Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Universal Male Sporting Rituals

“Guys care about sports teams. I'm not talking about simply rooting; I'm talking about a relationship that guys develop, a commitment to a sport team that guys take way more seriously than, for example, wedding vows.”
― Dave Barry, Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys

I am not a ‘sporty’ person. I can count the number of sporting incidents like baseball games and American football matches that I’ve attended on one hand, I think. The last time I watched a football match was the world cup in 2010.


So they left the subject and played croquet, which is a very good game for people who are annoyed with one another, giving many opportunities for venting rancour.”
― Rose Macaulay

“There will be traditional wrestling up at the Pala-pala field today,” our Cameroonian friend informed us one Sunday.

“What time?”

“Four O’clock but you can come at five,” he replied.

“We should go.” I turned to Bill next to me. “Something different. Might be interesting for a while. I’ve never seen traditional Cameroonian wrestling.”

So the three of us found ourselves up at the Pala-pala field that Sunday. Curiosity about the sport took precedence over my usual reservations on watching male testosterone-touting athletic feats.

The wrestling field is a natural amphitheatre. The grassy slopes surround a more or less level circular playing arena below. Wooden pickets with white crosshatches that have the village name painted on them and look like the white crosses of marking graves dotted the edges of the field. Villages grouped themselves accordingly to show support for their wrestling representatives. A gigantic oak-like tree that appeared as if it had had witnessed many hundreds of events on the field loftily stretched its thick branches over the upper corner of open expanse. Perched on the wooden supports fastened to the tree’s branches were three enthusiastic ‘sport’s announcers’. They pounded tirelessly on their traditional drums in an upbeat, intoxicating rhythm that added spice and vibrancy to the atmosphere of expectation that permeated the jostling, talking crowds. Women and children wove through with snacks balanced perfectly on their heads – peanuts, chin-chin, plantain chips, fruit slices. The perfect sport’s event – crowds, sweat, shouts, laughter, music, and food.

“One, two, three…” the referee counted down on his fingers and on the count of three the two young boys hunched over and eyed their opponent. They looked to be about ten years. Small. Sturdy. Muscular. Slender.  Apparently the young boys start before the adults kick-off the game officially. The two young boys waved their arms over their head in a pawing manner as if they were getting ready to pounce on their prey. They concentrated on every move their opponent made trying to anticipate and outmanoeuvre. As they each reached forward toward the other, they circled within the confines of the white wrestling circle.

“The goal is to get the other person on their back,” our Cameroonian friend leaned over and informed Bill and I. “As soon as the back of one touches the ground, the other person wins.”

One of the boys lunged forward. His opponent skipped sideways and dodged the outstretched arms of the other. They circled around each other for another round. Suddenly, the shorter of the two reached out and caught the shoulders of the other. Instantly, the two locked into battle. Muscles bulged and ligaments strained. The boys danced left, right, and all around each leveraging to get the other one to fall over. The grimaces on their small faces matched the effort they were expending to try and win this match.

“Do they have to hold their opponent on the ground for three seconds in order to win?”

“No, any touch of the back to the ground constitutes a win for the other person.”

I watched as the two boys used all their strength to try and unbalance their opponent and get him to flip over. Each crouched low and kept a wide stance. They were equally matched.

The referee blew his whistle. One of the boys had pushed the other outside the white line. Instantly the boys regrouped in the middle and returned to a their former locked-limb configuration. One boy stumbled and almost fell. The crowd cheered and shouted. The referee’s helper in a red-knit hat watched the boys closely for any sign of foul play.

“What are they doing over there?” I turned to my friend and indicated a group of young men kneeling on the ground in front of a table under a canopy. The young men with traditional cloth wrappers knotted around their loins formed a semi-organised half-circle in front of the elderly gentleman writing names down on a sheet of paper.

“They’re registering their names for the match,” he answered. “They have to show their respect by bowing before their elders when they ask to participate in the wrestling.”

“Oh,” I said. Now that is something different from American sports events that I’ve attended. Respectfully kneeling before one’s elders/leaders. Not a bad concept. It was interesting to watch these same young men, after paying their respects to the presiding elder, later mingle in their groups. They were otherwise your typical free-spirited young male species boasting big male egos, loud laughter, beer, and cigarettes – not to mention the sagging jeans that always look as if they’re going to fall off and give a full view of the underlying colourful boxers/underwear.

