Uspon dug dvadeset godina

Ivica Kostelić je stigao na cilj. Na cilj do kojeg je putovao dvadeset godina, uspinjući se i padajući, boreći se protiv naizgled nepremostivih izazova. Danas je i službeno najbolji skijaš na svijetu, uspjeh nezamisliv za mladića iz zemlje bez ijedne spust staze. Ali iako uspjeh godi i potvrđuje, u obitelji Kostelić on ne stoji na prvome mjestu. Dok svi oko njih govore o putu do uspjeha, Kostelići govore o – samom putu.

Snježni gladijatori

Oni ustaju dok vi još spavate, u mjestima za koja većina od vas nikad nije čula. U životu lišenom svakog luksuza, u ranu zoru ulaze u blještave pancerice i na njih kopčaju najnovije skije, ne zato što se pred nekime žele pokazati, već zato što im je to posao. Oni su najbolji skijaši na svijetu i u neprekidnoj borbi za onom pobjedničkom stotinkom svakodnevno riskiraju svoje zdravlje, a nerijetko i – život.

Ući u bodove na Streifu, proći zamke “Mišolovke”, prebroditi dio staze koji se s pravom zove jednostavno “Strmina” i biti pritom jedan od trideset najbržih je definitivni dokaz da pripadate skijaškoj eliti. U spustu Kitzbühela nitko do bodova ne dolazi slučajno, a onaj trideseti bolji je od stotina tisuća natjecatelja koji o Streifu sanjaju i od milijuna onih koji se s manje ili više uspjeha skijaju po planinama širom svijeta.

Da li znate do kolikog će bogatstva doći taj, koji pred sobom ima 29 boljih, a iza sebe mase koje bi željele biti poput njega? 600 eura. Šest zelenih novčanica, manje više jedna za svaku ključnu dionicu staze na kojoj ga i najmanja pogreška može koštati života. Ne, novac nije motor koji pokreće bijeli cirkus, barem ne one koji u tom showu igraju najbitniju ulogu – skijaše.

Skijaši su općenito jedna vrlo posebna grupa ljudi. Veže ih ljubav prema sportu, ali i činjenica da jedni druge vide puno češće nego vlastite obitelji. Na natjecanjima i na treninzima, oni su svi prvenstveno skijaši, a tek onda konkurenti. Hrvati će odtrenirati s Talijanima, Norvežani s Kanađanima, kad zapne uskočit će i naš fizioterapeut i na brzinu osposobiti austrijskog Maria Matta za utrku. Znaju se i poštuju međusobno, u skijanju novine ne prodaju omalovažavajuće izjave o protivnicima.

Jedan od razloga za to je da im je svima jasno da im se život može promijeniti u sekundi. Svi oni znaju za Matthiasa Lanzingera, Gernota Reinstadlera, Daniela Albrechta i, od danas, Hansa Gruggera. Svi znaju da i njihovo ime može doći na tu ili slične liste, ili ako ne njihovo, onda ime ljutog suparnika. Svi znaju da jureći niz padine brzinama koje do jučer nije postizao poveći broj automobila – izazivaju sudbinu. Kaciga je dobra stvar, zaštitnik leđa također. Ali skijaši nemaju niti zračni jastuk, niti ABS, niti dvotonsku šasiju oko sebe. Kada nam zaustavljaju dah na Streifovima i Lauberhornovima ovoga svijeta oni su usamljeniji od bika na ulicama Pamplone, i znaju da od trenutka kada se podignu na štapove, duboko udahnu i bace se niz padinu više nema nikoga uz njih. U skijanju ne postoji time-out, ne postoji suigrač koji može ispraviti tvoju grešku ili trener koji ti može pomoći savjetom u ključnom trenutku.

Sa startnim brojem 62 danas se niz stazu legendarnog Streifa spustio Tin Široki. U arhivi će zauvijek ostati zapisano da je trening završio posljednji, s preko deset sekundi zaostatka, ali kao i uvijek, brojke pišu samo dio priče. Šanse stoje jako, jako dobro, da u životu niste upoznali nikoga tko se skija niti približno tako dobro kao Tin. Možda poznajete nekoga tko se jako dobro skija, nekoga tko je učitelj skijanja na primjer. A možda i znate da će treneri nakon iznimno loše vožnje natjecatelju reći da se spustio kao da je – učitelj skijanja. U svakom slučaju Tin Široki je nevjerojatno dobar skijaš.

Tin je danas po prvi puta u životu izazvao Streif. Na dan stravičnog pada Hansa Gruggera, kojeg je uživo odgledao na televiziji čekajući svoj start. Na dan tvrde staze i gustog snijega, na dan u kojemu su predvozači izgledali kao da ih je netko poslao na stazu po kazni. S dvadeset i tri godine i već dvije teške ozljede u povijesti bolesti, Tin danas nikako nije bio gubitnik, čak ni po standardima koje često postavljaju navijači koji priznaju samo svjetski vrh. I koji se, bez obzira što će reći u sigurnosti udobne fotelje, sigurno ne bi mogli “tak spustiti”. Niti bilo kako.

