Let It Fly

Extra Time

AP Photo/Juergen Hasenkopf/Rex Features Venus Williams-Serena Williams

Hard Times in the Uncanny Valley: Part 3

The Williams sisters, women's boxing, and the 20th-century scapegoat toss

Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

I rarely attend games in person because I inevitably end up comparing all live events (and many life events) to the Showdown at Shea, which my dad took me to see in the summer of 1980. It was a top-notch evening, and to be honest, most things since then have been a disappointment. Andre the Giant took down Hulk Hogan in one of their early tangles, setting up their classic rivalry across the rest of the decade. Ivan Putski, a.k.a. “The Polish Hammer,” a.k.a. “The Polish Power,” decimated Johnny Rodz. But the headliner of that epic bill was Bruno Sammartino vs. Larry Zbyszko in a steel-cage match. They’d been feuding, and Bruno “The Living Legend” Sammartino demolished his apprentice turned antagonist. After witnessing such an epochal confrontation, I was basically ruined for many of life’s so-called pleasures.

After a few days in London, I’d seen more live sports than I had in decades. Olympic tennis and boxing, with their disparate “squared circles,” tutored me in the alchemy of the crowd, reminding me of what I had seen that night at Shea so many decades before.

The second Sunday of the Games, I knew I was on the right subway when I encountered a specimen of a British ultra-preppie. It was a juvenile male, clad in lime-colored trousers and a sharp white polo. It dangled off the subway pole with a self-satisfied slouch. I observed the creature communicate with its parents, who were similarly styled. I’d made few subway mistakes the last few days, but I was definitely on the train to Wimbledon.

We’d come from all over the world. I was one of the tourists, identified by the credentials around my neck and the wrinkled map of the Tube I consulted every couple of minutes. The other civilians on the train had entered lotteries, hoping for seats to this or that event, a big football match if they were lucky, maybe even a semifinal. They tendered their names for events they didn’t even know existed, sports they’d never seen before — it was better than being shut out entirely. They had no idea who’d be playing: They might show up at Olympic Park, travel all this way, and find they had tickets for some crappy country they’d never heard of vs. that nation that committed genocide against their ancestors a while back. One could only hope for the best.

Today’s Wimbledon events were no chump fare. The people filing out of the station had lucked out. It was raining, but it was supposed to clear up in time for the start. Or so we told ourselves as we walked the mile up the road to the courts, dripping and drenched, getting yelled at by traffic cops, to see the women’s doubles and men’s singles gold-medal matches.

I settled into my media table at women’s doubles. I waited for the Williams sisters to go for their third doubles gold medal, which initiated my first Holy Cow, I’m Actually at the Olympics moment, and disrupting the low affect I try to maintain 24/7. I was in Famous Wimbledon. I had great seats to see Famous Players. The only thing that could have made me happier was if they erected a steel cage in the middle of the court and told me Venus and Serena were going to play inside it, surrounded by burning oil. I sent excited texts to my mom and a friend in Atlanta. They would just be waking up. I uploaded pictures of the empty court and waited for their envious return texts. I was vibrating. But … why was everyone else in the joint so blasé? This was history, people. (Everything at the Olympics is history, basically.) Why were there so many empty seats? Talk about jaded. I checked the video monitor at my station. It said “Court 1.” Hmm. I scanned the media briefing sheet: This was the frickin’ men’s singles bronze-medal match! I beat it out of there fast. With apologies to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, I didn’t leave my hotel room and get dressed for no bronze medal.

I hustled over to Centre Court, which was almost full. I finagled a seat, where one of the TV cameras found me, or so my friend back home texted.

“I think I see you! Near sxn 205 — are you wearing a brown jacket?”

“Near 205. Black shirt with tiny white dots. But I think I’m the only black guy!”

“Must be you then.”

Were all tennis matches this quiet? Lively volleys, magnificent exchanges crisscrossed the court, to tranquilized affirmation. When Serena and Venus Williams finally dispatched the Czech team, it was to courteous applause. This was my first live gold-medal match — why was everyone so mellow? I know the sisters win a lot, but still. I had certain stereotypes about tennis. They were being confirmed. Would it have killed them to blast out a little “Yakety Sax,” beach volleyball–style? This crowd would watch Andre the Giant slam Hulk Hogan’s face into the turnbuckle and emit nary a peep.

