Squashed, then lifted

Last Thursday, I lost a game of squash. And what a fantastic time I had!

Allow me to explain.

I play at Trojans and I had the privilege of playing the club champion. His name is Kevin Harris and – forgive the cliché – he is a ‘legend’ at our club, having won our club championship . . . not sure . . . many, many times. 14 or 15, I think. Maybe more.

He’s 48 or so now and after beating me, he will probably go on to win another title. At age 48. If you know anything about squash, you’ll realise how remarkable that is.

It was truly an honour to compete against him. But more than that, I was extremely grateful for the way he played. He was a real gentleman. In squash, if you’re significantly better than your opponent, you can make them look rather foolish. Let’s be honest, he could have won in ten minutes.

He could have squashed me, pun intended.

Instead, he played a length, never played a drop shot, always lobbed it to the back to keep the point going. I was 7-5 up in the second game, due to his generosity, and for a moment I thought I might sneak a game. But I was a rusty Ford Fiesta in the middle lane, while he was the Red Ferrari passing me on the outside. He simply put his foot down and purred by, 9-7. Take a breather, mate.

The experience caused me to consider a story in the gospels. You may know it. Jesus meets his friend Simon Peter after a rather frustrating night ‘fishing’ on the Sea of Galilee. After teaching from the boat, he asks Peter to take it out one more time. Come on, let’s have another go. You can tell Peter’s a bit ticked about the request. You can imagine him thinking . . .

‘I get the idea that you’re someone special, not sure exactly what that means, but fishing? You think you know fishing? That’s my job and trust me, there ain’t no fish right now. You stick to the carpentry and give me some respect. I know these waters like the proverbial back of my hand and when the fish don’t bite, they don’t bite.’ Sigh. ‘But because it’s you . . . ‘

So they let down the nets – no doubt with a fair amount of harrumphing along the way – and whaddya know? Fish are practically jumping into the boat. Now, what I like here is Peter’s reaction.

Lord, I’m a sinner.

In the presence of greatness, he immediately recognises his own inadequacy.

There are human beings and then there’s this man before me. I’m not like him.

I am not worthy.

There was a chasm in class between myself and Kevin Harris but there on the Sea of Galilee? The gap was so vast, so enormous, Peter could only bow in worship. I’m reminded of John the Baptist, hugely popular at the time, who told the crowds, ‘I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.’ He is above and beyond me. Far, far greater than I. He is worthy of worship.

(Side note: How interesting that after Lionel Messi’s mesmerizing performance in the Champions League last Wednesday, his coach, Luis Enrique described him as ‘a player from another dimension.’)

Back to Trojans.

When you play someone like Kevin Harris, it’s hard not to be overawed. He is uncommonly gifted on a squash court, and my own deficiencies were quickly exposed. I am not one to worship sportsmen or women – how foolish is that? – but to compete against a top sportsman, it’s hard to avoid expressing this kind of sentiment:

‘It’s an honour to play against you today.’

It was indeed an honour to play squash with someone whose gifts are far beyond my own. But I use the word ‘honour’ because above all, I was treated well. He did not squash me, he let me play. I was not nearly good enough to compete with him properly but he kept the rally going. I was included, even if the result was a foregone conclusion.

I wonder if you’re one of those who has dreamed of meeting a sportsman or woman whom you admire. What would it be like to kick a football around with Ronaldo or Messi? Go jogging with Usain Bolt or Mo Farah?

In my case, I would die to knock a ball up and down with Roger Federer.

And how blessed were those guys who were fit enough to run next to Paula Radcliffe during the London Marathon? One of them held her hand as she ran towards the finishing tape.

Unforgettable. And yes, what an honour.

And there’s Peter who thought he knew a thing or two about fishing. Was he humiliated by a man with powers far beyond his own? Squashed? Maybe a little at first. Who knows? I thought I just told you there are no fish . . .

But for Simon Peter, it was not just an honour to be in the presence of a great man.

His encounter with Jesus brought him to his knees.

In worship.

But the Lord didn’t let him stay there. He showed him kindness. He invited him in. He lifted him up. He kept the rally going and let him play. He showed him grace.

Simon Peter may have felt squashed, but he was lifted up.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

What an honour. What a privilege.

To be invited to join the Son of Man in his work.

Surely Simon Peter would never forget the day when he was squashed, then lifted up.

© Richard Collins 2015

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Our vicarious warriors

Four twenty-something men sit on a couch, each one clutching a can of beer; their faces are softly lit by a pale light emanating from a TV screen. Hands periodically dive into a large bowl of potato chips, emerging with a handful which are then transferred to waiting mouths. Edible debris falls lightly down their fronts as they stare fixedly ahead. Simultaneously, all four take a sip from their tinnies. Beer rolls gently down their chins. Suddenly, they cheer uproariously, high-fiving before settling back down onto the couch.

A scantily clad woman walks in front of them across our screen. They ignore her, look through her. They don’t even twitch; their eyes are locked on the TV. Gradually, the volume increases. Commentators can be heard giving play-by-plays on the latest baseball game. Or football. Basketball. (Fill in your sport).

