Squirrel camp and the northern lights

In the beginning there were three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short). In the boreal forest. Before that there were squirrels and lynx and bears and other such creatures, but as they cannot hold pens to write their stories down we can hardly start with them, so we will start with the three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short). They conducted research in the boreal forest ad all its mysteries, and they were very happy with their work. They worked all day, and some nights, and the other nights they drank beer or told stories round a fire or avoided discussing that one time they all went skinny dipping as it was terribly embarrassing for all involved. They enjoyed their work so much and discovered so many interesting things that they decided to start bringing their students up to the forest to share in the discoveries. For this they needed a camp for their students to live and eat food out of tins and to conduct research, as that is how ecologists are made.

For this camps they drove an arbitrary distance along a road out of Haines Junction in the Yukon, Canada and turned left. They looked around but decided it was not quite right. They then drove another kilometre and turned right ad decided that this spot would do. The three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short) were skilled builders and craftsmen, but there were limited tools and a small budget. Still, they constructed buildings to eat in, sleep in, enter data in and other necessary things for young ecologists. After they were done the three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short) looked at the camp they had created and saw that it was sufficient. They called down to their respective universities and summoned their students to the camp. They came in ones, twos and threes, bright eyed and bushy-tailed and excited to live and learn in the boreal ecosystem. The tall ecologist and the medium-height ecologist were optimists and, convinced they had keen and resourceful students in the same mould as themselves, were happy that all would be well. They smiled, clapped each other in the back, and went back to their permanent homes.
The short ecologist however was a little more pessimistic. He too knew he had keen and resourceful students, but was worried that up in the boreal, a long way from the city of Whitehorse and an even long way from civilisation, mishaps might befall the students. This possibility worried him greatly, and he paced up and down, wearing through three pairs of shoes in the process, which only increased his disquiet. He could not abandon the students he cared for so greatly, but he could not live in camp as he had his duties down south. Eventually, he hit upon a solution.Squirrel camp and the Northern Lights
In the beginning there were three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short). In the boreal forest. Before that there were squirrels and lynx and bears and other such creatures, but as they cannot hold pens to write their stories down we can hardly start with them, so we will start with the three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short). They conducted research in the boreal forest ad all its mysteries, and they were very happy with their work. They worked all day, and some nights, and the other nights they drank beer or told stories round a fire or avoided discussing that one time they all went skinny dipping as it was terribly embarrassing for all involved. They enjoyed their work so much and discovered so many interesting things that they decided to start bringing their students up to the forest to share in the discoveries. For this they needed a camp for their students to live and eat food out of tins and to conduct research, as that is how ecologists are made.

For this camps they drove an arbitrary distance along a road out of Haines Junction in the Yukon, Canada and turned left. They looked around but decided it was not quite right. They then drove another kilometre and turned right ad decided that this spot would do. The three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short) were skilled builders and craftsmen, but there were limited tools and a small budget. Still, they constructed buildings to eat in, sleep in, enter data in and other necessary things for young ecologists. After they were done the three ecologists (one tall, one medium height, one short) looked at the camp they had created and saw that it was sufficient. They called down to their respective universities and summoned their students to the camp. They came in ones, twos and threes, bright eyed and bushy-tailed and excited to live and learn in the boreal ecosystem. The tall ecologist and the medium-height ecologist were optimists and, convinced they had keen and resourceful students in the same mould as themselves, were happy that all would be well. They smiled, clapped each other in the back, and went back to their permanent homes.

The short ecologist however was a little more pessimistic. He too knew he had keen and resourceful students, but was worried that up in the boreal, a long way from the city of Whitehorse and an even long way from civilisation, mishaps might befall the students. This possibility worried him greatly, and he paced up and down, wearing through three pairs of shoes in the process, which only increased his disquiet. He could not abandon the students he cared for so greatly, but he could not live in camp as he had his duties down south. Eventually, we hit upon a solution.

As you all know, each person is made up of good and bad, dark and light, yin and yang. The short ecologist knew this too, and that was his solution. He took his good side firmly in his fist and, in one motion, tore it out of himself and threw it into the sky above the camp. There it stayed. From the sky above camp his good side could watch over all the students and help them stay safe. This satisfied the short ecologist, and so he left to return to his permanent home. However, now he only had a dark side, and so was always grumpy and saying “harrumph” and tearing down others’ ideas. This made everyone slightly crotchety to him but he accepted it was worth it to keep the camp safe. And it was ever thus. Back at camp in the high, still Yukon, on cool dark nights, camper who turn their eyes skywards may catch a glimpse of the short ecologist’s good side, dancing and curving across the sky in pinks and reds, greens and golds, keeping them safe.

And that is why the short ecologist is always grumpy, why those in the camp in the woods are safe, and why there are sometimes there are colours dancing across the sky at night.

Woah, bear!

Online bear-awareness courses are a bit of a laugh. See a bear? Try to ascertain the species, whether it has seen you or not, and it if is behaving aggressively or defensively. Presumably while praying that you did leave your family pack of Snickers back home. And not in your ruck-sack. Oh dear…

At least they haven’t given me a false sense of confidence if I do come in contact with a bear. Perhaps that was the intention all along. Maybe there used to be a really good, informative online bear awareness course, with interactive videos and challenging scenarios and a scratch-and-sniff section, to prepare you most fully for a bear encounter. Perhaps this lead to too many hikers boldly striding up to bears, pointing out to the bear that it is merely a lone black bear and not a mother with cubs or a grizzly, and so that it is unlikely to attack said hiker unless it felt threatened, which of course lead to much mauling and rendering of expensive Gortex jackets and the soiling of expensive sweat wicking underwear and that sort of thing. So they did away with it and went back to the 1980s version. With questionable hair styles, questionable shot transitions, and more prosaic advice. The only good encounter with a bear is no encounter with a bear. Announce your presence by singing, walking loudly, or saying “Woah bear” every few strides. Noted. Thank you.

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woah, bear indeed

Now I am sure you are pleased that those striding into contact with bears will be prepared for it. Possibly elated. But why was I doing such a course? Well, as luck, ambition, and a first shaky step on the academic ladder would have it, I am heading up to the Canadian Yukon to carry out field work for my first post-doc after my PhD in evolutionary biology. “WITH BEARS?” Erm, nope. With a closely related mammal, the North American Red squirrel (coming from working on crickets and before that fruit flies anything quadrupedal and fluffy is pretty closely related.). I’m joining a bunch of other researchers, graduate students and volunteers up near Kluane national park to carry out the work that has, in part, been continuing for over 25 years, monitoring a population of the little ginger squirrely blighters. And as it’s a bit out in the wilds of Canada, there is indeed the small chance of encountering a bear. Hence the mandatory training.

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Terrifying…. Derek Bakken

Its always a bit daunting heading off on field work, especially when its new (I’ve blogged about this a little before, nice to see nothing has changed). Have I packed the right stuff, will I make the plane, will the camp be as rudimentary as some make out, while the work be easy or hard, will I learn quickly or drag everyone down? Exciting, but nerve wracking. But its what I am here for, so the bag is packed and my loins have been gird up. Lets go.

I may be able to do the odd blog post or upload the odd picture while I’m away, but no promises. So don’t assume silence means I did indeed encounter a bear, and failed to enact my training:

 

“Hmm lets see, humped shoulders, slightly upturned snout, large claws, yes indeed. Ooh, it’s seen me. Aggressive and defensive, bit of a box-to-box midfielder. And I brought my pack of Snickers. Oh shit wait, that’s not quite ri…”

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.

This eagle could keep a village in meat for a week

I dwelt on that statistic as I held said eagle. Huge and majestic, it was a live weight sat on my outstretched be-gloved hand. We (myself and a group of assorted Flemish bird watchers) had just paid 700 SOM (about £7) each to watch the Kyrgyz eagle hunter Ruslan fly his bird. We also got to see it hunt. For this, Ruslan’s father, himself an eagle hunter, released a live rabbit, which we watched Caracus (“black eye”) swoop on, pin, and start to eat. The rabbit died at some point, although it wasn’t immediately. It formed a fairly brutal sight, watching fur being ripped out before skin was torn and flesh rendered. This however was tempered somewhat by this tenderness shown by Ruslan. After legging it back down the hill from where he had flown the eagle from, he knelt beside it and helped the bird with its food. Knife and fingers helped the bird pry flesh from bone; he cooed softly to the bird. He talks to it as a parent talks to a child, encouraging, chiding, assisting. It was a little beacon of sweetness among the otherwise fairly bleak scene of death, drizzle, goat-spotted hills and the Flemish hired 4x4s.

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Of the two eagles Ruslan showed us, 1 was caught when it was around 2 years old, the other was taken from a nest. This creates 2 quite different birds. The former is harder to domesticate, but will never consider attacking people. The nest plucked-bird is easier to train, but shows less fear of the human handler. Regardless of their origin, birds are released when they are around 15-20 years old as, apparently like horses, they start to forget (or forget to respect) their trainer, becoming un-bidable. This also has the highly desired side-effect of keeping up the population of breeding age eagles. Catching fleet-footed rabbits on mountain sides is difficult without eagles. But not just rabbits; small deer too. Foxes as well. Wolves even. 2 English and 8 Flemish eyebrows raised. “Juvenile wolves, surely? “. “Yes, and adult wolves”. 10 eye brows climb a little higher. “That I would like to see “ says one, backed by murmurs of agreement. We’re all here because this is something authentic, something traditionally Kyrgyz, but also because a big (2 meter wingspan) extant dinosaur with a hooked beak and fearsome talons is, frankly, cool.

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Even with the nifty hats

I’ve read the moving “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, but getting close to something like this was special. And I got close early on in an unexpected way. Earlier I had hopped into Ruslan’s car to head out of town to fly the birds. Sat next to me was none other than Caracus. He was hooded and perched where the other back seat should’ve been. Behind us, in the boot, also hooded and perching, was Ruslan’s other eagle, whose name translated as “black eagle” but I forget it precisely. At some point Caracus’ long brown tail feathers pressed into my leg, and I wondered what its talons feel like pressed into flesh. That must be part of the appeal for the handlers, directing this rawly dangerous animal. They compete them too, although the specifics of that I am unsure of. A race, points based? I do not think you would risk setting two of these birds free together, so it must be some kind of rating of the ability to take out certain prey. Gundog-trials are similar: dogs marked down for over running, going after the wrong dummy, zigging when they should have zagged. I clearly remember the wily golden retriever “Ben of Codicote” plucking an elusive dummy from a thicket which the other contestants had missed. Trotting back contentedly with his prize in his mouth, glares in the eyes of the other competitors, a pitter-patter of applause in the hands of the onlookers.

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Nevertheless, the vast majority of gundogs do not spend their time competing, and I imagine captive eagles do not covert a stash of rosettes. The truth may have a more utilitarian side yes, they help feed us, but eagles are also bloody cool. Big, feathered, reptilian-eyed, somewhat trained hungry fox-catchers, and bloody cool. Ruslan carefully replaces the hood, and gets the bird back into the boot of his hatchback. His father is cutting up the remains of the rabbit for later. The rain is still drizzling. The hills are as goat-spotted as they were. The Flemish hired 4x4s still squat by the roadside. But I feel lighter. Maybe it is the lack of its weight on my arm. Or maybe it picked up a bit of me and carried it away into the hills. I hope they do get released at some point. I hope they get to soar free over the Kyrgyz mountains. I’d be terribly disappointed if Ruslan did not allow them that. Terribly disappointed in us all.

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.