically gig rowing had been my main sport. Now I was out of a boat, on land, learning some relatively obscure martial art form. They hadn’t seemed connected to me at all.

Hmmm….

But the link is of course repetition. When rowing, our mantra was “every stroke better than the last”. A straighter blade, a cleaner catch, a smoother exit, neater returns.  Every time, again and again. Describing it now, it sounds mind-numbingly dumb. Surely something like football or ice hockey over here where the fluidity keeps you permanently on your toes and so much more mentally stimulated was more attractive. As a spectator sport, the numbers speak for themselves.  But participation wise, martial arts are extremely popular. Do we all really like fighting, or is it some aspect of the repetition? Even other incredibly popular past-times such as fishing have the same element of the simple repetition. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. No fish? Never seems to stop them going back. Now any fisherman will tell you this is relaxing, not mind-numbing.  Rowing; its not dumb, its intense focus. Those martial art routines aren’t stationary repetitions; you’re constantly moving towards your inner goal. Call it centring, zen, relaxation, it doesn’t really matter. The point is we seem to achieve an inner calm, a stillness, when focusing on some repetitive action like this. Not just repeating it, but striving over and over again to make it better. In these modern times of shares and likes and retweets, there is still clearly plenty of room for the individual road, the long journey towards some pointless but simultaneously essential perfection.

Make that reflection in the mirror that bit taller, that bit brighter and that bit closer to your perfection. Smile. But you’re only one step of many, many closer. Step up. Go again.

One went to the cricket

 

Crash. Bang. Wallop. Hashim Amla smacks the ball over the boundary for a 6. The crowd roar. We jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate around the ground. I’ve made some new friends and together we celebrate these batting heroics, this “rampage” as the bright video screens inform us. We settle down and wait for the next ball, eager for another explosion. Amla goes again, carving the ball high into the air. Only this time the ball falls short. Into the grateful hands of the fielding side. Out. The crowd roar. They jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate once more. No matter that now the home side ebb where before they flowed. We celebrate the explosion, the action. This is Twenty20 cricket in India, the IPL (Indian Premier League) and it is brash, loud and immensely proud of it. Teams are assembled for millions, plucked from all corners, dressed in bright colours and set to do battle for our entertainment. Its curious to be at a ground where fans cheer both teams almost equally, but I guess that is why they are here. Not for their team, hard to feel attached to a constructed franchise, but to be entertained.

The home side, Kings XI Punjab, lost in the final over, to Sunrisers Hyderbad. So I was certainly entertained. But it was also a little perplexing. Wickets and runs from both sides were cheered, heroes on both sides adored. The only real spontaneous name chanting was for David Warner, the destructive Australian Batsman on the away team. He took the whoops and cheers with a nod and a wave, a bit bashful. Embarrassed perhaps, that the home fans favoured him over one of their own stars. Over their own team even. In fact It was very much about the stars rather than the teams. We weren’t here to see these two made up sides, but to see Warner and Amla swing their bats. Miller and Yuvraj Singh lay waste to the bowler. Who cares what the overall score was, how many runs did he get, how fast did he get them? Which bowler got the most wickets, who did he get out? Cricket, and the shortened format Twenty20 especially seem to lend itself to that. Individuals bowl, bat and catch. It lends itself to the creation of standout individuals: their contribution quantifiable, their worth valuable, their services hireable. The IPL is the pinnacle of this idea. It’s a funny mixture of an odd English game and a hyper-commercialised American entertainment sport. Its got colour, its got razzmatazz, and its oh so incredibly Indian. Its bright, brash and vivid for all of its existence, one massive party. Oh, and there were people taking selfies everywhere.

The selfie is obviously a modern phenomenon. But it is also a global one. East, west, north, south, everyone is holding their camera phones at arm’s length and taking a picture back at themselves. In India though it seemed to e to reach new heights. On the streets, at the mall, in pars and at sacred monuments: nowhere is safe. Do they really like themselves? Are they desperate for attention? Certainly they get uploaded exhibited on social media to be liked or favourited or shared. Bu where does that lead, what is the point of it all? Are we now so obsessed by ourselves that we just want to flood the world with our image, and the Indians more so? Why go to the cricket or the monument at all if it is really all about you? It’s a strange phenomenon, a curio of modern life with no end product.

However, perhaps we are weaving something. Creating a story, an identity, a hyper-individual of ourselves. Want to know about me? Here it is: freely available online to view, complete with a tally of likes and shares and comments to help you gauge my life’s performance. Putting statistics to the individual. Quantifying our contribution.

Selfies are like this, this Mid-Atlantic-Indian cricket is like this, and other sports are like this. We’re recording, judging and rating everything. Prizes for the winners. At the basketball there was a car on the court: Best social media post with the corporate hastag and YOU WIN THE CAR like like like Bazinga! How very American. At the bull fight too everyone was dressed up to the nines, and putting and preening in front of their own small screen while massive bulls died below. Are these the modern times?

