In a weekly column, Daily Maverick takes a look at some of the left-of-centre happenings in South Africa and elsewhere. This week: the world’s strangest sporting achievements.
There’s been a weird intersection of news and fitness for me this week, and not only because riot policing seems to have become the new national sport.
I was minding my own business, feeling modestly pleased with a new personal best, when my more sarcastic half sent me an article about a power-lifting granny.
The aptly-named Edith Traina – who started lifting weights at 91 – can out-lift many of the young male gym-rats I know. She is the champion in her age group, which I suppose is unsurprising, because there can’t be many nonagenarians perfecting their deadlifts of an evening. At 94, she’d participated in over a dozen competitions and told Fox News she hoped to be able to lift 200lb (90kg) by her 100th birthday. Although a rarity, Traina isn’t alone in her age class. In 2013, 91-year-old Sy Perlis from Surprise, Arizona broke a World Association of Benchers and Weightlifters Association by lifting 187lb (84kg).
Looking at the achievements of elderly athletes – which you can explore in detail in the documentary Age of Champions – cheers me up not only because it feeds the delusion that I still have another 50-odd years to magically develop some kind of athletic ability (perhaps take up an obscure sport in my 80s: trampolining? dressage? table tennis? sausage throwing? wife-carrying?*). It also makes me believe, as sport does for many of us, that honest effort is rewarded. We’ll forget about those doping scandals for a minute. Sport tugs at our heartstrings because it gives us faith, in the part of ourselves that believes in fairy tales, that there are still places where people play by the rules, where team efforts matter, and where if you practise hard enough, you do get lucky. The strong, the brave and the virtuous move mountains. (Don’t scoff at the fairy tales, by the way: Brazilian forward William Pottker actually waved a wand at the crowd in December.)
When one of our former heroes is cut down too early, frail and broken, barely able to speak; when nearly 100 of the country’s most vulnerable are starved, dehydrated or neglected to death, it can seem a bitter pill to swallow when others – we mention no names here – appear to remain invincible, their power virtually untouched. In some cases, not even by the passing of years. The wholesomeness of sport can help the medicine go down.
But I sometimes wonder about this difference between sport and politics: why we look at our sporting heroes as leaders of sorts, sometimes even ethical examples, but accept a peculiarly high level of unsportsmanlike behaviour from our actual leaders, i.e. politicians. When our sportspeople don’t perform we dish out evaluations swiftly and sharply, even if sometimes – as in the case of injured tight end Rob Gronkowski – it’s not 100% clear whether the feedback is from friend or foe. (In his case, he was pelted with beer cans, which he reportedly caught and drank.) Why, I wonder, does an indisputably terrible number on the scoreboard – say, 441 – not result in a political player being escorted from the field?
As it happens, much of my edification happens on treadmills and trails, depending on the time or the weather. If it’s outdoors, it’s podcasts or the radio. If it’s indoors, it’s the news. The State of the Nation Address is no exception. Every year I faithfully head to the gym, where I have the luxury of plugging into multiple channels at once, to take in the difference in coverage. This time I and an incredulous cleaner shared a headset and gaped at the chaos while the other, seemingly oblivious, staff, runners and cyclists simulated the Tour de France or San Fransisco hiking trails around us. We couldn’t quite believe it.
“You know where the EFF is going wrong?” my partner intoned, wandering up. “Those guys need to hit the gym themselves. Maybe take up self-defence of some sort. You can’t deal with this kind of crisis with hats on one side and cable ties on the other.”
It got me thinking. I wouldn’t endorse any more fist-fighting: I’m sure most of the country feels shocked and traumatised by the night’s events. But perhaps Parliament could do with a little more sportsmanship. The Speaker – supposed to be an umpire of sorts – has appeared out of her depth for some time now. The teams are running riot. There’s fury on the field because the star player is breaking rules with impunity but still keeps scoring goals. There’s bugger-all sustenance left on many of the food stands. You can’t blame the fans for getting upset.
It seems we’ve paid our last respects to a great sportsman and in the same week we’ve said goodbye to the very last strands of sanity in the hallowed halls of Parliament. If there is some relationship between sport and politics, what we’re getting now is closer to gravy wrestling than the proverbial cricket. But does it have to be that way? Surely not. Don’t hate the player, it’s said – hate the game. But it’s hard to do that when you know who’s rewriting all the rules. DM
* This sport in fact exists. Don’t tell the President. He has enough unfair advantages.
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.