x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Sport used for the force of goodness after Norway massacre

Sport can unite and give relief in times of crisis. As Norway mourned, a group at the Tour de France showed their national pride in Paris.

The Norwegian riders Thor Hushovd, left, and Edvald Boasson Hagen observe a moment of silence, in remembrance of the victims of the double attack in their home country, prior to the start of the final stage of the Tour de France on Sunday.
The Norwegian riders Thor Hushovd, left, and Edvald Boasson Hagen observe a moment of silence, in remembrance of the victims of the double attack in their home country, prior to the start of the final stage of the Tour de France on Sunday.

There they stood at one of Earth's most magnificent street corners, waving their beautiful flags and chanting in an elaborate language few earthlings understand.

They numbered maybe 80, and they held down the enviable Parisian spot near the Louvre at a corner of the square Place des Pyramides, in which rides Francoise Colin's statue of Joan of Arc, who on Sunday had close-up company from a television cameraman hovering upon one of those arms extended from a lorry.

To their back buzzed the Tuleries gardens and the Ferris wheel. Across Rue de Rivoli and up above, lucky people emerged on to balconies free from the crowds. To their right down the street was the tunnel everybody kept eyeballing, waiting for Tour de France cyclists to emerge.

For hours already this fine cluster had stood, such that from across the way you might have wished some sunscreen upon them, especially that shirtless guy with the Viking helmet.

It can turn out surprising, what can linger in memory from a sporting event the way this ebullient band of Norwegians figures linger from the 2011 Tour de France. From something as sprawling as a Tour de France, people could remember any of a thousand things.

Casual fans will remember Cadel Evans living the reward for years of try, becoming the first Australian winner and reinforcing the notion that someday, inevitably, Australians will win every known competition. Diligent fans will remember that Mark Cavendish became the best of all the sprinters who ever tore through France, bringing a fine attention to the Isle of Man and giving commentators the chance to use the passage "the man from the Isle of Man".

French fans will remember how Thomas Voeckler outdid himself and grabbed the yellow jersey after Stage 9, holding it all the way through Stage 18. General observers might note - cautiously - the overall ebb of the doping spectre, while lauding the Tour de France as the event that has shown the most inner resolve to police itself and to risk image issues in that commendable process.

And if you happened to wander near Place des Pyramides last Sunday afternoon, you might feel sure that the gaggle of Norwegian fans on the corner will prove the most abiding memory of the fine chaos.

They revealed again how, for all the news we can read and watch and absorb, tragedies can seem distant until we can end up feeling them sharply through a more personal experience that often happens through sport.

It happens at Olympics, where athletes from embattled countries humanise the conditions in their homelands. It happened this summer when Japan's win in the women's football World Cup lent another layer of comprehension plus a gust of good feeling to the country nature ravaged last March. It happened in the United States after September 11, 2001, when Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium in New York became harbours of craved escape and thick emotion.

And as crowds stood five- and six-deep on the pavements of Paris awaiting cyclists, it happened again on Sunday when you could look across at one buoyant group and feel a hint of Norway's worst day since its occupation during the Second World War.

Here, 48 hours after the horror in Oslo and the island of Utoya, at a sporting event stood real-life, real-time people whose hearts had just gone to shards, yet who wound up providing a microcosm of the amazing, 150,000-strong rally that would grace Oslo come Monday.

They awaited the peloton. They awaited the Norwegian riders - Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen - who had thrived in the race by combining for three stage wins (two from Hagen) and one long hold of the yellow jersey (Hushovd, Stages 2 to 9). They cheered wryly for any vehicle of any type that rolled through the course.

And all through the wait, they smiled and laughed and exulted, even as two briefly held a banner - "TdF NOT IMPORTANT/YOU ARE, OSLO & UTOYA" - and even as they repeatedly chanted their country's name, sometimes in French: "Norvege! Norvege!"

Unquestionably they sounded festive. Certainly they sounded defiant. Mostly, though, they became the most memorable aspect of a colossal sporting event because they conveyed an unusual sense of durability. No vile crackpot could pierce their strength or alter their cores. Watching them and their humble, non-grating way supplied the thought that it must be a privilege to belong to their fold.


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