Then came the men’s singles, and I observed the secret power of those assembled. Roger Federer and Andy Murray had mixed it up here a few weeks before, when Murray almost became the first British man in decades to win Wimbledon … but did not. He’d gotten teary after the match. Murray was the underdog this Sunday, facing the man considered to be one of the most gifted tennis players who has ever lived.

“Sebald,” I asked, “how do you think Murray’s gonna take getting trounced by Federer again so soon?”

“Who is to know the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?”

True that, Sebald 3000, true that.

Then I heard it. On the other side of the court. Behind me. From behind the judge: “C’mon, Andy!” There was laughter at this outburst, after the quiet match we’d just seen. “C’mon, Andy!” Like they were schoolkids egging each other on when the teacher’s back was turned. “C’mon, Andy!” And it worked.

The crowd knew him intimately, from a distance. “C’mon, Andy!” Their accents marked them as hailing from the British version of “around the way.” Not posh. These were not the voices of the preppies I stood next to on the Tube. “C’mon, Andy!” They didn’t know him personally, but something in their tone made it seem as if they’d been acquainted with Andy Murray his whole life. Their voices were in turn familiar, cajoling, teasing, encouraging. At first, the crowd was merely excited. As Murray seemed to feed off their noise, and started to pummel Federer, that excitement transformed into giddy astonishment. Set by set, Murray became their cousin, kid next door, guy sitting in front of them in math class. I felt I was watching a neighborhood chronicle, each “C’mon, Andy!” trailing some unspoken reference to their shared history, an invented history that was being embellished with every stroke:

“C’mon, Andy — don’t muck it up like you did when you tried to ask Trudy to the Valentine’s dance!” Andy fought harder.

“C’mon, Andy — you can do it, like when you and your mates stole the Carpenters’ horse, dressed it up as Old Man Dylan, and parked him at Duffy’s pub.” Andy knocked Federer around for nine straight games.

“C’mon, Andy — don’t go out like your brother Nigel when he got caught with his trousers down in the chicken coop, or your sister Maggie when we found her having a turnip party with the magistrate’s boy, and don’t get me started on your Uncle Ned!” Andy won.

He pulled it off. Trade those tennis whites for colorful tights, and it was like Shea all over again: spectacular, mesmerizing. I’d just seen my first live tennis, and my last: Best to go out on top. Federer grabbed his stuff and slunk out, while Murray clambered into the stands to hug his crew. Later, he’d admit how much the crowd sustained him, and speculate that it threw off Federer, the usual recipient of the audience’s adoration.

“Sebald,” I said, “He did it! He pulled it off!”

The app said, “Whenever one is imagining a bright future, the next disaster is right around the corner.”

Admiral Buzzkill reporting for duty. Was the Sebald 3000 referring to Federer, who had been favored to win, or to Murray’s next loss — the next time “his bones were buried”? The cycle of victory and defeat? Certainly that was the lot of any athlete, or artist. They put themselves onstage, and sometimes our Andys pull it off, and sometimes they lick their wounds and bide their time until the rematch. I was going to ask the Sebald 3000 for a clarification, but my phone’s screen showed merely, “Rate This App! Rate Now or Maybe Later.”

For an hour, Centre Court was one tribe. Now the spell was broken. People headed for exits. How quickly these athletes became communal property, and how quickly the feeling disappeared. The next time I’d witness such a potent display of patriotic exuberance would be at the ExCeL Center. I spent a couple days at the ExCeL, where the weight lifting, taekwondo, fencing, table tennis, and boxing matches took place.

2012 was the first year women’s boxing was admitted into the Olympics. The up-and-comer supplants the reigning champion, and the new Olympic events, such as women’s boxing, rush in to fill the vacuum left by the departures of standbys such as tug-of-war (yanking on a rope, 1900-1920), wax bullet (dueling with rounds made of paraffin, 1908), and scapegoat toss (maintaining social order, most of the 20th century). The announcers reminded us of the female boxers’ long struggle for proper respect. Barbara Buttrick, an early British boxer, was introduced at the start of each day’s lineup. “I really got put down by the press,” she told the crowd. “Everybody was against it.” Buttrick traveled the circuit in the ’40s; if she couldn’t get a female opponent, she’d have an exhibition match with one of the men. “Last year,” she told us, “I got an apology from the Daily Mail for all the things they said about me in the ’40s.” I wonder what the Fabulous Moolah, another female trailblazer (who just happened to be a part of the 1980 Showdown at Shea, the day that shaped the course of my life in so many ways), would have said if she’d lived to see this day.

