Steven Schmidt (United States) on How Sport Demonstrates Our Shared Humanity

August 31, 2012

In the elevator, I glanced down at my scuffed blue soccer cleats. My host brother, eager to finally get onto the field, had quickly rummaged around and waited patiently while I did my best to jam my feet into what he found. As the doors closed, I expressed my doubt about the fit. Grinning, he just told me, “A little tight is always good”; at least, that’s how I interpreted what I heard.
Last summer, I was able to study the Turkish language in Istanbul. An enormous part of my experience was defined by my homestay with a local family. My host brother will tell you proudly that he is a sol açik, or left fielder, for his district soccer team. His father enjoyed a long career in the Turkish minor leagues before retiring, and he still plays in neighborhood tournaments. I should not have been surprised, then, that my mother, brother, and father for the summer also expected me to love the family sport.

Our field was small, probably only a third of the size of a professional pitch. A mesh net, in place to stop errant kicks, enveloped us. Stretching, I set my water bottle down, and, after the other players wandered in, I threw myself into my first game of soccer in nearly ten years. Athletics have never been my passion. During that humid summer night, as I chased a ball that always seemed to be just out of reach, I was reminded of the frustration and disappointment that sports always seem to bring me. However, during half time, I paused and looked closely at my teammates.

There, in a striped Barcelona jersey, was the Kurdish boy who lives up the street. To my left, talking to my brother in rapid Turkish, was the Libyan man from upstairs who had fled the violence that rocked Tripoli. Those same two brothers who were the backbone of our offense are originally from Uzbekistan, transplanted by their parents’ desire for a more stable livelihood. I realized, then, the unique way in which a game can bring together and unify vastly different groups of people. On that field, there gathered men and women from all corners of the world, yet each player was bound by the same rules. The game progressed, and as our differences were erased and our basic humanity was bared, we judged each other not on the basis of our genes or beliefs but instead on our values, many of which overlap with those espoused by the Olympic Games.

Now more than ever, it is essential that perceived differences of race, gender, class, and language are cast aside. The Olympics make huge strides towards this goal, but other, much smaller programs that facilitate athletic experiences between different cultures could work similarly. After all, at the end of the day, the size of the playing field or even the quality of the team member is not important. It only matters that game itself is played.
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