This weekend I was inspired. And it takes a lot these days. One horse race and two slugfests, one in boxing, one in tennis, had reality suspended for just a few hours, all cynicism evaporating like clouds of breath on a January training run. Courage was back in town.
On what should have been a celebratory Saturday afternoon at Cheltenham, a 10-year-old Irish thoroughbred racehorse, Many Clouds, won the Cotswold Chase, just beating the favourite Thistlecrack. ‘Winning’ and ‘just beating’ are terms that fall well short of describing what actually happened, as this beautiful brown gelding literally ran itself to death. After three miles of driving itself across the sticky Gloucestershire turf, it was chased down near the finish by Thistlecrack, only to fight back and win. Soon after, it collapsed, and after being treated by vets, was pronounced dead. His trainer said: "I always said he'd die for you, and he has today, doing what he loved most.” ‘Heartbreaking’ is how one of one of my lads put it on our group chat on facebook. Heart breaking. There's really nothing that eclipses the sadness of this, or the importance within the context of any sporting calendar of events, but life, as we know, goes on ...
...Onto the early hours of Sunday morning, and the brave, brave Carl Frampton, the first two division world boxing champion in the history of Northern Ireland, was once again to take a lonely foray into the United States, to pit his wits, and lose, ever so narrowly to the Mexican Leo Santa Cruz. I listened to the fight on the radio, with commentator Mike Costello’s voice out-thrilling even that of Murray Walker for its passion and hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck-ability. I don’t know if it was the fact that it was 4a.m. here, and that I was lying in bed thousands of miles away from the action, that made this boxer’s journey, in the name of his trade, his vocation, his calling, seem all the more courageous; or, whether it was Costello’s machine gun patter - “he opens up – two jabs – a right – there've been hundreds of punches thrown – this is going all the way” – that meant that this was quickly becoming the second of the weekend’s triple maxima.
Then later in the morning, two tribes went to war again, this time in the form of Federer and Nadal in the Australian Open. The graceful urbane Federer, Bond-like in his ability to assassinate gracefully, against the smouldering Spanish bull that is Nadal, this was two men who didn’t need the money, didn’t need the trophy, didn’t even need the glory …. they just needed to win. That’s all, it’s that simple. One rally in the fifth set seemed to defy physics, or certainly the physics that extends beyond the video game into the real world. I’ve never seen tennis like it, and these are two veterans. Age softens and changes our demeanour. The driving forces of our personalities merely rest dormant, when no longer needed. In the warm Melbourne evening, it was time to wake up. The winning gene called to action again. Federer won, but by that time, the result, for me anyway, didn't matter, this had been special.
So I’m renewed, re-inspired. It’s not just these events and the superstars involved that humble, sadden, thrill or exhilarate, it’s the supporters, the backroom staff, the broadcasters and their technology that make you feel part of a community. No, more than that, a movement. A movement bigger than ourselves and one that makes life worth living.
Bill Shankly is to have said: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” Many Clouds would have it that while you’re alive, sport and life are one and the same.
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