Two events this week in the world of athletics have sent me off thinking about the essence of sport. By coincidence, a friend, Daniel O’Leary has been thinking about spirituality in sport too.
Daniel and I share a fascination with one of the events of the week, Usain Bolt’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships. I watched it on TV live when I was in England. Daniel was there trackside.
The second event of the week for me was news of Betty Cuthbert‘s death.
Daniel has given me permission to share his thoughts on his experience of being present at the 100m final in London. He and I have been discussing sport for the last thirty-five years since we were first introduced by my wife Sue at St Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill.
This is what he wrote.
Gold of the Spirit
Seated near the finish we held our breath. The intense hush was shattered by a gun. Bolt blasted from the blocks. The noise was deafening from a packed stadium. It was pure spectacle. Inside ten seconds it was over. Our hero, after all, was mortal.
But in the drama of the day, was he more than that? At the bitter point of his defeat, did he not prove himself to be a golden hero of the soul? While thousands vented their gall on the new and quickly humiliated champion Justin Gatlin, we watched the warm exchange of words and hugs between victor and vanquished. There was a grace in the way Usain Bolt acknowledged his shared humanity with his conqueror, showed his respect and appreciation for another great athlete. ‘’He has done his time,’ he said later,’ he is a good person, he has worked hard, he is my friend and an excellent person’. And then there was an iconic moment, carrying traces of the Prodigal Son, when Gatlin bent his knee before Usain Bolt.
At a pinnacle of a celebration of worldwide sporting achievement it was a sad and shameful day for the furious and booing fanatics described by champion Welsh hurdler Dai Greene as ‘savage’. ‘The media and the masses have turned Justin Gatlin into a villain,’ tweeted James Ellington, former British international 100m sprint champion. It is one thing to be deeply disappointed that your hero lost; it is quite another to spit out bile on the one who ended his dream. If anyone lost in disgrace it was the ‘fans’. They clouded a happy summer’s evening that was full of beauty, blessing and delight for families into an ugly mist of personal pique. The weather changed then and many sensitive souls felt a chill. In a world riven by dark forces another golden opportunity for a brief but unique experience of universal harmony was shattered.
There is a deep and invisible power at the heart of the sporting life. Australian Herb Elliott, who took the 1500 metres gold medal in Rome (1960), wrote of the ‘spirituality’ of athletic competition. So did North American Ed Moses, another world champion (400m), when he spoke of the influence and force of sport to unite the world. And so did Nelson Mandela when he said that sport ‘can create hope and peace where there was previously only despair’. Golf hero Paul McGinley who witnessed some really demeaning behaviour at a Ryder Cup competition wrote, ‘intense competitiveness that also touches the soul is the essence of great sport.’ There is more to sport than the medals.
There is an invincible, un-extinguishable light of the spirit that lasts longer than the shining of a gold medal. We were not blessed with such an enlightenment on Saturday night, 5 August. But we do have sublime examples of it.
One such moment happened in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. World Champion Jesse Owens was watching his dream slipping away. He had fouled his first two attempts at the long jump. His blond German competitor Ludwig ‘Lutz’ Long explained to him how he could avoid a final foul by using a simple strategy. Owens took his advice and went on to win the gold medal with a final leap of 8.06 metres. And Hitler stormed out of the stadium. Moved by the spontaneous graciousness of his closest rival, Jess Owens later said, ‘It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have won and they would not provide the gold- plating for the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment’.
Daniel and I have not discussed Betty. Daniel was involved in athletics when Betty was running in Melbourne and Tokyo.
I was just four at the time of the Melbourne Olympics when Betty ran into history
This was Betty in 2012
Betty’s personal best times were:
- 100 metres 11.4s
- 200 metres 23.2s
- 400 metres 52.01s
Her personal best for the 200 metres would have positioned her just 0.8s behind the winners of both semi-finals in London 61 years later. Her 100 metres time would have put her 0.55s behind the winner in London. Her 400 metre time would have put her in contention for a 7th place in the London final and 2.12s off the winner Phyllis Francis.
Spirit as the New Edge
Daniel and I came to Usain Bolt from different epistemological traditions. I think we share a profound humanistic commitment to the spirit of sport. Betty epitomises everything I hold dear about sport. I love the idea that an 18 year-old can arrive in Melbourne and win three gold medals.
However, the picture at the top of this post is my enduring memory of Betty. I saw her race in Tokyo in 1964 on a black and white television in my home in North Wales. The commentary that day focused on Ann Packer who won the silver medal for Great Britain. But I do remember the commentator, David Coleman, making specific mention of the spirit that connected all three athletes at the end of the race.
I am not making an argument for a golden age but do want to champion a different kind of sport, at all levels.
I hope that we can stop talking about podiums and talk more about a common humanity that is expressed through athletic effort. This effort is ethically driven and focused on process rather than outcome.
1964 Final (AOC Media Centre)
Daniel O’Leary (Begin with the Heart)
Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt (Daily Star)
1956 (AOC Media Centre)