We’re once again reminded of the power of sports. The hold which sports have over young men. Some of you may groan while others cheer but one thing we all share. We recognize subliminally the importance of modern sports in our society. Because make no mistake, sports are critical to societal cohesion and stability. Remove them and you would push society towards a tipping point. Remove them and . . .

Oh for goodness sake, Richard, you’re so melodramatic!

Yup, guilty as charged, but do I have your attention? I hope so. Why are sports so important? Many reasons, but in this post, I will focus on just one. Here we go.

Back in 1975, the movie, Rollerball, was released. Here’s the description from IMDB:

In a futuristic society where corporations have replaced countries, the violent game of Rollerball is used to control the populace by demonstrating the futility of individuality. However, one player, Jonathan E., rises to the top, fights for his personal freedom, and threatens the corporate control.

The movie itself was . . . bleah . . . but the theme has remained with me over the decades, the same way as Animal Farm and 1984 and Lord of the Flies. These are all works of art which offer profound commentary on the human condition. Rollerball – as a movie – is average at best, but its central idea touches on a truth which I’m reminded of every time I watch modern sports.

In this futuristic society – totalitarian of course, that seems to be our greatest fear and therefore dominates ALL future societies – sport is used to control the masses. The corporations know that subjugation will cause anger and frustration and these emotions need channelling in some way. What better way than a sport which allows its viewers to express themselves vicariously through the events in the arena. (In this sport, the players are killed, so the on-field violence is of the highest order.) We’re regularly shown pictures of the Rollerball crowds shouting and screaming and battering away at the chain link fence which separates them from the arena. All that anger spews out and the masses return to their paltry lives sated and unable to challenge the status quo. That’s how totalitarian control is exercised. Through a sport called Rollerball.

Of course, it’s undone by a hero battling authority. Triumphing over oppression. The central character, Jonathan E., played by James Caan – a minimalist acting performance if ever there was one – is an outstanding Rollerball player. A cult of personality arises and well, I won’t tell you what happens at the end.

So, why interrupt your day with a reminder of a 70s movie most people have forgotten?

Because, like 1984 and Lord of the Flies, it communicates something elemental about our human condition. Human beings, especially the male of the species, are filled with hormones (testosterone above all.) These generate enormous energy; we’re energetic and we’re aggressive. Human beings, especially males, are astonishingly aggressive. By aggression, I don’t simply mean destructively aggressive and brutal, I want to include the idea that we’re filled with Drive.

On the basis of our Drive, we have risked our lives to discover new worlds, we have scaled mountains, explored the depths of the ocean, found ways of combating disease, built cities half way to heaven, we have created beauty and yes, we have almost destroyed our species and our planet. We are, if nothing else, infused with a Drive which must . . . it HAS TO find an outlet.

In ancient times, our young men went to war. They killed each other first in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands and in recent times, in their millions. Our commemoration of the start of the First World War this year (2014) reminds us of how extraordinarily aggressive, destructive and foolish our species has been in the past. We have always struggled to control our Drive.

Perhaps the most important factor in helping us do so is Freedom, represented politically as Democracy. Democracy is and always will be a civilizing force, because it channels our Drive into non-destructive behaviour. It is always preferable that our politicians shout at their opponents across the aisle than fire their weapons instead.

But sport is also critical for maintaining harmony in society.

If you don’t believe me, then you need to attend a football (pick your sport) match. I will never forget standing on the terraces (they existed back then) at Chelsea Football club in the 1980s. I have never heard such foul and disgusting language spewing out of men’s mouths for such a prolonged period of time – it went on throughout the entire match, directed especially at the opposition’s goalkeeper. To draw on a well-worn cliché (I think that might be tautological!) a sailor would have blushed.

Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that football was a magnet for violent behaviour. I think the term ‘hooligan’ was coined specifically to describe a football supporter who got into fights outside the ground. Happily, that is largely a thing of the past. Now, sport is doing its job a whole lot better. It is better patrolled.

After attending that Chelsea game, it became abundantly clear to me that a football match is simply Rollerball for our modern era. It’s an outlet for our Drive, for our anger, for our frustration, for excess testosterone, which is sloshing through young men’s veins.

So, if you’re a football fan, verbally abuse the players as much as you like. If that helps you deal with your anger, please, go ahead! If that provides you with an outlet, then that is infinitely preferable to violence. If shouting expletives at a goalie means you won’t beat your wife, then by all means, get it out at the match. Unleash your inner angry child. In the old days, we gave you a weapon and told you to run into battle for King Henry. Now, you’ve got video games, perhaps, but above all, you have Saturday afternoon. As long as sports help you keep a lid on violent behaviour, then please, go to as many games as you need.

And be thankful that your warriors are taking hits so you don’t have to.

Consider either kind of football – soccer or American. Both sports involve tackle after tackle, leading to multiple injuries, but you’re not getting injured. The players are. And so vicariously, you ‘fight’ your battles down there on the field/pitch, not out in front of the stadium. This is especially valuable for young men without a job, who hate their job, who feel that life has treated them badly and whose anger is bubbling away inside.

