Many times I’ve turned off the TV in disgust, promising never to waste my time watching sport again. It famously happened during the first innings of the 438-game, when Ricky Ponting was discarding Roger Telemachus to all corners of the Wanderers. I couldn’t bear to watch how my beloved Proteas were – again – suffering at the hands of our fiercest rivals. So I turned off the TV and tried my best to forget about the game. Never again will I watch cricket, I told Helanya, it was just too humiliating. It was only much later that day, when I walked into a restaurant with the final over of the match about to start, that I realised what was happening: that we were about to win the greatest game in the history of cricket. I vowed there and then to never waver in my support again.
I don’t think I’m unique in my love for how sport can excite the senses: the thrill of the chase, the tension of a crucial point, the suspense of a fightback. There are those who disagree (see cartoon), and to be honest, sometimes I do envy them: after watching a 6 hour Saturday rugby and football marathon on TV, there are often regrets. But what the sport atheists often don’t understand is that sport is more than the on-field battle: as South Africans would know, sport has this amazing capacity to build and unite. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, and South Africa’s eventual victory against the Jonah Lomu-inspired All Blacks, is the textbook example of sport’s capacity to bring people closer together. And don’t discount the impact of the 1996 African Cup of Nations too; that was my first experience of football, for example. Following these events, Nelson Mandela would famously say: “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.”
Like the incredible story of the Somalian bandy team. Today, the Bandy World Championship kicks off in Irkutsk, Russia. Bandy is a mixture of ice and field hockey: it is played on ice but on a field the size of a normal football or rugby field. And instead of a puck, a small, pink ball is used. To get a sense of what it’s like, have a look at this goal. Understandably, it is a sport dominated by countries in the Arctic regions: Russia, Sweden and Finland. The US, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and a few smaller countries in Eastern Europe also participate. And, for the first time this year, Somalia will join that list.
Somalia? A country with no government and, more importantly, no ice? Yes. Much like Jamaica (who, incidentally, will have their bobsleigh team back at the Winter Olympics in Russia in two weeks’ time), Somalia is not a country one would associate with the Winter Olympics. Yet that has not prevented a group of 2000 Somali immigrants to the small town of Borlange to start a bandy team, and enter the World Championship under the Somalian flag. Patrik Andersson, team manager of Somalia, explained how the ethnic divisions in the town forced him to find a solution, and what better way to unite than through sport. “If we are going to have to live together we are going to have to talk to each other to make Borlange a good place to live in. I’m doing it for me and my children. I want to stay in Borlange. I want this to be a nice place.”
The contribution that sport has made in integrating immigrant communities in much of Europe and elsewhere is probably understated. English premiership team Arsenal fielded a team of four German players on Friday night. Of those, Lukas Podolski was born in Poland, Mesut Özil is a third-generation Turkish-German of Kurdish descent and Serge Gnabry’s father is from Cote d’Ivoire. (Per Mertesacker was the fourth.) A fifth German player was used as substitute: 16-year old Gedion Zelalem (pictured), whose parents are Ethiopian, who was born in Germany and who spent all his teenage years in the USA. He is eligible to play for all three countries and, as he celebrates his 17th birthday today (with a professional Arsenal contract looming on the horizon), he is likely to add England to that list in the next few years.
Zelalem is already a magician on the field: this highlights package of his pre-season tour should convince you of that. But if he realises his immense potential, he is likely to be a magician off the field too, bringing the world closer together.