This movement felt particularly strong at the IPL game of all the sport I’ve seen probably because its cricket, which lends itself to individual performances, and because it was India, where they seem obsessed by the cult of the individual. And yet the funny thing was I had some lovely personal moments with other fans while at the cricket. I met tons of people, shook hands or high-fived umpteen times. Danced with scores at every 6, cheered along to the music with every four. It may have been very temporary, but for that match (and about half an hour afterwards) I made so many friends. Face painted, grinning, shouting, waving friends. Yes, they all wanted to take a selfie with me. But I’m certain they would’ve approached me without their phones. I hung out with some policemen, some telecoms employees on a corporate gig, but mainly I got on with the other denizens of the North stand. It was wonderful. I beamed all the rest of the night and the next day. I too took a few selfies with these exuberant fans. But what I’m taking home is the warm glow from being with a group having a great time We had a lovely day out at the cricket.

The Wager

And so a deal is struck. Emily, 178cm, American, will take on Untumak, 160cm, from Kyrgyzstan, in a horse race. Untumak will provide the horses, Emily will chose the course. Being the away side perhaps Emily is at a disadvantage, but being a cowgirl from California and boldly proclaiming that she can ride anything with 4 legs, the out come is no sure thing. Following the horse race some roping: agreeable friends as barely wavering targets. Egos are cocked, measures
of the foe taken; deadly serious yet deadly fun too. “In Kyrgyzstan, you will lose” he says. “I bet I will beat you” rings back. “I bet you won’t”.
It does not take much to go from 1 vs 1 to 3, 4, 5 people claiming to be the fastest rider, and then you have a horse race. Wagers spill out from the competitors, the spectators too get involved. Now it is the observers taking the measures, cocking their own egos; a test of knowledge, bravado, luck. Soon it is the spectators boasting on behalf of the competitors, staging the races, creating the sport.

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Sun, sea (well, lake) and 2 fine steeds

In the end the hostilities do not quite materialise. Untumak arrived 3 hours early with the horses, a feat unheard of in Kyrgyzstan, and him and Emily proceed to spend a few hours riding. He takes his flighty 2 year old that needs some work, she gets his best horse. There is the odd burst of a gallop, the occasional test of speed, but you could hardly call them opponents in a race. There is too much bonhomie, too much general joy in the activity to necessitate any real stakes of money or honour. The roping to is an enjoyable farce, too much giggling and jest; play rather than sport.

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In “Homo ludens” Johann Huizinga describes how there is some playful element in all most every avenue of human culture. From the special uniforms, set arenas and deadly seriousness yet clear ridiculousness of religious ceremonies to the challenges of law and the riddle and poem of historical story telling. He goes on to say that sport is an extreme form of play, where the ideal of winning is pursued beyond that of fun. For JM, sport lacks some of the fundamental elements of play that make it so commonly found across and throughout culture. Certainly, with a less restrictive definition, play is easier to find day-to-day than sport. Playing dress-up, playing an instrument, playing at being the overbearing aunt to annoy your brother. I’ve already said that there needs to be some competitive element to make it a sport and many kinds of play, including the frivolities at Bokonbaevo yurt camp, do lack this.

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Janubek was pretty handy with this 3 string number

This might limit the spread of sport, each additional criteria lessening the range of things you could include. But I can always see the wager creeping back in. Two people skimming stones: “bet I can skim it further” – “bet I can get more hops in”; suddenly we have competition and so sport. Does this make the bet, the wager, the gamble a fundamental part of sport? Does the desire to test our skill and luck for a prize preceded some “sporting instinct”? There are some races and events that are organised for the benefit of the betting punters, giving them a morsel to satisfy their ravenous appetites for competition and chance. Gambling itself becomes the sport: play poker professionally, watch roulette on the sports channel. Perhaps the gambling exists quite happily without the sport.

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But it cannot be about money. I, and anyone reading this, is quite unlikely to have played in some game or participated in some meet where sums of money were placed on the outcome. Sure, it is everywhere at the top, the most visible levels, and in some really weird cases it starts to perpetuate itself while abandoning the original ideas of sport. I’m thinking of the simulated “horse races “ you can find in betting shops, where there are no real horses, and no real chance of beating the house either. But there is far to much sport out there, from kids knocking a ball around their street after school to adults playing Sunday league football in the park, that is unaffected by the lustre of money for it to be considered the essential driving force. We are then left with this competitive element. Me vs you, us vs them. Easy to see how our evolutionary history would’ve favoured those with a competitive side. Easy to see how those who like to test themselves against and better others would outcompete those happy to sit back. Easy to see prehistoric humans, choosing their favourite throwing stick, saying: “I bet….’

