I made the switch from cartoons to sports fairly early in life. For the Americans out there, that meant moving from Nickelodeon to ESPN. My weekend mornings consisted of SportsCenter repeats instead of X-Men and Looney Toons. I saw drama and artistry in sports, culture clashes intertwined with high stakes and, above all, the tension of an unknown outcome. It’s finally time to admit a few things: I cried at the end of Cool Runnings. Thanks to A League of Their Own, I may have left the theater with a lump in my throat (but you can’t prove that, it was 4th grade). I was there clapping and cheering with the rest of the theater audience when John Moxon and the rest of the West Canaan Coyotes claimed their 23rd district championship (“good gosh almighty Joe Friday!”).
Sports can be intensely boring. Just as the soccer haters of America who always bring up the dreaded 0:0 tie as the reason why association football will never take off in the United States. That’s why I think I like the underdogs, the ones that don’t win every game, every year. As a general rule, underdogs offer up plenty of uninspiring and boring performances. Then again, those are the kind of performances that pave the way for genuine moments of sporting surprise and joy. In this, I agree with Nick Hornby, who argued in Fever Pitch that for an onlooker to experience a truly memorable game, his/her team must suffer adversity, and preferably of multiple kinds. Adversity provides a solid emotional link to any sports memory. Our first child was born 12 hours after the Iowa Hawkeyes lost a heartbreaking overtime game to Ohio State. The real experience of sports doesn’t happen through highlights. It happens through tension.
What does this have to do with living abroad? Doesn’t living abroad mean that you’re disconnected from your favorite teams? Well, the internet helps. It’s easier than ever to follow your favorite team’s every move—even in real-time. The main problem is the time difference. I know there are Super Bowl parties at all hours of the night, but that’s a special occasion. For the regular US sports enthusiast living in Europe, any game that starts in the US past 5:00 pm requires some serious insomnia.
Living abroad, being disconnected from the usual sports routine and schedule, means that you will often have to look beyond the mainstream for some kind of sporting event, team or player worth emotionally investing in. The beauty is that this investment does not need to be very long-lasting. In the case of England’s Grand National horserace, it can be as little as four minutes. My wife and I once became so deeply invested in a women’s college bowling championship match between Vanderbilt and Nebraska. The girls’ faces were so intense. There was so much riding on every throw. I can’t remember who won (I think Vanderbilt—yes it was, a 2012 losers’ bracket elimination match), but the true joy of random sports abroad doesn’t come from wins but rather the chance to root for something that may or may not happen. I’m again looking forward to the World Darts Championship over Christmas, which is, in fact, the ONLY sporting event on tv during the holidays over here.
Aside from watching soccer/football and catching the occasional early NFL game, my latest passion has been international test match rugby. Nowhere else can you see the artistry and poetry of the Welsh national anthem or the New Zealand All Black’s Haka Dance juxtaposed against the concussion-filled brutality of “going for the line”. The latest iteration was 15-24 Wales loss to South Africa. It helps to have friends who know and care about the sport. They can help with the rules, the schedule and the player histories. My half-Welsh friend, Richard Mills, was so nervous the week before the game that he couldn’t talk about it without his hands shaking. And once I heard that Wales was as astonishing 1-27 against South Africa all time and then discovered that their national anthem has the line, “old land of mountains, paradise of poets”, I was sold. Wales was my new Jamaican bobsled team, my West Canaan Coyotes. Even though they lost, it wasn’t without tension and a surprise or two (read this match commentary, skull-knockingly poetic.
That’s the joy of random sports abroad. It’s like finding a rough emerald in a meandering mountain river. The rock might lay off the beaten path and will likely need a little polishing. But once found, it can catch the faintest of light and shine on your existence abroad.