The Spirit Endures

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 /by
Photograph by Anita Aguilar
Photograph by Anita Aguilar

On Sunday afternoon at the Masters, we saw the best of what sports can offer. The winner, Adam Scott, was a sentimental favorite who put the failures of the past behind him. The man he beat in a playoff, Angel Cabrera, showed uncommon grace in defeat. The two together gave us a shotmaking display that had people around the world on the edge of—and sometimes out of—our seats.

Less than 24 hours later, all of it was forgotten, gone, replaced in the public consciousness by the bombs that exploded at the end of another sporting event, the Boston Marathon. This wasn’t the worst that sports can offer; what happened obviously went far beyond who won and who lost in a friendly competition. But in the hours afterward, I heard more than one person say they were surprised that this type of thing doesn't occur at big sports gatherings more often.

A marathon, specifically, makes for a softer target than an event, athletic or otherwise, that’s held in an arena. Twenty-six miles of urban streets and sidewalks can’t be secured without putting an entire city in lockdown. Anyone can get to within a few feet of the runners, sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve accidentally collided with the New York marathon in Manhattan a few times over the years. More than that, though, if your aim is to destroy—lives, happiness, a sense of security—sports offers the opportunity. Its game and matches are, despite all of their well-documented problems, places where we come together, rare events that everyone can share, symbols of civilization at its best and most open. A marathon is even more: With its conscious link to antiquity, it’s a symbol of how civilization has, like the runners who run it, endured over time.

Yesterday, a few sportswriters said that the finish lines at marathons are some of the happiest places they've been. There the winners cross in triumph, and thousands more stagger in behind them with a similar sense of accomplishment, to be greeted by friends and family (the photo above is from the 2011 New York City marathon). For a few hours the amateurs get to do the same thing, and feel the same way, as the pros. If they make it to the finish line, they’ve probably pushed themselves farther than they thought they could go. That’s a feeling normally reserved for the chosen few, the superheroes we watch on TV. In a marathon, that sense of satisfaction is available to thousands. It’s that feeling that was being celebrated by the runners and spectators who were killed and cruelly injured on Monday. Whoever did it, wherever they came from, did it to crush joy and effort and community, to mock those things at a spot where the cameras were sure to be watching. Joy and effort and community: You find more of each in sports than you do anywhere else.

When the bombs went off in Boston, I was in the middle of writing a post about the Masters, from a tennis-person’s perspective. I was writing about what it’s like to get to be the “casual fan” for once, the spectator who tunes in just four times a year, for the majors. I was writing about the weekend’s controversies: armchair umpires; a 14-year-old’s slow play; a belly putter. All of that, as I said, feels like a long time ago, and of little consequence, after Boston.

What I can’t forget and don’t want to forget is the end. I don’t want to forget Adam Scott surprising even himself with his play down the homestretch. I don’t want to forget his opponent, Angel Cabrera. I want to remember the thumb’s up he gave Scott from under his umbrella after a great shot by the Aussie on the final hole. I want to remember the hug he gave the man who had just beaten him a few minutes later. The Masters is as exclusive as a marathon is populist, but on Sunday it had things to teach all of us about class and perspective in defeat. 

Even more, I want to remember the look on Cabrera’s face, from half an hour earlier, as he strode up to the 18th green on the tournament’s 72nd hole—golf’s version of the finish line. His arms and body were swinging with anticipation as he looked to see how close his brilliant approach shot was to the cup. He was so pleased, he laughed. Effort and joy, and a community of people watching all over the world. The spirit of sports endures.

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