x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Running scared as sport once again in firing line

Boston Marathon added to morbid list of attacks where competitiors have been used as legitimate targets.

Bill Iffrig, 78, lies on the ground as police officers react to a second explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Monday, April 15, 2013. John Tlumacki / AP Photo
Bill Iffrig, 78, lies on the ground as police officers react to a second explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Monday, April 15, 2013. John Tlumacki / AP Photo

Why do we run? We do it to stay fit. We do it because it is not walking. We do it professionally.

We do it to escape. We do it to focus. We do it because we started once and we cannot stop.

We do it because we like challenging ourselves. We do it because running is a celebration of a certain kind of liberty, the freedom of our own physicality.

Above all else, we do it because it is another way of saying we are alive; we do it, in other words, simply because we can, because we are human.

Which is why, whatever turns out to be the nature of the bombs that killed three people and injured dozens more at the Boston Marathon, it is difficult not to see some basic profundity in humans being killed while running, whatever the actual intentions of the perpetrators may have been.

Video: Witnesses describe twin bombings in Boston Marathon.

Every successful attack on human life boils down to this equation of course, but within the context of sporting attacks, this feels somehow more acute. Because the marathon is not some elite, highly isolated, professional sport. It is not just a competition between two extraordinary skilled humans, or two sets of humans, who have trained most of their lives especially for this and who are paid extraordinary amounts to be the way they are.

In a way, the marathon is not even a sport as much as it is a social network, a real, physical social network before those networks became a keyboard and a computer screen.

They are professional sport at the highest levels, of course, but marathons essentially are rare occasions where amateur and professional sportsmen still meet.

For the vast majority of runners, and especially those in the major six races in London, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Boston, a marathon is not sport in the sense that we know sport; in them it is easy to still see traces of the reason why marathons exist in the first place a tribute to the man who ran that distance to convey news of a victory in ancient battle.

So Boston is added to those hurriedly compiled, morbid lists - perhaps compiling lists makes it easier to absorb the madness? - of attacks on sports. Nothing links the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics to the bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, to the attack on the Togo football team at the African Cup of Nations in 2010, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2009, or indeed the bomb at a marathon outside Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2008, which killed a government minister and at least 13 others.

Each of these has their own, extensive and unique backstories, stretching far beyond sport. Bunching them together does not make any of them any easier to digest. But it does reaffirm in the most horrific, terrible and perverse way the place of sport within the human experience.

Years ago, The New Yorker editor David Remnick once recalled, he was discussing an upcoming Olympics with Tina Brown, his predecessor at the magazine.

"We were talking about assignments and Tina said, 'Oh, God, sports - running, jumping … who ... cares?'"

How redundant a reaction does that sound now, not too many years later? That is to say that sport has become as ordinary and ingrained a human experience as going to work in a skyscraper, or getting on a commuter train; humans congregate, in teract and exist in, around and with sport. Just as we work, we talk, we breathe, we also sport; the question of caring about them hardly matters.

The attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore were sadly illustrative of this.

For months preceding it, as the security situation generally deteriorated within the country and teams chose not to tour Pakistan to play cricket, some argued that militants would never target cricket or cricketers.

This seemed to make sense at the time, but how could it? It was delusional, for it assumed that cricket was somehow not a part of the normal fabric of life in the country, that it was played in some vacuum. That militants did target the sport was deafening proof of cricket's force within the country. In hindsight, it seems obvious.

Everywhere is the frontline for any war, everything is a legitimate target, and if that is perhaps an obvious conclusion, it makes it no less chilling when it happens.

That it is the Boston Marathon that was targeted is doubly distressing because it is the oldest annual marathon in the world, begun in 1897, one year after the first modern-day Olympics began. It was contested until 1986 in something approaching the untouched spirit in which the marathon began: no cash prizes were on offer to winners until that year.

In pictures: Explosions rip apart Boston Marathon.

It is probably the most prestigious of the American marathons and almost certainly the most storied.

It was here, for example, where Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran among the greatest marathons ever seen, the legendary "Duel in the Sun" of 1982.

The two ran nearly shoulder to shoulder through the entire course and all alone, ahead of the pack, for the last nine miles. It was an unusually hot Patriots Day that year; Salazar, one of the leading distance runners of the time and the heavy favourite, eventually finished just two seconds ahead of Beardsley. It was one of the closest finishes ever, and at 2 hours, 8 minutes, 52 seconds, the fastest time till then.

As much as the race itself, it is the way both Salazar and Beardsley unraveled in the years thereafter that was the real story. Salazar's drive pushed him into depression, while a farm accident nearly killed Beardsely and left him addicted to prescription drugs.

Both eventually recovered but there was no real winner of that duel. And dark as those two tragedies of the Boston Marathon were, they were noble ones, caused in greater part by the journey of human beings pushed to the absolute limits of their physical and mental capacity.

They still made sense, unlike the ignoble tragedies of Monday, about which nothing threatens to make any sense.

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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