I was not the only black person in the boxing arena. There were plenty of brown people — boxing was going to be a nationlistic spectacle, I’d learn, and numerous Indian fans showed up to holler for Mary Kom, who eventually won the flyweight bronze. No tribe would outshout the Irish, however. If you watched the “I” section of the Parade of Nations on opening night, you saw Katie Taylor carry the Irish flag into Olympic Stadium. The current amateur lightweight world champion, Taylor brought more than her flag into the ExCeL’s boxing arena. Her hundreds of fans converted the stands into a miraculous cheering device, shaking the temporary stadium, setting everything to a furious rumble. I almost dropped my beer the first time it started up, as scores of feet pounded the floor and a multitude of voices started in with “Olé, olé, olé,” that football chant. Taylor’s opponent in the quarterfinals, Natasha Jonas, was actually from Liverpool, but her local fans couldn’t compete with Taylor’s imported talent. Taylor beat her, and the cheering device set record decibel levels for the stadium — louder than a jet engine, as the announcers informed us before her next two matches.

When Taylor took the gold medal, defeating the Russian Sofya Ochigava, the stadium shook and rattled as it had before, sounding as if it wanted to disintegrate. Taylor took her victory lap, and the noises gradually died. The stands thinned as people went for more beers, or to grab pictures of Katie outside the arena. Then it was time for the last women’s match of the day, the middleweight gold.

At 17, Claressa Shields was the youngest person to ever make the U.S. boxing team. She didn’t have a mess of hooting, imported fans. Her family couldn’t make the trip. Her coach, Jason Crutchfield, took up a collection to pay for the journey, but he was not in her corner. He was in the audience — according to Olympic rules, Shields had to train with the U.S. boxing team, and not her traditional gang. In her first middleweight match in London, where Shields faced Sweden’s Anna Laurell, Crutchfield was reduced to shouting instructions from the bleachers, trying to override the U.S. team’s advice.

The stadium did not claim her as its own. There were a few Americans scattered in the stands, but maybe she didn’t need a crowd. She could do it without them. I was there for her three bouts and watched her dominate the luckless people stuck in the ring with her. She grew more confident, round by round, match by match. Shields won her semi, after a slow start against Laurell, a two-time world champion who was a head taller and appeared to have freakishly long arms. (They haunted my dreams for a couple of nights.) The middleweight brackets narrowed, like a funnel ushering the boxers to the final matches. Shields cheerfully dispatched Kazakhstan’s Marina Volnova.

“The original plan was initially just to go to the right and jab and box, but she didn’t respect me,” Shields shit-talked later. “So I turned it into a fun game and started banging with her and got the best of it.” She was standing behind the little fence in the press area, that series of cattle pens the athletes are led down after events. I wasn’t surprised when she won the gold the next day, after bounding into the arena to the sound of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World).” Her fate was written in her face, the day before, in her effortless grin and unworried gaze.

Once again I was reminded of how much joy I’d derived from the Showdown at Shea, except that this contest was real, the protagonists were actual athletes, and no one possessed bizarre, penis-veined limbs. Maybe it was time to start attending more sporting events, to no longer be haunted by the specter of steel cages past. Sure, everything at the Olympics was history, but this was really history. Shields would return to Flint, Michigan, a hero, having won the first-ever women’s middleweight gold.

“Sebald,” I said, “you have to admit, her run was pretty awesome. Maybe she didn’t have half a country in here cheering her on, but you know all of Flint was watching. If she doesn’t get the key to the city, I’ll eat my hat.”

There was a pause, and then I heard, “From where we stand, there seems no reason why things should not go in this vein forever, from one spectacular success to the next.”

I didn’t press him further. For once, I understood what he meant.

Return for the final installment this Thursday.

Filed Under: Art, College Sports, General topics, Olympics, Sports, Teams, The U, UNC