Monday, May 22, 2006

Sporting Identity

Alerted by a great article regarding this weekend’s Heineken Cup final.

I quote one Huw Richards:

“The occasion of their 23-19 Heineken Cup final win over Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium was one whose emotion recalled Manchester United's European Cup victory in 1968, the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and England's Ashes win last year. These were triumphs that it seemed might never happen after years of hopes raised and dashed, hard-luck tales and still harder admissions that the real cause of failure was not being quite good enough when it really mattered.

Next year will be different. Munster will remain a cultural phenomenon, driven on by an unmatched identification between fans and players. But how much of that extraordinary energy derived from unrequited passion and a sense of unfinished business remains to be seen.”

Something that has been mutilated in recent years in this country is rugby identity. Clearly driven by the need to try and appease all in the Super 10/12/14 contest and for all sorts of contractual and other reasons dreamed up by the sponsorship gurus and other regular golfers we have had a mish-mash of identities in SA rugby. The Cats being a mongrel side sired by the Transvaal Lions and the Free State Cheetahs. The Stormers being a farcical collaboration between Boland and Western Province (farcical in that Boland seemed only to there to provide the “quota” players). The Sharks flirted with being associated with the Eastern Province and Border and were briefly called the Coastal Sharks.

The Bulls are the one side that has managed to escape this charade and a visit to Loftus on any given Saturday will assure you that you have arrived amongst the most maniacal devoted set of fans you could imagine. This is good. That is what we want for sport. (There is a great article by Carl Sagan in his book “Billions & Billions” where he points out that the word 'fan' is derived, after all, from the term 'fanatic'!).

Fortunately matters are returning, slowly, to normality. The Cats will be no more from next season and will call themselves the Lions once more. The ridiculous scheme to introduce the Southern Spears (another mongrel side) seems to be dying a slow death (legal challenges aside).

The sea of red shirts and wildly waving flags in the streets of Limerick as the Munster fans cheered their team playing miles away in Cardiff was a sight to behold. That is what sport (and support for it) should be about. Not some lame and over-hyped game that runs to extra time and penalties and then still has its supporters throwing their toys. (… read Pirates vs Chiefs over this last weekend).

I will never apologise for being a passionate sports supporter. I am able to watch and appreciate good sport with a cup of tea in hand (in cases where I am neutral and disinterested in the winner) but can think if nothing better than getting sucked emotionally into the game, being so zoned in, that I am virtually on the field, with my white knuckles clutching on my beer can. Interestingly I think the same emotional strands that allow me to do this, and enjoy doing this are the same emotional strands that have me unashamedly bawling my eyes out in movies.

But this article is about identity. That is what sport must be about to be successful. To be the full package. Anything else is just a tribute game, a collection of stars singing “We are the world” or like a cover band singing pop songs. It sounds similar, has a familiar tune, but just doesn’t have a patch on the original.

Sporting identity that unites players with the Stadium and the Fans and spans a generation of fathers and sons can be stoked and fanned out of an existing ember but it cannot be constructed from nothing or by mixing up a cocktail of different dying flames.

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