Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sports and Politics and Boston

You see it a lot on sports blogs: "Leave out the politics and just write about sports". This generally happens when a sports blogger voices an opinion on a topic that one member of her or his readership disagrees with. At that point, out come the demands that the blogger just "stick to sports" and leave the "right wing crap/hippie liberal socialist crap" (depending on the blogger and the audience) at home.
One can almost sympathize with the folks who feel that way. They're there to read about sports, after all. We get enough politics in our daily lives. We want the space between the white lines to be free of it, a charmed circle where competition is what matters and the striving is all. We want a break from contention and argument and name-calling, well, a particular type of name-calling, and we want a break from the consequences that politics seems to have and sports seems to avoid.

Except, unfortunately, all sports is political. It can be explicitly political, as when a city spends a buck to build a stadium for a billionaire instead of using it for city services, or an athlete raises a fist in protest on the medal stand at the Olympics. It can be implicitly political, as all sports really are. Us against them, my tribe against yours - that's what team sports is, boiled down to its most basic level. My city's guys against your city's guys, in the uniforms depicting their allegiances - once upon a time that was called "summer campaigning season".
And then there's the coincidentally political, when a sporting event becomes part of a larger political story, like the one from Boston yesterday. Odds are that the Boston Marathon was not targeted for bombing because the perpetrator had a deep-seated hatred of long-distance running. And yet the bomber did pick a sporting event to make their horrific statement, a crowd drawn to one place to observe and celebrate athletic achievement. Without the Marathon there is no bombing on Boylston Street; just like Munich and Atlanta, sports are drawn into the political.
I was in Atlanta in 1996 when Centennial Park was bombed, though I was far from downtown. Nobody who actually lived in Atlanta at the time wanted anything to do with the Olympics, as they were seen as a titanic source of traffic and annoying foreigners, and the logo critter was frankly terrifying. But the bomb went off and the phone lines went down under the weight of everyone calling in to see if their loved ones were all right. I squeezed one call out, then gave up fighting the prerecorded messages and just sat in the dark in my apartment with my cat, wondering what the hell had just happened as reports said over and over again that they had no idea what the hell was going on.
I used to work maybe a couple blocks from where the bombs went off in Boston yesterday. 277 Dartmouth Street, home of Bernard Haldane Associates, a business which has long since gone down in flames. They were an executive outplacement firm, which meant resumes and career counseling and large bills. I did research and IT for them for a year, taking the T to Copley Square from Somerville every day, and I remember those streets full of crowds of distracted people, each about their business. It was hard to reconcile those memories with the images I saw today.
We connect to tragedy through the personal. Our friends and loved ones who were in the city where the event happened, our memories of the place, our way in to some kind of context and understanding. People were killed in a bombing in Iraq yesterday as well, and probably killed by bombs in Syria and too many other places. But many of us don't have a way in to those stories, we're numbed by distance and separation, and they don't hit us in the same way when it might be someone or someplace we know, or a familiar event, like, say, a sporting event that's a familiar part of the annual landscape gone suddenly, horribly wrong.
And there's perhaps one other way in which sports becomes political, when an athletic performance is simultaneously something more. Jesse Owens in 1936, Jackie Robinson stealing home...and today, runners passing the finish line and continuing on to run to hospitals to give blood. Runners ripping their IVs out of their arms and moving on, still bleeding, to make space in the medical tent for the truly wounded. Runners from around the world competing together in a celebration of a quintessentially human sport: run, run fast, run long. And as those athletes came together, to race and to do more, hopefully we can come together, too. To mourn the dead in Iraq as we mourn the dead in Boston, to admire the heroism of those who ran toward danger regardless of where they were doing it, to turn a deaf ear to the conspiracy theorists and hate-mongers and opportunists who would use something like this for their own ends.
What happened yesterday was some of the bad ways in which sports and politics invariably intersect, and some of the good ways, too. There's often no separating the two. We can, hopefully, take strength from the good and share it, can recognize that by the nature of sports they will always attract the bad, and maybe, have a little better context and a little better understanding the next time something - from a horror show like this to a player speaking out - blurs the line. But what we can't do is separate the two, because there is no separation and there never has been.
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