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Sports and Kabul, Afghanistan

I’ve lived long enough to remember when sports used to be about – well, pretty much sports. I remember when they used to play consolation games and give out sportsmanship awards (for you younger readers it was something like Miss Congeniality – the beauty pagent award, not the movie). Anyway, those days are long gone. Sports are now a big business. The coach is a CEO. His job is to win enough games so that those who need to prop up their lives by appropriating the successes of others are kept happy.

To lament that sports have gotten out of hand in our society is an analysis though that is probably too simplistic. Whether we like it or not, sports represent a burgeoning wing of the entertainment sector of our economy. It provides people with jobs, families with food and oh yes, the masses with a diversion from the mundaneness of life.

It’s probably asking too much to wish we could somehow turn the clock back to a simpler time, but it is still worth wondering if we cannot somehow temper our modern addiction. I have to believe that we as a society share in at least some of the blame for letting something as trivial as sports become so important to us. (I say this not as someone who has no interest in sports. Quite the contrary, I’m as interested as the next person and those who know me would probably say I’m much more interested than the next person). We live and die with team’s wins or losses, we praise or criticize according to the game’s outcome, we hire or fire based solely on the ability to generate victories. Too many of us let too much of our lives be controlled by whether a nineteen year old can put a ball through a hoop or carry it over a goal line. Perhaps it’s time for a little perspective . . .

A few years ago, Scott Simon reported on Weekend Edition about a soccer game he had attended in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was the first game played since the Taliban had been deposed from power. Though sports were forbidden during their rule, the townspeople had been in the stadium on a regular basis.

It seems that every Friday afternoon, the people were rounded up and marched to the stadium to witness the public executions of those the regime regarded as criminals. Some were put to death with their bodies flayed open and then hung from the goalposts as if they were animals. Others had hands and feet chopped off and were left to bleed to death. This stadium in Kabul became a modern day Coliseum, only there were no bloodthirsty fans cheering on the atrocities.

The Afghan team that took the field that day, though undermanned and inexperienced, still managed to score the first field goal of the game. Thirty thousand people stood and cheered as one. The crowd that had remained muted through the murders found both their voice and a reason to cheer. It mattered little that the British team ended up winning the game. What mattered was that they were now free to come to the stadium, not to witness state sponsored executions, but to celebrate their freedom through sport.

The British players seemed to understand this. After exchanging jerseys with the Afghan players, the Brits placed a medal around their necks inscribed with the date of the game, stepped back smartly and saluted their opponents. It seems to me that everyone in that stadium, had sports in perspective. It wasn’t life and death – they knew that all too well from their previous visits to the stadium. This was something else. This was a celebration of life.

If they’re smart, they’ll leave it at that.

If we're smart, we will too.
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