Last week, Rohit Brijnath responded to my Ice Bucket Challenge. This, was his piece on Sunday in The Straits Times on ALS, the challenge and Lou Gehrig.
“There is,” said the film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, whose generous figure suggested a man unfamiliar with anything athletic, “no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And so the idea of being doused with cold water is far grimmer than its reality and the only way I can steel myself for the Ice Bucket Challenge is to utter the perceptive words of the Canadian comic, Russell Peters:
Be A Man.
A friend nominated me. He posted a video where he spoke of a motorcyle accident he had as a foolhardy young man which left him with facial paralysis and hearing issues. The accident was a cure for his silliness, but there is none for ALS, the disease which has sparked the Ice Bucket Challenge.
I am not overly keen on challenges. Partly because I am instinctively a coward. Mostly because challenges can be gimmicky and self-righteous all at once, rocketing across social media like a dazzling yet rapidly burning out firework. Once celebrities finish posting self-congratulatory videos of their drenched selves, we move swiftly on. To another Kardashian episode.
But this is idle cynicism. In truth, if people just figure out what ALS stands for – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – it’s a start. It might make them read on disease or contemplate charity or travel to YouTube for new videos.
The Challenge provokes journeys. And mine has taken me to 1939, to a baseball stadium and to a moment which always reminds me why I love sport: A speech by a dying man named Lou Gehrig.
All sports fulfil a need and fill a cultural space. As a boy I always had cricket, so I never needed baseball. But the writer’s inquisitiveness is his constant ally and in my assorted reading years ago, I somehow stumbled upon Gehrig, the legendary New York Yankee.
I discovered his evocative nickname, the Iron Horse; I found out he had ALS and that he made it famous, which is why it’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
And I read about the speech.
By 37, you see, Gehrig had gone; but at 36, ailing, he came to Yankee Stadium to speak to fans through an echoing microphone.
In a world whose ideas are often condensed to 140 characters, the speech has become old-fashioned. No one remembers them any more. In sport, we only hear them in movies, where Denzel Washington barks the scriptwriter’s words in Remember The Titans. But that is dazzling fiction; Gehrig was heartbreaking reality.
In front of over 62,000 people, who had only recently discovered he had ALS, he started by saying:
“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”
Gehrig spoke, gratefully, of his team manager and of his parents. He said of his rivals, “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.” He said of the Yankees, “When everybody down to the groundskeepers… remember you with trophies, that’s something.”
No, actually, Gehrig was something.
He was doing what athletes, especially now, rarely do. Not moaning, but counting his blessings in public. Not whining, but reminding us of how he felt privileged. Not telling us what he wanted from life, but what he had got and was grateful for. The old-fashioned hero is not a myth: There were indeed men like this.
I’m not always enamoured of modern sport and its obsession with money and triviality (“Wawrinka tells fan to shut up” becomes a headline these days). It’s why I like to return to Gehrig’s speech now and then. Just to reassure myself that sport is not merely an athletic enterprise but also a noble exercise. Just to remember that courage is not the player facing the 100mph fastball, but a young man confronting a finish line that had abruptly come to find him.
Last month, on the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s address, a video was made which involved players from every Major League Baseball team reading out a line from the speech. It was appropriate, for in a time of biters and match-fixers, sport needs to preserve and honour the better parts of itself.
And so, as we douse ourselves, maybe the real Challenge is not the cold of the ice or the emptying of a wallet, but something far more profound. To reflect on a young man we never knew. Who was dying that day at 36, yet in fact was telling us a little about how to live.
My Own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and its plea