You don’t normally expect to make friends in New York. In America’s frantic, bustling city you would expect to be barged into and shouted at before you have a friendly conversation with a stranger on the street.
But last weekend was marathon weekend. And on marathon weekend – everything changes.
50,000 runners and their families and friends descend on the city for the marathon. Roads are blocked off, subway stations closed, and yet the city is full of joy.
Excitable supporters laden with banners, bells and home-made posters buzzed with anticipation as they walked the streets of the city. I found myself cheering on runners near Central Park side by side with 2 people I had never seen before in my life. On the subway people actually talked to each other.
People gave their seats up on the subway to anyone in a blue Marathon top or foil blanket…I congratulated random people on the street and was genuinely impressed by them as people. Regardless of their gender, colour, political views or walks of life. People were impressed by people. Full stop.
Sport can be diluted. It can be hit by scandal, drug cheating, fraud, bribery and corruption. I have had to come to terms with the fact that the organisation which I hold most highly to the purest ideals of human achievement, the International Olympic Committee, is flawed and corrupt.
Reading the sports pages can be depressing even if you don’t read the poor performance of your home team. Every day there seems to be a new scandal – most often in governance. This year alone England Football Manager Sam Allardyce was sacked after one match due to links with player ownership cheating. Russian athletes were banned from the Olympics after the discovery of state-sponsored doping, but the country’s Judo team were cleared to compete probably thanks to the influence of their honorary President Vladamir Putin. And the Head of the Kenyan track and field team came under investigation after he was recorded offering to warn athletes 12 hours in advance of their doping tests in exchange for £10,000.
2016, the year of the Olympics, should have been better. 6 weeks out from the end of the year, it’s shaping as bad as any previous year. People like Seb Coe, London’s Chief Games Maker, has promised to clean up the IAAF. But progress is slow and bodies like the IOC remain hesitant to make the crack downs which are necessary. Leaving us with the question, if the IOC aren’t prepared to take action, who will be?
But despite these fundamental, ingrained problems, I believe that there remains things to be hopeful for in sport. And it was my weekend in New York that reminded me of that.
Sport, in its purest form, remains the simple principle of setting a challenge for yourself, working bloody hard towards it and achieving something great at the end. Whether you are Simone Biles and planning the path to a ridiculous number of Olympic Gold Medals or you are a 60 year old taking up running for the first time and pin-pointing the marathon as a life-changing goal.
You can sideline sport because of its problems, it can be sexist, elitist, racist and hold any number of other prejudices. But if we remain true to the basic level of a child who receives his first football for Christmas and spends the rest of the day pestering every single family member to go out into the rain to play with him, I think we will find a way out of the mess.
Sport has the potential to change things. To be an example of progress, improvement and inclusion.
In sport we can prove that we are capable of continuing in adversity. Patrick Downes came back after losing his leg in the Boston Marathon bombing and ran the 26.2 miles in 2016. Terry Fox was diagnosed with cancer and decided to embark on an epic challenge to run a cross the entirety of Canada. And Sarah Attar proved to women across the world that if a female from Saudi Arabia can run in the Olympics then anyone should be free to do so.
It is all of these stories which we should hold sport accountable to. Sport can be inspiring and important. Sport is about proving the goodness in people and not simply how good they can be. And as Nelson Mandela said, ‘Sport has the power to change the world.”
In these uncertain times in sport and across the world, why don’t we put ourselves in marathon day fever, and go out and do some good in the world.