So here we go, again, getting into the scrum without thinking much of it. Feel free to replace scrum with fight, race, argument, discussion, adventure, new experience. Scrum as imagery conjures a semi claustrophobic huddling of thick rugby bodies going after the ball. Huff, puff, tug, pull, go forward, backwards, sweaty, dirty and nasty. Red cheeks accusing efforts, physical stress that accentuate the seriousness of the situation. OK, from Rugby to bicycles now: “So-and-so scores a much needed victory for his team, watch the journalists’ scrum after the finish line, let’s hear it from our reporter on the spot.” After that, the athlete will be chaperoned to the anti-doping tent, another duty to be fulfilled, a certification that the heroics are clean. The process is long and hard, the results not 100% guaranteed. The whims the sport subjects the riders to never seem to end, and if one has to provide a nature sample for honesty’s sake, it counts as a double whammy; extra points if there was a crash, then it’s race, journalists, ambulance, and next day all over again (think of Hoogerland’s barbwire somersault saga in this year’s Tour, as an example). They knew they’d be in this seemingly abusive sort of trouble, but they got in the fray anyway.
And we love it. Our beloved sport is underlined by mandatory stretches of suffering, we know it, we do it, we go for it. But there’s a primal urge, harking back to an evolutionary arbitration that had us coded for chasing, going after, and then, if we’re lucky, conquering. I see the majority of our kindred athletes chasing the elusive moment of glory, but let’s focus on the chase part rather than the triumph. Let’s split this notion and totally forget about the glorious podium kisses, upgrade points, mid-race shwag, bragging bar banter. Why do I mention cycling in this exercise? Unlike most sports, roadies’ success is a bit more subjective; we divide a whole event into mini tasks to be followed with a (generally) previously assigned set of tasks, and intense aggression. The pacer, the lead out man, the all rounder who’ll rip the opponents’ teams’ legs apart before the major climb, the breakaway artist. They all share a motivated duty that is based on the inherently intangible forward motion of the pursuit, go after, do your job. One gets into the fight aware of his/her responsibilities with the eyes on the challenge at hand, the prize as a result of work well done. However, the expressions “eyes on the prize”, “going for gold” illustrate a very narrow comprehension of the process. Take a look at an athlete’s face at the start of a competition. The countenance may be relaxed, a confident coolness dashed with a sprinkle of nervous apprehension, the full understanding that the outcome is just as uncertain as the wind direction at a New England road race in the spring.
Drawing a contrast, at a soccer game, the odds are very well split between teams. Say, Real Madrid and Barcelona, a classic match that will fill stadiums and produce newspaper patter and advertising dividends, but we’re basically discussing the certainty that one of the two will emerge victorious. For the record, I don’t mean to disparage the beautiful sport, and I understand that as an activity soccer (or futebol) is rife with on-the-fly variables that are vapid at best. But the roadie is faced with exponential levels of variables; even the local Joe Racer, at his Local Joe Racer Event, will be subjected to at least 50 other contenders. The unknowns become mandatory. The drive is hope, a physical curiosity that propels the athlete to be part of the process that will weed out the victor, the result a sequence of chances paving the way to masterful execution. In this case, the urgency of participation supersedes any aspiration of arriving first. The more intricate and numerous the variables are, the hotter is the force to get to the line first.
We chase because we have no choice. Humans celebrate milestone events, but the party and fireworks register but the tip of the adventure. The winning celebration, in my view, is less a “woo-hoo, I won”, and more of a “thank God the suffering is over”. Under that light, we place our hopes on ephemeral developments, we bet the house on a prayer, expecting, longing, wishing for the best. We curse the challenges, and we admire and get mystified as we witness the heroic feats of the players during the process of a match, a race, a job interview. Smarts, luck, skills help us maneuver the labyrinth of context, many times without even knowing whether we’ll get to the end, or at an end. Suffering, though a mandatory commodity that plagues us through the journey, becomes a beacon to get us out of uncertainty. We prepare for the trek, and the trek alone, expecting that we reach the right destination.
But we go anyway. And I can’t think of a better way to keep the flame alive.
*Image by Jeremy Jo