The Virtue of Sport

This is my 12th year flirting with city life. I was wholly a country kid the first 13 years of my life. And every time I think back to that time, it strikes me just how happy I was—how happy everyone was. Everybody played sport.

If you weren’t a footballer (you couldn’t call it soccer and get away with it back then), you had to be a volleyball player, or a netball player, or an athlete. Heck, you could even juggle them sports! It didn’t really matter what anyone played. If anything, we all played more than we sat down to study!

See, back then, happiness wasn’t something we chose; rather, it was a big part of who we were. All we ever needed was playtime, and voila, happiness guaranteed! Football was popular with just about everyone. But then again, it’s always been. I guess it’s called ‘the beautiful game’ for a reason. And everyone loves to be associated with beautiful. Not even having two left legs could stand in the way of a happy little boy’s dalliance with football. In retrospect, the criticism directed at those that just couldn’t turn it on at play might seem crushing. But in all fairness, we kids often shrugged it off as soon as our minds drifted to the next little thing. Escapism. It’s one of the truly extraterrestrial wonders of sport—its ability to make anyone and everyone forget, even if just for a moment, whatever would otherwise threaten to eat away at their soul, or to at least make it possible for them to shelve such stuff far in the deepest recesses of their minds.

I didn’t choose football. Football chose me. Like it chose many others. It embraced us, and we hugged tight—so tight we never let go. And it taught us the virtues of responsibility, creativity and enterprise, making it possible for us to kill so many birds with only one stone, all at once. Because when we needed a ball, we made one. Or two. We had our go-to ‘ball-assemblers’ (at the time, a ball was simply a mish-mash of polythene bags beaten into shape by the skillful hands of a thread worker). Sometimes a piece or two of mattress would go into the assemblage of the yolk of the ball, especially when we needed to economize on polythene. None of us ever really cared that our mattresses suffered for it. We were such a creative lot, weren’t we? I’m just so grateful they hadn’t yet contemplated banning plastic at the time.

Now, the art of ball-making was all about division of labor. If you couldn’t weave a ball, you had to at least be good at kicking it. Woe unto you if you had two left legs! Because that essentially meant embracing the vulture tag, only it wasn’t meat leftovers but polythene bags and pieces of mattress you had to scavenge! No one really cared if kicking a ball wasn’t your kind of thing, or if it wasn’t your fault that you couldn’t kick it good. It wasn’t really anyone’s business contemplating the possibility that two left legs might actually be creation’s doing. After all, we were all God’s children. And all of His creation was supposed to be perfect, right? Our teachers and parents always reminded us of that, and so we believed. So you either learned to kick a ball, or you sucked it up and collected polythene! I guess it wouldn’t be responsibility if it didn’t come at a price, would it?

I was a pretty good kicker of the ball. And a go-to ball-assembler too. Our kind were a special and privileged lot. Because while others learned, we were busy perfecting our skills. We kept at the art of ball-making until we could yarn enough thread around the polythene to render it invisible to the naked eye. That was the mark of genius. You were a guru if you could weave a ball like that. I was a guru, or at least so said many out loud. Except gurus never had it easy. To begin with, such a status meant way too many ball-making assignments. But if you were smart (and I was smart), you charged a small fee (read sugarcane, or buttered bread, or even a pencil capped with an eraser)! We were all so comfy keeping it barter! So much for the spirit of enterprise!

But then there was an even bigger problem. No, two in fact—our parents and our teachers. Their approach to defining a meaningful path for our lives was centered on this impregnable notion they both cherished—that of the honorable link between good grades and success. It was so powerful a belief it often stifled all else. They both treated sport a lot like drugs. To put it in perspective, that’s the same derision contact with a member of the opposite sex was treated with! It was such a big deal. Yes, most of us were a little addicted to play. But in all fairness, it was a completely different form of addiction. A typical Kenyan parent or teacher considers sport to be an unnecessary distraction at best, and a total waste of time at worst. My teachers never missed a moment to make it clear to my parents just how detrimental my love of sport would prove in the fullness of time. “The boy needs restraint,” they would always quip, “else his grades are going to tank faster than many in his class can list all the prime numbers between 1 and 9!”

It’s amazing just how livid most of them thought they had to be in order to drive home their sentiments. I remember one who went as far as telling my parents how we would sneak out of class to play outside, and how I would always insist on hiding the ball under my shirt, against my stomach. Looking back now, I like to think it must have always provoked flares of pregnancy in our teachers’ minds seeing our makeshift footballs affectionately glued to our bellies like that. Perhaps that’s how the Sheng pidgin got to become a word richer adopting the term ‘ball’ to mean pregnancy! But what did we care? We were so young and innocent. All we ever wanted was play! And we knew our precious footballs were the safest under our shirts, lovingly propped up against our bellies! Except those were dangerous words to be used about you by your teacher in the presence of your parents. You just didn’t want your teacher telling on you like that! It was the age of corporal punishment, remember! Besides, to a parent, the teacher’s word was law. And they were the prosecutor, jury and judge!  And parents wanted only the best [punishment] for their children! In that way, I can say sport taught us resilience.

