On the loss of a Sporting Life

Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times this morning on how no sporting loss more profound than loss of a life..

Grizzled writers weep over their laptops. Strangers in Australia place cricket bats outside their homes, leaning there like a salute, as homage to a fallen boy of theirs. The Indian hockey team, from a different geography, in a different sport, lay out their sticks in an act of athletic brotherhood. A tweet of grief comes my way, written by an Australian: “Driving home. On a cricket oval to my left an old man, with a fierce moustache, crying. His son dragging a bat through the grass.”

Phil Hughes, 25, the cricketer, who most of the sporting world had never met, has gone and it has staggered us. I never knew him, yet I mourn.

Loss is not a competition. There is no measuring tool to rate tragedy. For every family, every loss, of any person, of any age, is exquisitely aching. But the death of the young athlete seems different.

Partly because he is famous. We know him as a face on a screen and a voice in interviews. He tells us of his boyish ambition, he scrambles to realise his promise, we ride on his pimpled dreams. Connected by TV and Twitter, we grow up alongside them and with few others do we forge such intimate relationships. No journey is quite like this.

For many of us, irrespective of age, the young athlete represents the defiance of our own failures. Talent and circumstance tripped our greatness, but not with him. Not yet. In a way, he plays for us. Man’s youthful ambassador to some distant, untouchable horizon.

And so he lives among us, hope in sneakers. He is the poster on our walls, the scribble in our autograph book. Of course, we overdo the veneration, ego can blossom, riches can turn a man, but in the beginning, and Hughes was only 25, this much remains true – the young athlete chasing a ball, greatness swirling within his reach, is among mankind’s most innocent images. It speaks of possibility, of the pursuit of perfection, of youth unfettered. Now it has been stolen, like a page abruptly ripped from a book. A story incomplete.

Our heroes should be scientists, teachers, firefighters, social workers. But athletes liberate us in a different way, they let us travel in our own imaginations, they supersede even the Hollywood star. The actor’s flight over buildings is fake, a clever creation of computer graphics; the athlete, soaring past gravity and rivals and history to dunk, is real. He gets no second takes at match point. For that moment, our life stops. As he leaps, we will him further.

But one part of sport is never supposed to be real. It is never real war. It is never real life and death. As Tom Fordyce, who covered this same subject eloquently on the BBC website, noted, these are just exaggerated metaphors. From these sporting conflicts, in stadiums and arenas, he wrote, “everyone walks away to fight another day”. Or are supposed to. These heroes are not supposed to die. They are bruised, then they carry on. Their cars are mangled, then they limp out. They fall, then they stand back up.

But Hughes didn’t rise. Get up, you wanted to shout at the video. Please, get up.

Twenty years ago, Julian Linden, the fine Reuters writer, covered the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In a recollection of the day, which he wrote about this April, he described journeying back to Bologna to his hotel at the end of a long day. When he got there, the receptionist was weeping.

“I asked her,” he wrote, “what was wrong but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian so she pointed to the first edition newspaper that had arrived. The front page simply read: ‘Senna è morto’.”

How can it be, we asked then, as we do today. Invincible, we write in the newspapers about athletes. Immortal, we say. Indestructible, we chant. Of course, we know, this is not true, but the young athlete represents man at his physical zenith. He glistens with health, he can barely walk without wanting to run, he is built of ropes of muscle. In any meeting of inhabitants of this galaxy, he would be our specimen from Earth. To then see Hughes fall is to confirm what we never want to do with athletes. Dear god, he is human. No, they all are.

The athlete, as he grows, is our endless conversation. We criticise, we lament their silliness, we question their ambition. We can be cruel and they too slothful. We can over-praise and they can cheat. Later the athlete might write a book and wander with slower step among us at airports in his retirement. We never know a man fully till he has lived his life fully. And it is why the amputated story of Hughes haunts us.

Eventually, cricket will resume and writers will wipe their laptops clean. Man has to play on. New heroes will arrive, armed with new dreams. Most never make it to greatness, but it is not about gaining glory, it is about just being given a chance.

To chase potential. To make a career. To be better. To lose form, to find it again. To manage kids and captaincy. To be grey and slower. To live the athletic life.

To just play.

It’s all we wanted for Phillip Hughes. For all of them.

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7 thoughts on “On the loss of a Sporting Life

  1. Lovely article – expresses all our thoughts so well! Thanks Binks.
    Also thanks Ela for pointing me to this. Am also sharing.

  2. Pingback: Book Review – The Best Of Indian Sports Writing – Sundeep Misra | Avnish Anand

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