Thank God. I mean that. Thank God for modern sports. These modern day gladiators help hold our society together. Yes, they do.

This is just ONE benefit of modern sports. There are at least another five major benefits. Yes, five. At least.

Allow me a moment to draw on stereotypes and address my female readers . . . So, when your man switches on the football and puts his feet up, instead of rolling your eyes, give thanks. When the men in your family leave you behind to go to the game, thank God they’re picking up tickets and not swords or guns.

Thank God for modern sports. They are part of the glue which holds our fragile society together.

Now, grab your coat and go to the game!

© Richard Collins 2014

Whoosh – you won Gold!

Wall-to-wall Olympics in my house at the moment. Lovin’ every minute.

Last night, Lizzie Yarnold, the British winner of this past season’s Skeleton World Cup (that’s like winning the Premier League for you football fans – it indicates consistency) managed to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Caps there for a wonderful achievement. Well done! Woo-hoo!

So, let’s talk about the ‘sport’ of skeleton. That’s an odd name for a sport which used to be called tobogganing. And I’m sure you noticed my use of the inverted commas around the word ‘sport.’ There they are again. Whoops. But is skeleton really a sport? I concede the point that it takes courage. 80mph with your chin a few centimetres above the ice does take some nerve. But a sport? Hmm.  Both darts and snooker have been similarly questioned, due to their lack of physical prowess. Yet they both fulfil one of the absolute requirements for sports. They demand an enormous amount of skill. Darts players may be able to balance their pint on their bellies while standing but have you tried hitting treble twenty? It’s not easy. And snooker, well, I give up. So I think we can agree they’re both sports. But sliding sports, well, they seem to be closer to a theme park ride. Skeleton is the only sport where an overweight catering staff member can arrive bearing hot drinks, slip, land on the tray he’s been using for said hot drinks, slide down the course and win a gold medal. Okay, okay, I’m being facetious but let’s analyse this a little more closely.

Last night, Amy Williams, the British skeleton Olympic champion from four years ago (we’re rather good at sliding in the U.K.) found herself justifying her sport. That’s never a good sign. One of the other commentators was just about to mention the forbidden word, ‘tea-tray,’ only to be tutted by Williams, who then went on to describe why skeleton should be considered a sport. One of the features of her little speech was the repeated use of the word ‘technical.’ It’s never a good sign when we’re told that a sport is technical. It sound so very defensive and that’s not good. One of the things about sport is that the spectators should be able to see right in front of their eyes what’s required to win. The reality is that no one outside skeleton has a clue what makes a good competitor. Oh we can see the sprint at the top. That one’s easy. But after that, we’re lost. In every other sport, we can see what marks out a champion. See Tiger holing that putt? Every golfer can relate. Roger volleying cross-court? It’s fantastic and no, I wouldn’t be able to do that but I instinctively know what it takes. Skeleton? Whoosh, gold medal. What happened there?

Of course the primary reason why we’re in the dark is that no one does skeleton except for lycra-wearing sportsmen and women at the Olympics. I know the World Cup counts but most people don’t watch until the Olympics. Skeleton is a minority sport among minority sports. Hardly anyone participates. That’s perhaps the most damning indictment of them all. Shouldn’t an Olympic sport be one that people actually participate in? Cross-country skiing is Norway’s national sport. Archery is huge in South Korea. They might be minority sports to us but in some countries, half the population has a go. Skeleton? It’s not big anywhere that I know of. That’s a bad sign.

So what about this technical side? What is technical about skeleton? According to Amy Williams, it primarily involves steering. Okay. How’s that done? With the shoulders, hips and feet. Other sports that rely on steering involve cars or motorbikes. We admire Sebastian Vettel and Valentino Rossi because they can really handle their machines. But you might have noticed a vast difference between skeleton and say, Monza. Yup. Dozens of competitors all trying to overtake you at eye-watering speeds. Now, that takes some skill. But skeleton? No overtaking. Sure, you need to push down with the shoulder there, drag your toe a little there, but come on, it’s hardly the same as overtaking a competitor at 200mph and hitting the brakes as late as you can.

What we want from Olympic sport is great competition performed by sportsmen and women who combine peak physical conditioning with extraordinary skill. It should be very hard to win a gold medal. You should be in top physical condition and you should be very talented in your chosen discipline. Steering with the shoulder, touching the toe down, leaning left or right, I’m afraid, isn’t really enough skill to qualify for the designation ‘sport.’ The sprint at the beginning? Ho-hum. Maybe these athletes could try the 100m.

As for Lizzie Yarnold, well done! You won a gold medal. Excellent! You can hang it up above the mantelpiece. You’ll dine out on your Olympic story for years to come. Good for you. I mean that. Really. You’ll forgive me, however, if I have my suspicions. I can just see you winking at Amy Williams as you leave the sliding centre together and whispering, ‘Isn’t it great? They still think it’s a sport. Don’t you dare tell ‘em we have to pay a tenner for every ride. Tea-tray rental extra!’