Since the dawn of time, from the Coliseums of Rome to the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, sport has been the proving grounds of human endeavour and spirit. Sport is where life is compressed into a few hours, where the emotions of an entire lifetime can be felt on a patch of ground, where a person can suffer and die and rise again. It is a place where nations and cultures unite for one defining moment, a theatre for unbridled passion and emotion – where the sinner becomes the saint, the common man becomes an uncommon hero, where for one moment we transcend all conflict and become our own potential, the basis for stories which people start with ‘I was there when…’
One memory that I have was when I was eleven years old and, with my parents away at a wedding for the weekend, I was left in care of my older brother. His first act of duty was to take me and my younger brother to the pub so that he could watch the opening game of Euro '96 with his mates. The opening game was dull, with hosts England only managing a draw with Switzerland but at the final whistle the pub crowd united in a rendition of Football's Coming Home, the anthem that was to carry the home nation through to the semi-finals, where they lost to Germany on penalties. This moment in the pub made the hairs on my neck stand to attention and a swell of pride took hold of me – this is my home, my people, my heritage – and something I haven't felt since.
If you think I'm being over-zealous in these claims, I have proof that sport impacts our lives, sometimes in the most dramatic ways. Joe Louis beating German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938 in the 'fight that defeated Nazi Germany' or Jesse Owens four Olympic medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics proving Nazi propaganda wrong and damaging Hitler's claims that Germany was superior are just two examples of sport impacting the political world. Barry McGuigan’s world title win in boxing united all of Northern Ireland while Nelson Mandela donning the Springboks jersey at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final united South Africa and showed sports ability to unite cultures. The 2008 Wimbledon final between Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer is an example of sport touching us so deeply; the breathtaking spectacle of the match together with the spirit and conduct and ambition of the two men going to the edge of their ability and courage left many spellbound by the magic of great sport. Another moment where sport can be seen to touch so deep the hearts of everyone was Sir Matt Busby rebuilding his Manchester United side after the Munich Air Crash to win the European Cup at Wembley in 1968. These few select moments from a plethora of stories show how dear we hold sport to our hearts, how it defines our histories and connects us to one another.
If a holiday is a retreat away from the hassles of your life, then watching some sport while on one is a brilliant way to transcend all the troubles. Earl Warren, 30th Governor of California, once famously stated that he always ‘turned to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.’ Sport is where the people of Afghanistan can get away from the harsh realities of war with a spot of goat polo and you’re unlikely to find a giddier pleasure than the one felt as you watch people fling themselves down a hill after a roll of cheese at Cooper’s Hill, apart from maybe watch a man carry his wife over an obstacle course or a Jack Russell ride the waves in a dog-surfing competition!
Making a holiday out of spectator sports is a fantastic way to see the world, you get to tap into the local world and see the people’s fears and loves that a bus tour or tourist attraction would never show. The cacophony of sound that greets the teams at Camp Nou, the unbridled national pride at a Hurling or Gaelic football final at Croke Park or the great hot-dogs at Wrigley Field are all amazing ways to soak up the culture of other people and to connect to others. Spectator sports also make the journey live longer in the memory – the streets of Salzburg are always fresh in my mind after being in the city for the Euro 2008 football championships. You’re never going to forget the trip where you saw a Mexican in a mask fly across the wrestling ring, are you?
Sport is one of our most important outlets of passion, fears, love and devotion. It is where the human race prove themselves over and over again, where we renew our faith in ourselves and where we can transcend all our troubles and reach our potential. It is where people meet after a week of hard work to enjoy themselves and visiting sporting events while on holiday will cleanse the soul and bring you into greater contact than any other holiday activity.