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PostA Historic Day in Sports (David Duggan, USA, 06/07/15 6:39 am)
Yesterday (June 6th) was the 71st anniversary of the Allies' amphibious invasion of the Normandy coast at beaches denominated Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword and Juno. In three weeks we will observe the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo won, according to the Iron Duke of Wellington, on the playing fields of Eton. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also one of the more significant days in the athletic calendar, as we observed the 1st Triple Crown horse-racing winner in 38 years, the 20th Grand Slam singles victory by Serena Williams, and the persistent issues of corruption in the beautiful game, soccer, with indictments of more than a dozen officials of the Federation Internationale de Football Association.
The modern sports of horse-racing, tennis and soccer all had their origins in the British Isles. Two hundred-fifty years ago, three Arabian stallions were imported to England where they were bred with English standardbred mares (the breed used in harness racing) to produce a "superhorse" with speed and stamina sufficient to be able to run at speeds exceeding 40 mph over a mile. I've ridden a bicycle at 40 mph and have likely skied that fast, but they were downhill and I wasn't trying to control an animal weighing more than 6 times my weight (for a 120 lb. jockey, it's more like 10 times his weight). The point is that horse-racing is that amazing amalgam of athletic ability and derring-do that yields not only an objective winner but a glimpse of that elusive quality of poetry in motion. To see a horse come out of the turn into the stretch striving with every fiber of its being toward the finish line, with the jockey perched on a saddle, reins in his one hand, whip in the other is truly to witness a feat that words cannot adequately describe. Hail American Pharoah. You deserve a bluegrass retirement replete with the nirvana of receptive mares.
Tennis had its origins in the medieval monasteries as monks looked for recreation amidst their daily devotions. Shakespeare wrote of Henry V's affinity for the sport, and the French revolutionaries took the Tennis Court Oath in 1789, but this was "court tennis," not the modern variety played on lawn, clay ("terre battue" in French), and in these parts, asphalt or concrete. Serena Williams's 20th Grand Slam victory puts her within spitting distance of Steffi Graf's 22 wins, the most in the "Open Era" (since 1968-Margaret Smith Court has 24, but that includes 13 during the period when professionals were barred from the big four tournaments). Lawn tennis (as the sport was known when I was growing up) was made possible by two post-industrial age developments: the lawn mower, which could cut the grass to a uniform fraction of an inch, and vulcanized rubber which allowed for an inflated ball, rather than the feather-stuffed spheroid originally used in court tennis. I'll let others decide whether Serena is the "GOAT" (Greatest of All Time), but there is no denying that she has opened up the sport for a generation of competitors in a way that no other post-Jackie Robinson African-American athlete has. (Tiger Woods: are you listening?) The next best American player is Sloane Stephens, also of African heritage.
Soccer, or association football, has been plagued with scandal for almost as long as I've been alive, but most of that scandal has been because of the inability of one referee to control the actions of 20 players on the pitch (the lowest ratio of officials to players of any major sport). The recent disclosures of payoffs and sweetheart deals should come as no surprise to any observer: if "flopping" and faking a foul are part of the game, then why should the governing body be any different? The game itself, kicking a ball into a goal, has its origins on three continents: cuju played in Ming dynasty China; phaininda, played in ancient Greece; and Ollamaliztli in Mayan Mesoamerica. Undoubtedly, its origins reach back even farther to the vanquishing foe performing the ultimate indignity: kicking the heads of the vanquished around the field of battle. There is a story about a British and a German soccer official talking about their different approaches to the sport: the Germans launch a vicious attack, only to be repelled by the British defense, which intercepts the crossing passes at the goal, and kicks the ball into midfield. After 90 minutes of this the scoreless tie is decided on penalty kicks, and the Germans eke out a victory. Over a pint at the pub, the German asks the Brit: aren't you upset that we beat you at your national sport? The Brit responds: "That's alright. We beat you twice at yours."
And yesterday was also Game 2 in the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup, the emblem of hockey supremacy with the Tampa Bay Lightning tying the series with the Chicago Blackhawks. Though Lord Stanley of Preston was the 19th century British governor general of Canada, so far as I may determine, the game itself has no origins in Great Britain. No wonder: those rebellious colonists have held the Cup since 1993, the last year a team hailing from the former British Empire (Montreal Canadiens) hoisted the trophy. Fortunately, 71 years ago, the three branches of what was once the fractious Empire put their differences aside to scale the heights above the Normandy beaches to restore freedom to a continent. May their sacrifice never be forgotten.
JE comments: Beautifully written, David! I just wish I had posted on the more historic anniversary (June 6th). I'll blame it on the time difference here in Colorado (!).
Congratulations to America Pharoah and Serena Williams. And a Bronx Cheer to the FIFA officials.