The last few months have been pretty ugly for professional sports. Lance Armstrong’s luster might have been permanently dimmed by former friend and teammate Tyler Hamilton’s allegations that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs during his Tour de France runs. (The specter of Roger Clements awaiting the decision about anew trial for lying to Congress about his own such use must bring Armstrong morethan a few queasy moments.)
Practically the instant the Stanley Cup was placed in the oversized grasp of Boston Bruins’s captain Zdeno Chara, the city of Vancouver erupted into mayhem. It seems like almost every year, owners and players, from the NFL to the NBA, squabble predictably over what by nearly anyone’s standard are obscene amounts of money.
A friend in Argentina reported recently that one of Buenos Aires’s premier soccer teams, River Plate, slipped from the top into a lower division for the first time in its history, sparking the now almost inevitable sore-loser riots. The list of mendacities goes on and on.
These days, the games of summer (and the rest of the year) seem cheapened by greed, arrogance, corruption and a victory-at-all-costs mentality. That’s why the US Women’s Soccer team and their historic run to the World Cup final against sentimental favorite Japan has been such an unexpected joy. Both teams beat the odds to arrive at the finals. Both teams showed heart and grit as they beat more heavily favored opponents. And the experience of watching them arrive at the end game was vastly enriched by the feeling so many of us had that in this contest there would be no losers.
Both the US and Japan teams have struggled to demonstrate that women’s pro sports can be every bit as riveting as those of their male counterparts. The Japanese team has had to contend with a male-dominated cultural tradition that values docility and obedience in its women, qualities that don’t translate particularly well onto the playing field.
Nevertheless,the women’s team is fondly called Nadeshiko, a term for the emblematic ruffled pink carnation, but also one that was used during World War II to describe the ideal woman: faithful and enduring.
The US women beat Brazil in the quarter finals in what many are calling one of the greatest games, not just in the world of futbol, but in the entire sports universe. However,they face an additional challenge in that professional soccer, in the United States, is — to put it mildly — under-appreciated. This particular World Cup final might just prove that pro soccer is here to stay — and it took the ladies to do it.
Sports can be ugly. Sports can glorify violence and egotism, both on and off the playing field. Sports can bring out the worst in people. But sports can also bring people together. Sports can bridge differences, promote diversity and teamwork, highlight the value of perseverance and resilience, trump prejudice and heal wounded spirits, both of people and nations. Throughout Japan’s disaster zone, banners fly, often bearing a single word: ganbare.
Difficult to translate precisely, it generally means to persevere, to not give up. Both teams exemplified that quality, each in its own unique way. Of course it’s heartbreaking when a resurgent team like the US women loses such a close contest and one can only wish them more opportunities to be on center stage.
But I don’t think anyone with a heart could deny the significance to Japan of their women’s victory. Both teams were victorious in every way that really counts. And that’s pretty darned good.
Photo credit: Herald Post via flickr