By Tom Taylor
Sometimes I’m not really sure why I invest so much of myself in soccer; it’s hard to say I really enjoy myself much when watching either my home club or national team. Yes, my heart races, but usually with a sense of impending doom rather than joy. Although the start of each season or major tournament inevitably seems to promise hope, the end almost always comes as a relief.
This year, though, is different. Not just because Euro 2012 kicks off in just over a month’s time, or even that London will get to host the Olympics and the rarest and most divisive of things, a united British soccer team. No, this year is different because, even before the current action has finished, the kickoff to the new season—when my home team, Reading FC, will begin its glorious return to the Premier League—seems such a desperately long way off.
Right now, life is sweet, and sports are fun. I feel no sense of rueful jealousy watching the Champions League semifinals. Just to see some English representation in the final, I might even cheer for Chelsea when it travels to Spain today, hoping to hold onto a narrow 1-0 advantage over fan-favorite Barcelona. Or maybe I’ll put my support behind Real Madrid tomorrow, somehow suspending the fact I absolutely despise Cristiano Ronaldo and pardoning manager Jose Mourinho for some unjustified remarks in the aftermath of Petr Cech’s nasty head injury at Reading back in 2006.
In the same vein, something that always impressed me about former Stanford great Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who signed with the WNBA’s LA Sparks just a week ago, was how much fun she always seemed to be having. On court, in practice and even in press conferences, she was consistently cheerful and enthusiastic. I guess it helps to be always winning, and having never personally seen the Cardinal lose on the Farm—the team currently holds a 79-game winning streak at Maples Pavilion—I’ve never had to face her after a defeat. But there are many incredibly successful athletes who don’t have such a sunny disposition.
Nneka is, without a doubt, living the dream. Not only is she going to earn a healthy sum of money in her career, but she also gets to be a professional sports star. I know many of you reading this would give everything to be able to say the same, but your aspirations simply started too late, you just weren’t good enough or your dreams were killed by injury. It’s natural to be a bit jealous, but the feelings would be far worse if she stormed around in a bad mood, failing to enjoy the life and talent given to her.
Sport is, at the end of the day, a form of entertainment. It should be fun, but all too often we take it too seriously, and we overcomplicate things tactically, financially and emotionally. None of that ever does us any good. My fellow writer Jack Mosbacher diagnosed the Cardinal baseball team’s woes last week as a result of nothing more than the team not enjoying itself. That is often a reinforcing cycle: no fun leads to bad results, which quickly pile on the pressure and make it even harder to bring the enjoyment back.
Losing sight of the fun is not just a failing of fans and players, either. Over the weekend, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) brought Formula 1 back to the deeply troubled kingdom of Bahrain. Instead of simple family entertainment, the sport allowed itself to be wielded as a political tool under the tagline of “UniF1ed: One Nation in Celebration!”
This little gulf state is anything but that. Since the start of the Arab Spring, it has seen continued unrest as the majority Shia population seek greater say in their country’s affairs from the ruling Sunni minority. Last year’s race was called off, but despite protests and the death of at least one person, this year’s event went ahead as planned. F1 organizers claimed that the decision was the right one and that it was only in Bahrain as a sporting entity, disconnected from any political machinations. Losing sight of reality and putting the importance of holding the race, and the money that it would bring in, above the rights and freedoms of the people of Bahrain.
Just as China wielded the Beijing Olympic Games as a political tool, to the detriment of many ordinary Chinese citizens who found themselves forcibly evicted to make way for various stadiums, Formula 1, at least momentarily, became synonymous with oppression.
If only we took everything a little less seriously. If only we sat back once in a while and took in the bigger picture, realizing that that there might be more important things than holding a car race or suffering a few bad defeats. If only we took a page out of Nneka’s book and remembered that we got into all of this because it was fun. And if only I could be sure I’d remember this thought if and when, next season, my current high becomes a fight-for-survival low.
We hope Nneka enjoys being mentioned in the same column as Bahrain for the first and last time in her career. Send Tom Taylor more unlikely pairings at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu