I was young when I first fell in love. I was raised on tennis the way a lot of kids are raised on football and baseball. I was raised on Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Patrick Rafter, and of course Steffi Graf.
But Love? That was how I felt about Andre Agassi. It wasn’t a romantic love, but a fan’s love. Whenever he would play I would sit on the edge of my seat knowing that he would pull it out of a fifth set. And when he said goodbye in 2006 I cried.
My knowledge of his personal life was limited to broad strokes — he was married to Brooke Shields, then Steffi Graf. I knew he was Armenian-American. And I remember talking to my dad about how when Agassi was happy in his personal life his game seemed to suffer.
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?
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.