Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sport can mean something

Source: Associated Press

Even with the Olympics still to come and a number of other great sports stories that have already happened (who, for example, would ever have believed that a long-term journeyman tennis player, barely able to scratch a living, would, as a wildcard entry, win the Wimbledon doubles title?) I already know what sporting achievement will give me most delight in 2012. It happened yesterday when David Millar won Stage 12 of the Tour de France.
The stage itself was the least of it - a long breakaway, with a small group managing to stay away right to the end is worth cheering but is not in itself enough; such breaks are regularly attempted and each year one or two succeed. Even though David Millar initiated the move and demonstrated his skill at road racing, that is still makes it no more than a very good win,  not a great sporting moment. No those happen when some part of the story of the day transcend the mechanics of the event to make the victory mean more than a win. In this case, in Annonay DavĂ©zieux, it represented redemption.
Even though most people are now aware of the David Millar story it is worth repeating. He started in the sport when the organisation of British cycling was an amateurish shambles and so as a young man he did what all ambitious cyclists had to do: leave for Europe to find a team to learn what professional road racing really was. At that time being professional also meant taking drugs. Although he started off both innocent about their use and against them in principal, he was eventually worn down. He succumbed with an attitude (or internal justification) of “well it just has to be done” and “it is my duty to the team”. It gave him no satisfaction but he thought it was his job and so it was until he was caught, arrested and tried. Publicly humiliated, cast adrift by his team and the sport, he seemed at the time another sad story of someone with great talent destroyed by the dark side of his sport. For most athletes who have been convicted of drug use that is all there is - the end, a simple case of rise and fall. But that is not where it ended for him.
Firstly took full responsibility. He did not hide behind denials, he did not try to claim he knew nothing and it was an inadvertent mistake or other peoples fault. He did not say he was forced into it, he fully admitted what he had done. It was as if he wanted to find once more the integrity he had locked away, and be able to look people in the eye.
He was also aided by friends who would stand by him and nurse him back to mental health on the roads of Britain. Through that he was able to rediscover just how much he loved the sport and it is this love that is at the crux of his recovery. It gave him purpose and a cause: to prove top level cycling could be done clean. After serving his ban he not only pieced together his career he became an advocate. At the time there was a lot of scepticism and an awful lot of people were very absolute in their attitudes, believing that a doper is always a doper and so should always be a pariah. But he faced them head on and never shied away from the issues and in the end his love of the sport earned respect.
That in itself that is redemption enough but somehow a win in the Tour de France 9 years after his last stage win (when he was drugged)  ties everything together and presents it in one glorious moment. He was once lost but he found his way and his exultation in punching the air as he crossed the line spoke more than words.
To me that is what sport is all about: not only the struggle to be your best and define yourself but also the chance to recover and try again if things go wrong or you take a wrong turn. There is always hope,  the hope, that this time things will work out. There maybe stark outlines in that there are clear winners and losers but the metaphors and lessons can be taken into our, messier, everyday lives. Examples of endurance and will show what we ourselves can achieve in our own, less exalted context. And redemption...We all need stories of redemption. We need to know that nothing is totally lost and that even if things look bleak there is always the chance we can find ourselves again.

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