SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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Lockdown Prescriptions – Moments of Reflection

By Dakshina Gammanpila

Over the past decade or more of writing a weekly column I have dwelled on the subject of sport and movement, and its ability to galvanize and inspire. We know that being active is essential to a healthy mind and body but the value of sport is beyond the physical or even the individual. With Covid, lockdown, removal of restrictions and the focus on social and emotional well being championing the importance of exercise seems of primary significance.

Engaging in any physical activity can reap untold benefits in the here and now and beyond. Exercise in Covid times has been a solitary past time for the world over, if we have been able to undertake any at all.  Many of us may have been part of a sports team at school. A friend of mine recently sent a photograph of us in our school team sports kit, standing to attention posed and smiling for what passed for an ‘official’ team photo. It seemed like a hundred years ago and I hardly recognized myself, except perhaps for the smile.

A great number of physical activities and indeed sports can be played or trained for alone. But we know that being part of a team, professional or amateur, can have significant benefits on and off the court and transcend the physical and health rewards or even social and emotional. It can foster integration into the world and how it works, striving for a greater common good or goal can unite.

My children are feeling the absence of sport in these Covid times.They have camaraderie in their chosen sports of swimming, basketball, football and volleyball.They have both held positions as team captains but it is being a team member that means more to them. Though their teams are highly  competitive, the support they bring to each other as teammates has been incredible to witness. And so what about the spectators do they too reap some advantage of watching not playing sport? 

Two major – to some monumental-  sporting tournaments were scheduled this Summer or should I say last Summer. The Olympics and the European Cup. Tokyo 2020 will soon be upon us and has already made history before it has even begun, for being the only Olympic Games out of war times to be postponed. There will be no spectators at the stadium in Japan and the only viewers will be those who will tune in on their chosen electronic device. 

The Euros too were historic not only because they were postponed for a year, or even for the Brits being in an international football final for the first time since 1966 when they won against Germany which was seen as a symbolic as well as actual victory. With the highest Covid death rate in Europe and the continuing machinations surrounding Brexit rumbling on, Britain has had a tough 18 months. The success of the Oxford Vaccine and the vaccination programme roll-out has meant a great deal to providing that light at the end of the tunnel that we all crave. A football victory, in the country that invented the game and where for some it is a stand in for religion, was more than a simple win, it was a sense of national pride if not for the UK, certainly for England. Even in defeat it proved to be so much more and it was the aftermath of the Match that has revealed lasting and one hopes positive repercussions.

The young England team under the leadership of their superlative Manager, former player Gareth Southgate has himself become a national treasure, not simply for his ability to steer the team but the motivation and example of contemporary leadership so profoundly lacking globally. To say his style and results are a breath of fresh air is an understatement and I wrote about him and the captain three years ago following the example set at the World Cup. The team are playing the long game and the results have taken that breath of air and filled our lungs seeing what fearless courageous leaders can do tackling the massive ideas of diversity and inclusivity in sport.

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about race and sport and how race was a massive issue that a sports person both male and female are treated differently according to the colour of their skin. Just look at the scrutiny of Serena Williams and the expectations put upon her for her performance and pressure to conform. The fact that if a sportsperson of colour does well he or she is considered a son or daughter of their country, taken to the nation’s heart as a hero. Yet when they don’t win they are castigated beyond measure. 

The Black Lives Matters movement last Summer awakened something that many of us who are brown, black, East Asian and every variation in between have always known, and certainly always made to feel. That there are different rules, written and unwritten depending on whether you are white or not. Solidarity and acknowledgement are key not in performance activism which is more about making the individual feel better about being part of a movement rather than a catalyst for real change focusing on the inequalities meted out to many. The England team and numerous others around the world have taken a knee prior to a match. It makes a point and recognizes the inequality that team mates of colour face on and off the pitch. 

In the final the brutal penalty shootout, three of the five were young black men; Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. They are exceptionally talented footballers who happened to miss on the night. The vitriol that was leveled at them following the defeat was disgusting but it was what happened following the bile that illustrated that there are those that not only feel the opposite that these young black men are supported by their managers, coaches and sportsmen but way beyond sport by those who are committed fans and those who watch football once every four years.

One nine year old wrote that he found Rashford an inspiration and wanted to be like him. Out of the mouths of babes so the saying goes…

Following the World Cup in 2018 I penned a column about the new style of leadership from Gareth Southgate and the young England captain Harry Kane that sought to build togetherness and was so much more than football or sport. That style has matured and revealed itself at a moment in time where we need it most. These are role models for the future and, I have to say, current generations to listen to and emulate. Tired of the posturing and bluster, a measured voice and calm decisive action for all (not simply the few) is required, and was demonstrated.

The team talk given by Southgate apparently roused the country. The fact that the England manager wrote an open letter of 1700 words which was spot on in terms of the sociopolitical radar is astounding. He referred to his grandfather a war hero courageously helping others, as an inspiration and suggested that it was the duty of players (and therefore managers) to engage in social injustices such as race and improve equality and inclusivity, He held a mirror up to the ideas of introspection and progress in a valiant effort to enshrine much needed unity in a clearly divided world.

Role models in the team including Marcus Rashford might have missed a penalty in the final of the tournament but not only highlighted the plight of underfed British children but did something tangible, far reaching and long lasting to tackle the concern and hold the government to account. 

Covid has shown us what matters be it black lives, intolerance of misogyny or inequality and that it is not enough to pontificate. Punditry has its place but we have to reflect and act to effect change in a wounded world.

As a prescription to actively support not merely comment. We need more Rashfords and Southgates in our lives and less, well the list is endless and you can fill in your own blanks. It would appear that the greatest victory England football has scored, is off the pitch and far greater. Let’s hope that Tokyo 2020 provides more examples of the positive future for humanity in the coming weeks and that the Olympic torch, despite Covid, shines brightly.

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