Spending two weeks in a foreign land covering an event like the Paralympics is a great way to get away from the real world. Breakfast chatter centers on logistics and problem solving regarding venues and transit, and only sometimes snippets of news leak into the conversation.
In yesterdays brief email check I read the NY Times post about North Korea’s alleged nuclear test. Sport truce or not, war is not going quietly into the night.
Just the day before I'd found myself at the crossroads of sport and war in a much more civil context.
Goalball, an indoor court game invented to rehabilitate WWII veterans who had lost their sight, was on the schedule for Thursday morning. The game uses a ball filled with bells that three members from each opposing team try and throw/roll across the court, past the other team’s three defenders, and into the court-wide (9m) net. The court lines include tape covered string so that players can orient themselves on the court. Defensive players position themselves sitting, legs extended, on the court, feeling their way around the the taped lines, while the offense takes turns "bowling" the ball towards the goal.
The game is fast paced, though a bit redundant. Defensive stops are successful on most shots, but the quick transition from defense to offense, and the power of the throws downcourt is impressive.
Players move position silently along the goal, using their hands on the padding to navigate their way across the court.
Not all players are completely blind, so they wear eye patches, and then a goggle-style eye cover to assure no one has any sight advantage.
Competitors play essentially by sound, so refs spend the better part of the game yelling for silence. The highlight of the day was the refs trying in vain to stop a Brazillian crowd wave during a Team Brazil upset over favored Team USA.
The earliest Olympic events evolved from combat skill competitions. Ancient Olympics sports included basic war skills tests like armored foot races called hoplitodromos, boxing, wresting, chariot racing (called apobates, it involved jumping off the moving chariot, keeping pace with the horses on foot, and then jumping back on the chariot), equestrian events, and Pankration, a fight that prohibited only biting and eye gouging, and ended with the loser submitting, unconscious or dead! (If NBC wants to up their Olympics ratings,this would do it.)
The more you look at each sport, you see the military connection; running, jumping, hurdling, and horsemanship were crucial for attack (and retreat), and throwing a hammer, javelin and discus and shooting arrows, and eventually guns, were military weapons or substitutes. The military might of Greece, and their love of sport fed into each other to help create the Olympic Games. Athletes needed to prove they were in training to participate and women were not allowed to attend, because, well, male athletes performed in the nude.
So the games have come full circle…Games of war training and games of rehabilitation after the horrors of war.