For the Love of the Game

Invictus Movie Poster
Movie Poster for Invictus with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

Happy New Year!

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the movies lately. I’ve seen a sports movie set in post-apartheid South Africa, a Hindi movie that made me laugh, a film about loneliness in the so-called friendly skies, and stepped into a fantastical 3D world that provided much food for thought. So, for the next two weeks I’m going to look at these movies and try to pinpoint what they say about winners, finding your passion and epic, fantastic narratives that are really masks for the colonial past.

I know floating out there is the common adage that “history is written by the winners.” Which is true, to some extent. Winners are the one’s who seemingly get to dictate the terms for the narrative, those who survive to describe the victorious battles and the defeat of their foes on their own terms. In effect provide their interpretation for the events that brought them success.

Winning also brings forth a certain amount of pride, and in the case of sports team, a sense of identity with those the team represents. Over the holiday I saw the movie Invictus, which narrates the presidency of Nelson Mandela through his work to bring the South African rugby team (the Springboks) to victory in the 1995 World Cup. While I think Mandela’s role and his relationship with the Springbok’s has been dramatized for the film, his years long relationship with Captian Francois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon in the film) has not. Mandela’s hope was that this team could heal a nation trying to move past the legacy of Apartheid, and to bring unity between black and white South Africans.

I was thinking about this later in the week when my sister and I attended my first ever NFL game at FedEx Field in Washington, DC. As had become the norm this year the home team—the Redskins, were defeated by the Dallas Cowboys. But amidst the maroon and gold I could see that this team, like many in the NFL stirs such strong emotions in those who have been long time fans. We all know how loud and proud fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees are—and that many stick by their teams in the good years and the bad—or more often than not, just during the good years. What is it about winning that makes the bond of local identity stronger? Does losing cause some erosion of faith in the city, making it a less enticing place to live and work?

Nelson Mandela and Springbok's captian Francois Pienaar in 1995
Nelson Mandela and Springbok's Captain Froncois Pienaar in 1995 after the Rugby World Cup.

In terms of looking to the past, if the movie is to be believed fully, Mandela saw the Springbok’s as an opportunity, a way to give both black and white in South Africa something to look forward to, a symbol that there was something both sides had in common. What does this say about the larger narrative—including things like the Olympics or other World Cup events where athletes are specifically chosen to represent their country at worldwide tournaments?  Are sports-as-unifiers merely temporary panacea’s to larger issues? Do they actually heal wounds, or just a temporary band-aid that keeps slipping open?

Below is the poem that Nelson Mandela held onto while he was being held in prison.

William Ernest Henley

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

3 thoughts on “For the Love of the Game

  1. I think that this is a really cool poem. Do you know if there are any good books I could read about this?

    Thats the thing I like about sports, it makes people from all walks of life come together for a single cause. I love it.

  2. You know, I’m actually trying to figure that out. I want to read a good biography of Mandela. The movie was based on a book called “Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation” by John Carlin

  3. Great article – I think that people do stick by their sports teams during bad times as well. Sometimes losing as well as winning can be a point of unity. In the case of South Africa, this was a way to bring a country together and the movie portrayed it as the first symbol that everyone could relate to and winning became critical because it was the only thing every citizen held onto…while every other aspect of their daily lives were very different.

    As a Redskins fan myself, I find that this is a conversation starter to many people I know (football fans and Redskins fans alike). So win or lose, we always have something to talk about.

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