“Any game becomes important when you know and love the players.”
― W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe

As the men registered, the young women did what young women typically do at athletic events. They strutted and giggled. High-heels, sparkling dresses, and flirting laughter punctuated the crowd as the ladies threaded their way among the crowds in pairs of two or three – sometimes five or six. Male and female eyed each other from a distance. Yes, I thought, a rather universal activity at sporting events – testosterone meets oestrogen.

I turned my attention back to the youngsters in the ring. Each boy fought with all his might. A fierce determination registered on each of the their faces. Back and forth they gyrated locked in their wrestling. The drummers thumped out an encouraging beat. The crowds cheered. Eventually, the one boy was momentarily thrust off balance so that his left shoulder touched the muddy surface. The whistle blew. The other boy had won.

A group of mature women in matching cabas danced enthusiastically onto the field and trampled all across the boundaries of the wrestling circle. The referee blew his whistle and waved his arms to redirect them elsewhere in vain. He was absolutely hopeless in his efforts against these solid and joyful dancing women. No itty-bitty young pom-pom waving cheerleaders here. Mothers and grandmothers of solid-build and genuine enthusiasm danced a congratulatory, winner’s dance for the boy. A man, perhaps a coach, with greying hairs and strong muscles, rushed out and hoisted the winning boy onto his shoulders. The boy punched the air with a big smile on his face.

People cheered. The women yodelled. It was a big moment for the small boy. All around the field, the papa figure carried him. Clearly, he was proud of the child as he raised his own hands in a gesture to generate more cheers and clapping from the crowds. The younger men in his village that had registered to wrestle in the match gave the kid high-fives and backslaps. Some of them, in their excitement over the win, gave each other hugs and chest thumps. Very male bonding-ish. The same behaviour is observed everywhere among the masculine species at sport events.  I smiled. The enthusiasm was infectious. It was very uplifting to see a village come out and show such sincere support.

And what about the boy that lost? He was picked up by his village papa and given a big hug. Although he didn’t get a winner’s congratulatory stroll around the field, he was walked back to his waiting teammates with a comforting hand supporting his shoulder ensuring him that he was still part of the team and his mates were not disappointed in him. He pulled up his traditional cloth wrapper around his waist and strutted back with his chin up – perhaps a little disappointed he hadn’t won but not discouraged. Next time… One could see it in his posture and face. He was a determined chap.

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

― Eric Liddell

The adult-version of the traditional wrestling was much the same as the kids. Suddenly an extra-excited hum of chatter filtered round the watching fans.

“The white-man is up next,” my friend answered my unspoken question.

I strained on tiptoe to see. A very white man with an even paler white chest strolled out to the middle of the wrestling circle, Cameroon wrapper around his waist and all. His opponent was a very black Cameroonian. They appeared to be about the same size – same height and general build.

The two opponents faced each other and shook hands. The referee checked their mouth and hands for any foreign objects. Satisfied, he blew his whistle. Black and white men circled and quickly locked arms.

“How long do you think he’ll last?” I asked my husband, referring to the white volunteer.

“Not long,” he answered knowingly. My husband had once tried to toss a small five-year old boy up in his arms at the orphanage during playtime. The boy was slender and appeared lightweight. Not at all! My husband almost sprained his back! The youngster was solid muscle. Much heavier than he looked.

My husband’s predictions were barely out of his mouth before the white man’s opponent lifted him up and almost gently flipped him onto his back. Oh well… kudos to the white guy for trying. The crowds cheered and laughed. No one really lost on this match. The Cameroonian proved his strength and the foreigner had an unforgettable experience. Everyone was happy.

Cultural curiosity satisfied I headed home as the sun was setting. “Interesting,” I commented to Bill. “It seems to be rather universal that at sporting events there is an unspoken code of manly display. Enthusiasm, joy, mutual encouragement is shown through certain physical bonding rituals rarely witnessed any other time – hugging, chest thumping, fist pumping, back slapping, and high-fives. Perhaps it is part of the global language of testosterone brought about by the atmosphere of adrenaline-charged sporting competitions?


“It seems that soccer tournaments create those relationships: people gathered together in pubs and living rooms, a whole country suddenly caring about the same event. A World Cup is the sort of common project that otherwise barely exists in modern societies.”

― Simon Kuper, Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey--and Even Iraq--Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport