Tag: sport

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.

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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.

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 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.

Diversity

Colourful synthetics, dark bloody skin; rowdy exuberance, polite applause; going solo, doing it with brothers in arms; avoiding death or leaning closer to it. I’m aproachimg halfway on my expedition/holiday across the continents, looking for and at sports in all their guises. I’ve just left the sunny climes of Spain behind, and am enjoying the air by the banks of the Danube in Budapest, Hungary. I’m here to see a different cultures take on sport, for a bit of nationalism fuelling sport, but all hopefully a bit of weirdness. But before all that, a quick round up of whats been so far:

In Morocco there was football: on the streets, in the stadia and in the middle of nowhere; its simplicity and tribalism allowing it to take root wherever it finds itself.

In Spain there has been great diversity. I started with the swirls and swoops of the kite surfers in Tarifa. Men and women trying to fly, what joy.

After this I wound my way up to Cadiz, then across to Seville. Here I encountered the drama and passion of flamenco, and the ritual and (questionable) artistry of the bullfight.

After this I escaped to the Sierra Nevada. Here I dangled over some ledges, watched climbers scale sheer walls of rock, and pondered the draw of closeness to death. We seem curiously keen to put ourselves in such situations when being alive is so important to us.

From here I journeyed to Almeria, not sure of what I would find. In fact I found a puzzling question: what makes something a sport? I had concluded that bullfighting was not, as there was no true contest. But where did this leave the kite surfing or climbing I had watched? What about the flamenco that unveiled itself in a murky bar one evening?
I’m not convinced it is, but I was enthralled by it nonetheless.

Almeria also posseses some stunning coastline. This is not lost on the local surfers and paddle boarders, although I doubt it is appreciated beyond their tight knit circles.

Back on the less salubrious town beach I went in search of the dance-martial art of capoeira. Unfortunately it was not to be found, but I did chance upon the trio of beach volleyball:

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Acrobatic local kids at flipping through the air:

And the surprising sight of Almeria University’s 7s rugby team stepping, offloading and strutting across the sand:

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Cursing my arthritic knee, with memories of matches passed and dreams of matches unrealised plaguing me, I headed to Valencia, via Murcia. There was little in Murcia. There was however a great deal in Valencia. A stroll through the long city park (converted from the now diverted river bed) I watched locals play football and even more rugby. Two separate teams with great numbers in their mini and youth sections. Perhaps Spain is one to watch for the future in this regard.

From there things got a little less mainstream. First I chanced across a game of pilota Valenciana. Two teams (the classic red vs blue) swatted a little ball up and down the narrow street with their hands, ricocheting off walls and flicking it off the floor. “Dont let it bounce twice” I imagined them cry as I stood and tried to fathom the rules.

From the simple to the ridiculous, I next found two clown-costumed crews building towers out of their teammates. Mediaeval music, cobbled streets, a cloth-capped child perched on top; what year had I stepped into?

After that it got a lot more modern, with the dynamism of a handball game:

And the very American razmatazz of a basketball game:


Despite the odd looks I got (especially at the handball game, must’ve been the ‘tan” I had from a day at the beach) the two home teams won. Perhaps I was a lucky charm. Certainly I felt lucky just to be there.
In Barcelona there was just time to be reminded that for some people exercise is the game before I had to leave.DSCN2669[1].JPG

I also found out in Barcelona that my visa for India had been confirmed. So, come at me Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, show me what you’ve got?

But is it a sport?

 

 

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As simple as that?

My head buzzing with thoughts of flight and death, I headed for earthier territory. For this I chose the arid desert-scapes, natural parks and underdeveloped coastlines of Almeria. There were no specific sporting activities I was looking for here, more the general kind of activity people do away from the Hurley burely of the city and competitive life. Something one person can do. Like walk, kayak or fish, must really capture the essence of what is enjoyable about sport.

 

Inspiration came from an unlikely souce. Stepping onto the train were two Italian ladies. Alex Mayer, a semiprofessional flamenco dancer, and Teresa Bellina, a photographer making film about Alex’s life and her struggle to make it. After a brief exchange in Spanish, we began chatting in English about her life and flamenco. It sounded tough. Alongside teaching English, Alex would be dancing at least two hours a day, alongside additional exercise to stay fit, and more if there were evening performances. Watching what you eat, constant aches and pains, passing up other opportunities, it certainly sounded quite like the life of a sports person. She was adamant that that is what sue was. “Flamenco is a sport” she ruled. Hving not ever seen it live I was in no position to comment, bit I felt I needed convincing. True, as she said it sounded extremely physical, requiring dedication and training like any sport. And true, it requires one to push yourself continually, achieving greater and greater purity of expression. Great players I’m various sports are often described as dancers (Shane Williams, Lionel Messi, Muhammed Ali) so could it not go the other way? Does it therefore count as a sport?

 

I had been pondering this question a lot since watching the bullfight in Sevilla. In my last post I had largely concluded that bullfighting was not a sport. Again, it is athletic and demanding, but withbrare exceptions, there is not so much of a contest. The matador so rarely loses; everytime the bull dies. My conjecture then is that you need at least 2 sides competing on an equal footing for it to be called a sport? Realistically this is quite hard to find, can the small F1 teams really compete with Mercedes, Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s millions? Can other countries compete with British cycling’s rigorous and exhaustive approach? Furthermore, where does this leave the kite surfing that had my soul soaring a week or so ago? One can certainly find kite surfing competitions, but that did not appear to be what was happening on the beach in Tarifa. Was it not a sport there, but becomes a sport as suddenly as some competitive framework is laid down? Are hiking, fishing or kayaking simply past times until someone starts doing it against you?

This seems quite reasonable, even if it creates some unusual possibilities. Could ironing be a sport if you do it competitively? What about cooking, painting or writing? In Valencia I watched two brightly dressed teams build tottering human towers; were they competing in the sport of human tower building?

Why not? I am happy to let the “non-sports” become sports if they desire, its not a protected word. Bullfighting as I saw it is not a sport, but if it were altered perhaps it could be. Everyone has created in their kitchen or garden the sport of yoghurt pot curling or rubber ball hit-and-run or a myriad others. Surely this was how the “proper” sports got started, back in the misty memories of our cultures.

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Sadly my camera did not work in the low light conditions of the bar, so this photo is from the internet: flickr.com/photos/leobar-pixinmotion

 

 

To answer the question for flamenco, I actually managed to go see a performance (match? game?) while in Almeria. The set up was minimal, but the effect anything but. Three men, singing and clapping their hands, one man on guitar, and a woman dancing. All stamping their feet for a prehistoric percussion. All committed to the moment, the performance, the seriousness of it. Portraying life and death, love and loss. Genuine seriousness is something Johan Huizinga states as necessary for true play; the involved must be truly believing in what you are doing yet all the while knowing it is just for mimicking real life. Well we had that here. The crowd ole’d, clapped and whooped for an encore. The fervour caught one of the male singers, who lept to his feet, visage a riot of emotion, and just started dancing. Two women from the crowd, presumably passing flamenco dancers, were swept on stage, caught in the thrill of it. It was intoxicating. Was it a sport? Probably not; it was hard to see any losers. But it was bloody brilliant. Ask me I’d rather be a matador in a sunny corrida, or a flamenco singer in a dimly lit bar, and I’ll only give you one answer. And it doesn’t involve a cape, some horses, or the fluttering of white handkerchiefs.

 

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Sorry guys

So, I went to a bullfight

Yes, as the title indicates, I have decided not to beat around the bush, and come out with it. I am travelling around seeing lots of different sports, and while in Spain I felt I had a duty to see “Los Toros”. Because it is controversial, because it straddles sport, art and something else, and because blood sports like this used to be common across Europe , and are still common in much of the world. Therefore, it seemed necessary to have a look at one, especially in a country where, in some quartets, it is feted as a high art form. In others it is banned outright. An challenging beast of an event to be dealing with. I am not alone in dealing with challenging beasts, for the matadors, to give them some credit, are taking on animals of 4-5 years old, weighing 500-600kgs. The bull pounds out into the corrida (arena), all taut muscle and powerful hoof beats. Initially it does not face the matador, but is worked by a series of supporting “players” with capes, who goad the bull into charges, before hiding behind wooden screens. After this the bull faces the picadores, mounted combatants who stab into the bulls shoulders and neck with a short-bladed spear. The horse is solidly protected by a large, thick cover. I was told that the horses didn’t use to be so well protected; it must’ve been a grisly sight. Instead, although we have blood of the bull in show, there is little gore, the primary purpose of these sections to tire the bull as it chases shadows or attempts to lift the horse. I’ll say now that many of the technicalities I know were gleaned from Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon”. It is quite challenging to understand the purpose of much of what is on show otherwise. The bull chases some colourful men with capes, it charges a mounted man it can never defeat; it all seems very ritualised. Hardly the blood and thunder contest I had expected. Perhaps this is some kind of art, or something else, after all.

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A quick parade before the action starts

After the picadores, the banderillas. These men bound towards the bull at an angle while it charges them, attempting to stick 2 wooden stakes into the muscle over the shoulder. In total 6 are placed, although not all find their mark, leaving the banderilla to scurry for cover. The stakes are gaudily coloured, creating a strange contrast against the dark bloody back and sides if the bull. Again however I see very little contest. The bull does not catch these fleet footed men, no do I think it is meant to. Instead, this further helps weaken the bull, preparing it for the matador. This is who comes next, stepping into the corrida, relatively alone. Facing a bloody, slightly tired, probably terrified, but still strong and angry bull.