I joined high school at thirteen. As you would appreciate, it was an inherently difficult transition, and the fact that I was so young only served to make things worse. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t just a primary-to-high school transition. Rather, it was a transition of sorts—from day school to boarding school, from the country to the city, from accreditation to anonymity, and from adulation to molestation (read severe bullying). Simply put, it was a turning point in my life. And football was the salve that made the transition manageable—the engine that kept me going. In a bizarre twist of fate, the bullies pushed everyone into playing some kind of sport or the other. It was perhaps the only ace I could keep from the otherwise largely unscrupulous practice. Fine by me. I played as much football as I could, enough to squeeze myself into the school team. And I loved it. I learned swimming, practiced table tennis (which, by the time I was leaving high school, I was very good at), and took a shot at basketball. I even tried out rugby—by far the most popular sport in our school, and one that I have since fallen in love with. You don’t have to know how to play rugby to love the Sevens, do you? I made sure to carry my love of sport into campus, where I focused on football and swimming—soccer as a sport and swimming for the fun of it. Both helped me navigate the treacherous foray that’s campus life. To this day, I still play football. Till age do us part, I might add!

And so sport has taught, and continues to teach me so much as a person. You know, every time people ask me how big sport ought to be in a person’s life, I say without a tinge of hesitation: “Big enough to change you for the better!” Because sport can really change your life!

We all agree sport is one big equalizer of humanity. It’s on the field that we get to obfuscate our differences—whether real or imagined—and instead embrace our shared destiny as humans. The sports arena knows no race, status, class, religion, gender or creed. At the playground, we often realize we’re inherently one. It’s no wonder then that human societies have, throughout history, used sport to not only help forge a sense of peace and unity, but also quell conflict and war. In the case of Apartheid, sport was used to isolate South Africa and bring about a major overhaul in the country’s social structure.

Sport has this amazing ability to create lasting bonds between and among people. Nothing comes close. Very few spaces allow us as human beings to come in as strangers and leave as friends, often for eternity. All without breaking a sweat (not in a literal sense, of course)! And even where we brush shoulders (both literally and figuratively), we’re always sure to patch things up the next time. Because in the world of sport, there is always another chance—a chance to make it right and go one better. The most enduring friendships and relationships I have built throughout my life all have a sports dimension to them. And with those comes the promise of a growing network of potential referees, contact persons and even possible suitors! I mean, who knows, in the bargain, you just might end up gaining family!

It was the Blessed Pope Saint John Paul II who lauded the moral value of sport as “a training ground of virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests.” You want to conquer? Perhaps sport is where you need to begin! I have since learned sport doesn’t just boost your confidence. No, it goes way further than that—it rejuvenates and recreates. There’s just something about sport that screams “the old’s got to go, and behold, the new is at hand!” Early on in campus, I realized I could actually use this to my advantage—to handle blood rushes. There was this one time I saw this one lady. She was drop-dead gorgeous, dazzling enough to render me (and anyone else for that matter) speechless! I somehow figured I had to go play football just so I could regain my sense of speech! And it worked! Now I know better than to blame Taylor Swift for falling for the boy on the football team! Because confidence is the language of sport. And one always feels a new being after an intense game—you know, like you’ve been reborn. It’s the kind of feeling that says there’s not a thing in this world you can’t conquer! And it’s that very kick I always go in search of every time I need to embark on an arduous task of some sort. (To help put this in perspective, perhaps I should mention that the 8 intermittent hours that went into putting together this article was preceded by 2 hours of some exciting football!) Trust me, it works. Every single time!

I can’t possibly enumerate all the perks at the behest of the altar of sport. I’m not sure anyone can. So I’ll cut right to the chase. Sport, more than anything, reinforces in an individual the very attributes required to become a champion—temperance, sacrifice, passion, obedience and discipline. Because sportsmanship, as an ideal, is all about character. It’s about integrity, responsibility, humility, fairness, honesty, loyalty, respect and generosity.

In the end, these things mean more than just the virtues sport requires of us when we’re starting out; they also become the very assets sport bequeaths us, perhaps as a reward for our dalliance with her! So, whether you choose to dance, kick, twist or brainstorm, go on and play. And while at it, remember to be a good sport at all times. And don’t forget to watch yourself win at life!