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The true value of sport

Tuesday March 26, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

Sport is about more than fitness, than statistics, than victory, even.

It’s about all those things, of course, but it’s also about things that transcend sport, things that spill out of the field, the court, and the ocean, and into a community.

Take the Hong Kong Sevens. Most people know someone who flew over 10,000km to watch the Cook Islands team face Russia in the pre-qualifiers.

That journey was a manifestation of their Cook Islands pride, their solidarity as fans, and their love of rugby. Probably thousands more Cook Islanders living at home and in New Zealand would have been shouting at the TV during that match, and would have internalised the 43-5 loss. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I’d argue that in the same way victory unites people, so does defeat.

Changing gears for a minute here, my 16-year-old brother’s basketball team played and won a championship game at the weekend.

The story of the win begins last year, and traces a remarkable journey that testifies to the power of teamwork and the value of good coaching.

There was immense talent on this team, but as recently as last season these guys just weren’t winning games. It wasn’t coming together for them. They had 10 wins and 17 demoralising losses.

This season, a new coach took the helm and managed, within the span of just six months, to effect a total transformation.

He forced his players to bond outside of training, to talk to each other about what was going on at home, to treat each other not just as teammates but as people. He made them run on the beach together and do their coursework together. He made them go golfing on a weekend and organised overnight retreats for them at the school.

The coach purposefully pitted them against higher-ranked teams, and when they realised they could stand up to powerhouse opponents, the players’ confidence grew.

As their coach had planned, the players started to work as a unit and the wins started to accumulate.

This past weekend, the boys took the California state title, capping a 21-game winning streak. It was a nice and warm and fuzzy victory, but what was most fascinating to me was the barrage of community support it unleashed.

Oe vaka aside, I haven’t played a team sport since I was my brother’s age, and I’d forgotten how galvanising sport can be.

The game was an eight-hour bus ride away, but hundreds of fans willingly made the journey. Thousands more watched it from home or with friends at local sports bars. The win was, as they say, the talk of the town.

Tomorrow, the local government is closing the road for a parade celebrating the basketball team’s victory.

All this fanfare for a high school – the American equivalent of college – sports team. And while these young kids certainly deserve all the accolades, the community response isn’t just about them, nor is it about the sport of basketball.

Sport is about winning, yes, but more importantly it’s about bringing people together to laugh, cry, holler, and shout in unison.

The game meant something different to everyone who watched it.

Some were athletes, who could relate to the sweat and tears that went into the team’s intensive training. Some were parents, whose hearts swelled with delight.

Some had graduated from the school these boys represented, and some were residents of their town. For those people, the game was a reason to be proud of where they came from.

“Sports can unite a group of people from different backgrounds, all working together to achieve a common goal,” American footballer Ahman Rashad has been quoted as saying. “And even if they fall short, sharing that journey is an experience they’ll never forget. It can teach some of the most fundamental and important human values: dedication, perseverance, hard work, and teamwork.

“It also teaches us how to handle our success and cope with our failure. So, perhaps the greatest glory of sport is that it teaches us so much about life itself.”

In sport, as in life, there are wins and losses. What matters is that we recognise what each can teach us.

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