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Hacker: It takes a Nation of Millions
Inspired by a recent film, Jonny Brick finds solace in a sport that is a national pastime internationally
Wednesday, 10 November, 2010 | 08:00

Audere est facere, ad astra, requiescat in pace: respectively, 'doing stuff needs balls'; 'reach for the stars'; 'let me rest easy'. I reach for Latin because I remember doing an essay on the escapist nature of the Propertian love elegy; one can argue that he’s a whiny chap picking petals off a daisy and moping to a proto-Paramore soundtrack, or that his verse is microcosmic of bigger things. When the poet writes that he ‘lives plan-free’ (“nullo vivere consilio”, I.6), and is captive to both the adversary gods and tricksy girls around him, it is a lesson for us all: the reader or speaker is involved, channelling the angst of the poet (substitute Propertius for Hayley Williams or Marshall Mathers, if you will) and empathising with his or her plight.

Is sport also escapism? The reason I didn’t play sport at university level was that I’d never keep my discipline; I’d beat myself in chess if I had to. Pugilism can be as escapist as a Jane Austen novel, but Mr Rochester won’t give you an aneurysm (and Don King, one feels, was born two centuries too late). Yet it was watching the Africa in Motion film festival screening of The Fighting Spirit that I was reminded of how sport can fuel dreams of individuals, nations and continents. Usain Bolt bestrides the world with his gangly limbs and insouciance, and is loved in Jamaica for it; Diego Maradona, despite his sacking over summer, remains a hero in his native land having somehow made it to fifty years old; Sachin Tendulkar has claims to be the best batsman in the history of cricket. All three are heroes rich in money because they worked hard, married nature with nurture and cultivated a strong public image; the best pictures of them all have them smiling widely as they torment the opposition. The motivations for their success are certainly escapist: Maradona kicked tiny balls on cobbled streets and survived being kicked all over the pitch with his close control, and Tendulkar lived in one of the world’s poorest nations using dusty plains for squares.

Likewise the boxers who tussle in The Fighting Spirit wear shorts emblazoned with the colours of their home nation of Ghana, the three featured fighters cheered on by the townsfolk of Bukom. Able to fight overseas, the two males nod at reminders they are doing it for Ghana, as Messrs. Essien, Gyan and Appiah are told every time they kick a football around. The significant take-home point in the film, which runs at a sensible 80 minutes, concerns the financial benefits of getting pummelled: both George and Joshua are able to construct new homes for them and their girlfriends, since from one fight they earn ten times the annual salary (which is under a dollar a day) of a fisherman of their town. Long hours in the gym, which doesn’t match up to the facilities offered to Joshua as he prepares to meet a boy from Dagenham with its stereotypical “Come on Kev!” home support (Joshua loses on points), and hope that “if I win, I can marry her” make this a struggle of masculinity as much as patriotism. It’s a superbly shot film too, cutting together the two men’s televised fights to ramp up the tension.

The third fighter is a woman whose former boyfriend made three girls clandestinely pregnant, including his own sister: “I will kill him,” states Yarkor Annan, whose scepticism over those who want her to fight and frustration at being told to bash a tyre with a stick is eventually annulled by the happy ending where she can finally “better herself” and travel. Having a female boxer gives the film an extra layer, of course, but Annan is a Ghanaian first and foremost. We see bonfires being lit and people dancing in the street, full of glee at what is to come; a break from the tedium.

With all the money infesting modern sport, human interest takes precedence as ever. Perhaps one day Africa will bequeath the world its own phrases, have the words of its own chroniclers read the world over by people who will cheer for true African fighters, their souls untainted by chasing money and who will “keep trying” both for themselves and for the good name of sport, where the glory of the epic Roman hero lives on. Over to you, Messrs. Haye and Harrison.

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