• Sporting diplomacy



    I HAVE been neither a sports enthusiast nor a fan of exercise. This stem mainly from the facts that since a very young age, I was troubled by a form of skin allergy which rendered the jointed parts of my body feeling rather itchy when I sweat, especially when profusely. During physical education classes in school, I would have doctor’s orders to stay away from strenuous activities, often just hanging around in the school cafeteria, mainly reading and only very occasionally throwing a glance at classmates exercising in the school yard.

    I generally adopted a similar casually interested attitude toward celebrity sports in general. When there were the phantasmargoric opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics (summer or winter), the Asian Games, the World Cup, SEA Games and so on, I would oblige my sport enthusiast friends and watch with them on television, mainly taking in the usually spectacular cultural performances during these obligatory rituals more than anything else, to be honest. When there are final matches which are supposed to pitch world champions against each other, such as the World Cup soccer final, I would perhaps watch them, always with friends as a form of social “oblaigation” but never alone. I am sure if the Philippines’ famous world champion boxer, Manny Pacquiao, is engaged in a match, I would have watched it, but alas I have not had the opportunity to do so as my home cable subscription is heavy on news and documentary channels and does not include premium sports channels, where such conspicuous matches are telecast.

    As you can imagine, I have even fewer opportunities to watch live sports events from a close distance. Recently I was in Melbourne, Australia, but I missed the Melbourne Open tennis matches by a week, and friends there told me it was the highlight of the annual sporting calendar there. The last significant international sporting event I can remember “watching” close by took place about 20 years ago, but, as you will soon learn, even that was not quite accurate.

    In 1998, I was working for the United Nations office in Geneva, and I went to Montreal, Canada, to attend a meeting hosted by the International Civil Aviation Organization –the UN specialized agency regulating air transport – which is headquartered there. A new friend who also participated in the meeting was a technician working for the neighboring International Air Transport Association, which was the industry counterpart to ICAO. A Montreal native, he told me that the famous Formula One car race was taking place in Montreal, and asked if I would like to go to the car race with him, as he could get us some tickets, although those were definitively not the sold-out premium tickets, since Montreal’s proud native son, Jacques Villeneuve, was racing. I obliged and so we went to the vicinity of the race track where we were admitted. I thought this sort of “normal” tickets would mean that we did not get the hot seats, but would be seated far away from the tracks without the prime views.

    I imagine my surprise when I learned that not only were there no assigned seats for us, there were actually no seats at all for us! Those tickets we had were “standing” ones, and not only that, the whole track area was actually enclosed by densely iron-meshed fences (which significantly obstructed our view of the track area), behind which we were supposed to rummage around, looking for larger gaps between stretches of such fences to have somewhat clearer peeps into the race tracks. This is reminiscent of some portions of the United States-Mexican border, where similarly meshed fences separate the two countries, with relatives from both sides trying desperately to get better glimpses of their loves one through the “merciless” iron mesh.

    So, in effect we could not really “watch” the sports cars racing against each other in the tracks. We could at best make out the silhouettes of passing race cars, and hear their loud vrooms when they were approaching. Later, I was told by my friend that indeed for “true” race car enthusiasts, the main thing was as much about watching the race cars accelerating to pass one another as listening to their engine booms when the driver switched gears to turn corners. Well, at least I can tell myself I did not miss a lot, standing in the cold and light drizzles listening to race car engine noise. And Villeneuve, then only in his mid-twenties, won the race. The whole of Montreal was ecstatic that evening.

    A similar sort of ecstasy can perhaps be detected in the recently concluded Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Its often threatening rival, North Korea, decided to soften its tone immediately before and during the Games, and South Korea reciprocated eagerly. The North sent not only its athletes and a cheerleading team, but was represented by its top leader’s sister at the opening, which also saw a “united” Korean team marching into the stadium bearing a Korean Peninsula flag. Even joint teams were featured in some Games. The world was mesmerized by this change in inter-Korea diplomatic dynamics.

    If the past can be any guide, such interludes in the North’s attitude typically would not last long before reverting back to its erstwhile threatening posture. We can only hope such “rapprochement” could persist in at least the near future, for the tense situation in and around the Korean Peninsula as a result of the North’s relentless nuclear and missile tests has become increasingly unbearable and untenable. The world and the region need and desire peace, and hopefully it can be slightly more long-lasting.


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