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The banderilla plays his part

Before the start I was walking to my allocated gate, when I came across a scrum of people. Eyes all aligned towards some external entrance. This was the crowd awaiting the matadors, the dashing idols of this “sport”. They even have their own twitter accounts… Like the fans gathered for the arrival of the team bus, huddled at the team tunnel, we stretched and strained and held aloft cameras to try and catch a glimpse. In a flash they were there, shaking hands, smiling, waving, bright-gold costumes glinting in the sun, and then they were gone. Apparently the top matadors can receive €80,000 a fight; we certainly received the superstar treatment.

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Acting the part

Back in the corrida , again it was the matadors dishing out the treatment, using his cape to slip pass the charging bull: left, right, fleet plated together unmoving, even on his knees, all to the ohs and ahs and gathering applause of the crowd. This to me was more like some art, like a theatre performance by a talented actor, than a sporting contest. The crowd too put me more in mind of a theatre or opera crowd than a football or tennis crowd. Exceedingly smartly dressed, generally older, aficionados rather than supporters. To contrast with my Morocco football fans, watching from their seats rather than spurring their team or player on. This video shows it: the 2nd matador, Jose Manuel Manzanares, goes in for a clean sword placement to finish the fight. He is successful, and as the other cape bearers move in to stop the bull charging the matador again before it dies, the crowd applauds voraciously. They rise to their feet and wave white handkerchiefs to show their approval. How very gentile. 

It is not always so gentile. In this first fight the matador performed a great many passes, too many in fact, for the crowd started to whistle and jeer. Then when the sword finally came it was not a quick death. The bull staggered, floundered, and after it finally did fall it somehow managed to rise to its feet again, the death prolonged by minutes. Curiously, the crowd around me seemed to pay this no real heed. I guess if you pay to see death you accept some irregularities from the animal that struggles against it.

In general I was surprised to see so much variation in how well the matadors dealt death. One smooth and effective, the crowd loved him. Another, although the crowd did not favour his style he killed with a similar effectiveness. But the 3rd was simply bad at it. A young man, at only 23, he was clearly a bit if a darling of the crowd, and they greatly applauded his work with the bull and the cape. But his first strike with the sword, a jar against bone, and he was undone. Now in a vulnerable position, the bull caught him and tossed him through the air. Hearts leapt to mouths. Now in a tight ball on the floor, the bull stampeded over him, and I thought I was about to watch a man die. The crowd leaned closer. Was I happy about this? If it was a sport, a contest I was after, then surely both sides losing should be possible. In which case the death of the matador would strengthen bullfighting’s position as a sport. So did I want his death?
Thankfully, the watching cape-bearers sprung into action, diverting the bull off the prone man and he was saved. Somewhat less thankfully, he then went back and, after a couple of attempts, finished the job. He also made a meal of killing his 2md bull (each matador kills 2 bulls per corrida, giving the crowd 6 deaths in total), leaving me in doubt as to his ability. It also left me in no doubt as to the status of this event. There is no genuine contest, man is not against bull, nor are the matadores competing against each other. Whether then what this dance between man and animal produces some kind of art, that is up to you.

I watched after the fight where the matador was caught by the bull as he limped, grimaced and crept round to the infirmary. Hand clutched to his side, pained etched across his face, gaudy costume torn. You could see the crowd as he passed crane closer, peering at him. What’s in it for them I wondered. They had nearly seen him die. Perhaps the death is what they were after. To be close, to lean in, to pull anguished faces and gape as he passes. To catch the tang of death off him as he comes by. The matadors both knowingly put themselves in danger, close to death, and also deal it. They wear the shroud of death closely. Is that what the crowd were after, to pass close by this messenger of death? To feel close to the rawness of it, but ultimately safe from it? The matador as well, is the draw for him the closeness of death, with one wrong step and a swish of the bulls horns.


It seems likely. Closeness to death, or at least risk of injury, is a common aspect of many sports. I myself, at 26, no longer play rugby or football due to a debilitating knee injury picked up in the former. Such things are not uncommon. A few days after the bullfight I was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, watching climbers tackle various routes. Yes they have ropes and harnesses and a partner keeping them safe, but accidents happen and falls are never that far away. Climbing is very technically and physically demanding, but it also has that inherent danger to it that makes it, maybe like the bullfight, such an enticing prospect.

It is hard to deny the common element if danger, but it is curious we find it so attractive. Would ancestral (wo)man who enjoyed being that little bit closer to death have some competitive advantage? Perhaps it helped the essential hunt of prey, especially the larger, more dangerous beasts. Perhaps this was essential to success for our ancestors. Perhaps this is what the bull fight apes. But as the bull was dragged out of the arena, to the sound of music, applause and the waving of white handkerchiefs, sunlight gleaming from sunglasses and flashing off fascinators, it was quite hard to picture anything essential about the spectacle at all.