There's a phenomenon, which I believe is unique to sports, in which the non-participants (fans) develop an emotional investment in, and vicarious relationship with, the complete strangers (athletes) for whom they cheer. Sadly, too many fans take their fanaticism to an extreme, but that's a topic for another post.
In my case, as I've aged, I find myself viewing sporting events through the eyes of a pseudo-grandparent. You know the type. That older person who wants everyone to feel like a winner even when they lose and throws out colloquialisms and clichés like, "it's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game." Yes, I've become one of those people who sees almost everything that happens in sports as a metaphor and an opportunity to explain the beauty, heartbreak, and often precarious nature of life's journey. So, while at 4 pm yesterday I was thrilled and feeling that rush of pride that most sports fans feel when "their team" is winning, four and a half hours later I was torn between being excited that my kids had won and feeling heartbroken for the kids who lost.
Like most US soccer fans, I had been waiting all week for the US Women's Soccer Team's return to the World Cup. My work schedule allowed me to watch the first half in real time and return from my break, knowing that with a lead of 3-0 over their competition, the US Women were certain to win their match. However, when I learned later that the margin of victory had been 13-0, my enthusiasm was tempered by empathy for the coach and players of Team Thailand.
I don't buy into that "you're either with me or against me, win, win, win" philosophy. Sports isn't war, and even in war, there is room for empathy for enemy combatants. The women of Team Thailand had worked, trained and waited for four long years to play on the world's biggest soccer stage too and, yesterday they found themselves in the path of an unstoppable, powerful, red train, coming at them throttle open, full speed. At some point, Team Thailand must have felt like the proverbial deer in headlights. At least that's how I would have felt. In fact, I know exactly how it feels to compete against a team that you know is more talented. You give it your all and pray that you come out of the competition relatively unscathed and with your dignity intact. Thankfully, I never played on a world stage. I didn't want to watch the second half of the World Cup match last night, but the since the US Women's victory was historic, I recorded it for a later date. I'm still incredibly proud of them.
I can think of dozens of metaphors to compare the US Women's win over Thailand to life. There's the family who celebrates one child getting straights As when their other child struggles to get Cs. The kids who get new cars for their birthday and drive them to school to show them off to their friends who catch the bus. The family member who just bought a house when another member is struggling to pay the rent. The co-worker who is being honored at a retirement banquet when a fellow co-worker will never be able to afford to retire. This is life. In each of the above scenarios, the individual has a reason to celebrate their achievements and should not be resented by the latter for doing so. Yet, those who identify with the first person in any of those scenarios should be reminded to have empathy for their counterparts.
At one time or another, we have been or will be the US Women's Team and at other times been Team Thailand. If I had grandchildren I would tell them that the greatest achievement in life is to handle both situations with grace and, to celebrate the victories but remember to take a moment to look across the field.