There were 40,000 different stories being told last weekend at the Hong Kong Sevens. The stadium was heaving to the brim with a good-natured mix of frivolity and hedonism and more drunks than you could count, most being fairly benign. But of all the outrageously costumed poseurs and of all the corporate heavyweights and social piranhas, in fact of all the 40,000 shoe-horned into the stadium, the most compelling stories being told were still down on the field of play.
When Canada met Australia on Saturday afternoon, one of the Canuck boys took a nasty hit to the head and went down. You could hear the thud resounding throughout the stadium. Now the best athletes in Canada are nowhere near a rugby pitch. If you exhibit any sort of athletic prowess in the Great White North you play hockey. It's not really an option for the physically gifted; it's more a rite of passage.
So when I see this kid lying forlorn and possibly concussed on a rugby pitch my first thought is, I guess he wasn't good enough to make it in hockey. My second thought is that when a professional hockey player gets a concussion that might have repercussions for the rest of his life, he could be getting US$5 million a year to put his head in harm's way. The kid down on the pitch is making little more than expenses and a plane fare to Hong Kong. So why would he risk doing permanent damage to his body and mind? For the love of the game, of course.
For the love of the game. It's a maudlin clich? and never more so than these days. From the action on the field up to the private boxes and from the concession stands over to the TV booth, it's all about the money in sports today. You know that and so do I, so I will try my hardest not to bore you with this tired old lament. Sometimes, though, when you least expect it a moment of sporting purity will whack you up side of the head with a force hard enough to dislodge even the most firmly entrenched cynic. And when that happens its pure bliss.
I have been hearing for years from American friends that a team of NFL players with one week of sevens training could come over here and clean up. It's a moot point because they would never get on a plane unless they were being extremely well compensated, which nobody who played last weekend was. And the NFL boys may also think twice about a full-contact match with no equipment on after watching South Africa play Fiji in the quarter-finals.
Don't let the locale fool you. Fiji may be a tropical paradise but their sevens team is big, fast and real nasty. South Africa, despite a proud rugby history and a deep squad, are at a clear disadvantage, except for the fact that they have the exquisite Cecil Afrika on their side.
It's hard to say how different life for Afrika would be if he was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, instead of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Afrika is a slender prodigy of 22 years who becomes electric with the ball in his hands. His flowing dreadlocks go airborne and with one step to the left and another to the right he is gone in a blur. A creature of rare vision and instinct, he tackles fearlessly and kicks extra points as well. He is courteous and accommodating off the field and is quick to flash a megawatt smile framed by a handsome face that has yet to be distorted by the ravages of rugby. He does it all and has it all, a marketer's dream.
Afrika in Tennessee would have been immersed and devoured by the omnipresent football culture of the south. College recruiters would be knocking on his parents' door from the time he was 13. In high school he would have been lauded and adored; in college idolised. Unscrupulous player agents would be flocking and Afrika would be off to the hi-tech meat swap known as the NFL scouting combine.
If Afrika did go early in the first round of the NFL draft he would get at least US$10 million guaranteed, as well as a lucrative shoe deal all before he ever played his first professional game. He would now be an industry as opposed to a sportsman and in a situation like that it's next to impossible for a 22-year-old kid to play merely for the love of the game because the stakes are just way too high.
And there is one other thing Afrika would be right now if he was in the NFL: unemployed. Because the owners and players cannot agree on how to divide US$10.2 billion in revenue from last season, the league has locked them out and forced a shutdown. No one knows when they will play again.
Afrika scores a try and kicks two conversions against the rugged Fijians but South Africa succumb in extra-time in a scintillating match. They are relegated to the second-tier Plate championship, which they win. The team make their way up into the executive box to receive a silver mug and their award. When Afrika is handed the plate he hoists it joyfully, beaming as he and his teammates embrace. He is at the top end of rugby and could make a comfortable but hardly opulent living from it.
The majority of the guys he competed against last weekend were not so lucky and headed back to full-time jobs. Their heads may still be ringing and could be for a long time. But none of them will forget why they played. That's right, for the love of the game.