September 1, 2011

When Sports Really Matter

This is a big weekend for sports that I follow. The US takes on Costa Rica in a Friday friendly that will continue to mark the transition into the Klinsman era. On Sunday, WVU kicks off its football season against cross-state semi-rivals Marshall in a game that means a lot to those of us inside the state, if not to many others. And throughout the weekend the American Le Mans Series and the Indycars break in a new street circuit in Baltimore. I’ll miss a good bit of those, as I’ll be off spending time with friends and loved ones away from sporting concerns. But that’s not a problem, because sports are a pleasant diversion in my life, nothing more.

That’s not true for everyone. I’m not talking about idiots who wrap their self worth up in whether some team or another wins a game. I’m talking about people for whom the diversion of sports is a true lifeline. I’m talking about the well and truly oppressed.

Take this article in today’s New York Times about the popularity of the fledging pro soccer league in Burma (aka Myanmar), which was started in 2008:
'I don’t come here to support any particular team,' said Kyaw Lin, 15, a high school student standing in an especially rowdy section of bleachers during a recent match. 'I come for the freedom to yell anything I want.' Sports is an escape nearly everywhere from the tedium of life. But in Myanmar, with its layers of secret police and prison sentences of as much as 100 years for those who speak out against the government, a soccer match seems something more: an island of raucous merriment in a sea of grinding poverty and fear.
That freedom can get ugly, at times. A World Cup qualifier against Oman was halted in the first half because of objects being thrown onto the field by fans. Speaking of ugly:
The outdoor grandstand reeked of cheap liquor and the occasional pool of vomit. Shirtless fans exhibited a variety of creative, roughly sketched tattoos.

Yes, it appears that the junta that runs Burma is supporting all this as a sort of “rice and circuses” policy. Nonetheless, the breathing room allowed inside the stadium counts for something. And it seems to exist outside to a certain extent, as well:
[U Ko Htut, one of the country’s prominent writers on soccer] was imprisoned for 13 years and tortured for perceived crimes related to his student activism during a major uprising in 1988. Writing about sports, he says, is the closest thing to freedom of expression in Myanmar. The censors rarely bother him, he said, unlike political journalists who spend their careers having their work excised and redacted. (The name of this article’s author is being withheld because foreign journalists, with rare exceptions, are not officially allowed to report in the country.)
I read a book recently in which a character in China communicated with the outside world about dissident crackdowns under the veil of a blog devoted to Chinese professional basketball. Maybe something similar will leak out in reports of Burmese soccer?

So remember, friends, when you’re tempted to burn a couch or yell nasty things about the parentage of the guy who just punted you favorite driver out of the lead, we’ve got it lucky. We can get wrapped up in these silly things (or not) just for the fun of it. It’s not an act of rebellion just watching a damned game.

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