Take physic, pomp

The Saturday OT: Simon Barnes the magnificent

A story that has captured multiple headlines worldwide this week and sadly missed by those in the Americas is the terrorist attack in Pakistan on the bus carrying Sri Lanka’s cricket team to the stadium in Lahore. This despicable attack is bound to get more coverage in cricket-playing nations of course, but all the same the thin reporting of the greater implications does this double continent no favours.

With this in mind, read the following. I have Simon Barnes linked down the blog (down there on the right) and call him quite simply “the world’s best sports journalist”. Read the following from the Chief Sports Correspondent of the London Times (recently voted sports reporter of the year by his peers) and find out why.


The terrorists waging a jihad against joy

Tell me, have you ever shared a gasp of wonder with more than half the population of the Earth? Have you ever, moments later, shared with the world a long, glorious, incredulous moment of joy? Of course you have. You are reading the sports pages. You know about joy and, more particularly, you know about a joy shared with a billion others.

Oh, I’ll never forget it, never, and it lasted only 9.69 seconds as Usain Bolt boogied his way to the gold medal in the 100 metres at the Olympic Games in Beijing last year.

I was there in the stadium, among the 91,000 who shared that gasp of disbelief — that long, head-wagging, blaspheming protest against the evidence of one’s own senses, then that realisation that the impossible dreams of humankind had been possibilised before our 182,000 eyes.

With the exultant beauty of the emotions in the stadium came the certainty that they would be duplicated across the time zones and the political boundaries, across the oceans and over the mountain ranges; that in a billion homes and bars and informal public places across the world, the same sporting miracle would have been celebrated in the same way. For a few brief seconds, the world was united in joy.

And this is what terrorists are waging war on. Theirs is a war against joy, a crusade against union, a jihad against humanity. After the terrorists — brave souls prepared to risk a battle against men with cricket bats while armed only with rifles and rocket launchers — made their attack on the Sri Lanka team, we have to wonder if big-time sport will become a worldwide target. If so, sport as we know it will be changed for ever. Big sporting events as we know them will no longer be feasible. What, then, will the world lose?

Terror has already robbed us of the rest of a Test series between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in which Thilan Samaraweera scored double hundreds in successive matches. Samaraweera was an off spinner who realised that he was never going to make the team ahead of Muttiah Muralitharan. So he concentrated on his batting, and did so gloriously. He was hit in the assault on the bus. (Bus? Soldiers should be attacking tanks, not buses). As the series was cancelled he was robbed of his finest achievement, and potentially the rest of his career as shrapnel was removed from his leg. That’s the sort of thing terrorists are opposed to: determination, versatility, talent.

What if these attacks had taken place 12 months earlier? What if, as a result of terrorist action across the full range of world sport, big-time professional competition was no longer feasible? Just for a start, cricket would have been deprived of Kevin Pietersen.

Last year Pietersen hit Scott Styris, the New Zealand all-rounder, for two sixes with his unprecedented tactic of switch-hitting, a technique in which he swivels and bats as a left-hander. The lawmakers wondered if so outrageous a manoeuvre was even legal. In the end, they decided that if anyone was mad enough or talented enough to try, then good luck to him.

That’s Pietersen for you: complex, brilliant, gaudy and capable of redefining the art of batsmanship. He remains the most watchable cricketer on Earth. And that’s the sort of thing terrorists are opposed to: genius, originality, extravagance.

Football’s central event last year was the European Championship. England, who had got caught in the rain, were unable to attend, but the rest of Europe made for a competition that went from intriguing to enthralling and ended up with the victory of Spain, the great underachievers of world football.

Spain at last showed that it could set aside provincial rivalries and jealousies and create a unified team of purpose and style and substance. This was a story of growth and realisation and achievement; and it is the sort of thing that terrorists are opposed to.

More or less simultaneously, Spain triumphed again, this time in the person of Rafael Nadal, who beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon in the most breathtaking exhibition of sustained and shared brilliance that tennis has seen. It was a final of painful beauty, of aching drama, of oscillating advantage, and it was played at a standard that rose and rose as the match went on, each man pushing the other to find the best of himself.

Federer, the old king, was broken, perhaps for ever, but never disgraced. Nadal showed the courage that you find only in the most exceptional champions. The occasion was elevated because both men consistently comport themselves with generosity and decency. Yes, that’s right: greatness, brilliance, courage, generosity, decency — the sort of things that terrorism is opposed to.

The Formula One season was anything but formulaic, talent battling impetuosity in the heart and the mind of Lewis Hamilton. It brought us its dramatic conclusion, in which the Briton lost the damn thing and won the damn thing in the space of a few bewildering seconds and emerged as the youngest world champion in the sport’s history.

It was one of those rare but glorious tales that Formula One specialises in, when the human element is dominant over the technology, when the personality overwhelms the machine. The season was a hymn to youth, to optimism, to talent, to belief; just a few more of the things that terrorism opposes.

But the year was dominated by the Olympic Games and if Bolt was the brightest star, there were endless constellations and galaxies and nebulae. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the swimming pool. No sportsman has made so much of his talents. There was also the Great Britain cycling team: a great, gang-handed, tumultuous striving for excellence, a fusion of planning, technology, corporate will and individual talent. Phelps and the Britain cyclists: an unsparing belief in human possibilities, the sort of thing to which terrorism is opposed.

And, of course, there was Yelena’s night, when Yelena Isinbayeva, the Russian pole vaulter, brought a bed into the stadium so she could lie down while her rivals squabbled among themselves for the minor placings. Then, majestically, she cast her covers aside, won the competition — and then set about the Yelena Show.

In the course of an hour, in which time she pouted and tried on a sarong, she set an Olympic record and then a world record at 5.05 metres. It was a night on which the world discovered that there are few things better than watching a beautiful woman leap the height of a house, higher than any woman has gone before. It was a triumph of ambition, athleticism, skill, determination and sheer beauty.

And all of these, especially the last, are things that terrorism is opposed to.

Sport isn’t the most important thing in the world. Its very point is that it doesn’t matter at all. But it can be the vector for things such as truth and beauty, youth and hope, unity and joy — and when the terrorists turned their rocket launchers on sport, they declared war on all these things.

Few of us really know what these people are for. But they have made it very clear what they are against.

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