The Charismatic Megafauna

The journey continues in Hungary, and I’m doing my best to get to know the people and what makes them tick. That involves talking to as many as possible, seeimg what they like to do and looking into their history. Seems that Hungary has something of a heroes culture. Go to Budapest and you find Heroes Square, in Szeged there is the Bridge of Heroes. But it goes deeper than that. My friend Janos explained to me how Hungarians are known for being a bit individualistic, that the pinnacle of success is to be that lone start shining brightest in the night. I imagine that this could be a bit problematic in some contexts, but now is not the time to be diagnosing a country’s psyche. Instead I will combine this idea with my favourite topic: sport. So let’s talk about individuals in sport.


A quick bit of back ground first. Hungarians are especially fond of a couple of sports. One is football (of course) but I will not dwell on that here. The other is water polo. Two teams attempt to drown each other while manoeuvring a ball into a net. Classic invasion game, just in water. Despite being a landlocked country Hungary is actual quite strong for water sports due to their extensive network of rivers. Water polo holds a special place in particular, thanks to some history. In 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics the Hungarian water polo team were putting in a strong showing as usual, and made the semi-final. Here they faced the mighty USSR team. More than a classic underdog story, Hungary had recently had an uprising crushed by the soviets, and so feelings were not positive. The match therefore was a momentous, nation-personality defining occasion. The game itself proved titanic, known afterwards as the Blood in the Water match or the Bloodbath of Melbourne.

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Perhaps you can see why

To a nation’s external joy, they won 4-0. They then went on to clinch gold, and so seal their position in the history books as Hungarian heroes. This game even inspired two films: “Freedom’s Fury” and “Children of Glory”. Thus, given the sport’s importance here, while in Budapest I resolved to go watch some water polo for myself. Down at the Alfred Hajos swimming complex I watched two teams do battle. It was enjoyable, end-to-end stuff, with goals less common than scores in handball or basketball, hence each generating quite a lot of excitement. Much of each player is hidden below the water, so aside from their numbers you only really get to know players by their play and when they are rotated out of the pool and clamber onto the side. But still some stand out. The visiting team (Kerteszeti Egyeten Atletikai Club)’s number 12 was prominent in this regard. Sturdy defence, implacable offence, the team surged into a 4-2 lead around him. When taking a breather poolside he still commanded a presence. Barrel chest, thick arms, a powerful form that said “You shall not get past or move me, no matter how you try”. He strutted without walking, bellowed without speaking, glared without looking.

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A menacing presence

You get these individuals in every team sport. Not so much the star player, although they are certainly good. But they command respect; things happen around them. They may look the part or sound the part but often you simply fucking know it when they walk onto the pitch or dive into the pool. They are the Charismatic Megafauna* of their sporting arena: visible, impressive, heroic even.
It happened at the basketball in Valencia. Valencia Basket’s number 41: Hamilton. Young, American, and at the centre of everything good the team did. You were alerted to his presence when the player’s names were being read out; a little extra whoop, the added flavour of anticipation and belief. In the handball too, this time there was Morrell for BM Canyamelar Valencia. She was a leader, calm in defence, precise in attack, a veritable heartbeat. And we loved her for it. We love them for it.

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Morrell attacks in a blur of dynamism and bad camera work

Every culture has its myths and epics, everyone their heroes. Achilles, Beowulf, Mulan. We love to weave fact and myth, the real and fiction, creating part dream part genuine figures to tell our friends and our children about. Sport’s great for this. Generating legends constantly. Every weekend there are new heroes to celebrate, new epic deeds to reveal in, new stories to tell. That star performance, that comeback, that last minute penalty save. I don’t think we would like sport as much if it did not create this situation. It must appeal to some part of our psyche that loves stories, that was weaned around campfires in the dark swapping tales of triumph through storm and strife.

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Can anyone think of any recently?

Back at the water polo, and there was a momentum shift. The home side (UVSE Continental) came roaring back. 3-4, 4-4, suddenly 5 and 6 goals without reply. And a change came over the Charismatic Megafauna, the no. 12 of KEAC. No longer glaring but gazing wistfully. No long immovable in defence but lumbering after shadows. No longer powerfully built but heavy, possibly even a little tubby. His leading light extinguished, his charisma depleted. He was still the same man, same number, same terribly continental European little green swimming trunks. But he was also so much less.
What was the cause? How had the home team brought an end to his spell? There was no rival sent out to duel, no nemesis unleashed to bring about his downfall. Instead the home side all reached that little bit higher. They all put their hands up to be counted, and together they overcame the deficit to win. What magic. What a story for the next day. What a set of heroes.

 

* this term is borrowed from conservation biology, and refers to the often big and impressive animals like lions, elephants and even pandas that attract most peoples interest. This leads to their use as flagships by conservation organisations to draw interest to their cause, and so often helping other animals as well.