I dok se doktor Blauth i njegov tim bore za život Hansa Gruggera, prvog i posljednjeg danas, Didija Cuchea i Tina Širokog, veže puno više nego što na prvi pogled izgleda. Možda je razlika između jednog i drugog, barem ona vremenska, danas bila vrlo velika. Ali razlika između njih dvojice s jedne strane i “normalnih” ljudi koje poznajemo u svakodnevnom životu je stotinama, tisućama puta veća. I u jednome su isti – i jedan i drugi zaslužuju naš respekt.

U sportu u kojemu se zvijezde ne ponašaju kao takve, svi su dio jedne obitelji. I svi u toj obitelji – i Cuche i Široki i svi između njih – znaju da žive život u traci za preticanje i da sir iz Streifove mišolovke kradu bez ičije pomoći. Danas je ta obitelj doživjela težak udarac. Sutra se već vozi sljedeća utrka, u životu skijaša nema mjesta za razmišljanja o opasnostima. Jedino za nadu – da će mišolovke i slične zamke širom svijeta biti milostive.

Right to play

This is not a story about Oakland Athletics. It is not even a story about baseball. This is a story of three people you have probably never heard about, whose lives are interlaced in a most improbable manner and who, each one in his own way, give hope. It’s an opportunity to say thank you to those who inspire, both by selflessly giving and by giving the reason to selflessly give.

* * *

Emanuelly Peter is 12, although you would never guess him to be a day older then nine. He likes soccer, Christiano Ronaldo and bananas for dessert. Emanuelly lives in a children’s home in Moshi, small town in central Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Marco Büchel finished his career as a professional ski racer just a few days ago. Today he is speeding down the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen again, in a jersey without a number, in a race where everyone will be a winner. Marco comes from Liechtenstein, a country with the GDP per capita 284 times that of Tanzania.

Johann Olav Koss is not in Garmisch, although he would love to be. He is in Heerenveen, Netherlands, coaching Norwegian speed-skating national team, passing on the knowledge of the sport that brought him four Olympic gold medals. Aside from speed-skating, Johann Olav dedicated his life to bringing people like Emanuelly and Marco together.

 

One can say without hesitation that Tanzania is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and anybody who greeted the rising sun on the top of Kilimanjaro or woke up in a tent in the middle of Serengeti wildness will not contradict. But Tanzania lives its numerous lives outside of the boundaries of its national parks, as well, the lives you will not find depicted on a shiny postcard, the lives that nobody envies her for.

AIDS took its toll on an already empowered country, turning more than two and a half million children into orphans. One out of every ten kids will not live to see their fifth birthday and only about a half will have a chance to finish elementary school.

Emanuelly was born and raised right in the center of it all, in a typical Moshi edifice that can be called a house only with a lot of imagination and benevolence. Wave-shaped sheeting on the top, slender wooden poles on the side and not much in between, certainly no running water or sewage, was what he called home. Then one day, after his mother lost the battle against the disease and his father the one against alcoholism, even that home ceased to be and the streets of Moshi and the daily struggle for food became a reality.

His is the story mirroring millions alike, not only stories of Moshi, not only of Tanzania, not only of Africa. All around the globe there are children deprived of their basic rights, among them – the right to play.

* * *

Balzers, a little town in the Principality of Liechtenstein, can not boast with peaks of 20,000 feet or with roaming herds of lions. Instead, it has Alps and one of the highest standards of living anywhere on Earth. Every kid can play, and little Marco was no exception. The game turned to be a sport, and the sport turned to be a profession that led to a 20-year long career as an elite skier. He lets others count his medals, podiums and victories, he is too smart to use that as the only measure of success of the years behind him. Büxi knows that he was born under a lucky star, and he is the first one who will not only recognize it but also thankfully appreciate it.

His big wish was to recognize the right moment to retire form the active competition, and the look in his eye shows that he knows that he succeeded. Retirement is not an easy task for an elite athlete, and Büchel is no exception. But he said his good-bye healthy, as one of the ten best downhill skiers in the world and he said his good bye to a sport “in which he wanted to and managed to leave a trace”. And today, he will often nod his head in gratitude, saying “I have a nice life”.

He shared the Kandahar slope with many a skiing celebrity today. The improvised parallel-slalom included, among others,  the likes of Aksel-Lund Svindal, Julia Mancuso, Emily Brydon and Rosi Mitermeier, as well as scores of kids, who are now offering any and every piece of their clothing for a cherished autograph of their skiing idols. For every team that raced today, consisting of two prominent skiers and one kid, a sponsor paid 5,000 CHF to the account of the humanitarian organization Right To Play.

* * *

Right To Play was born as a part of the Olympic Help Program in Lillehammer, 1994, during the Games that saw Johann Olav Koss win three gold medals and help raise significant funds for needy children. Olympics passed but need for help didn’t – today Right To Play and Koss as its chairman coordinate elite athletes from more than 40 countries, united under one goal – give every kid a chance to play.

It’s a lofty and, at first glance, impossible goal, but you should never underestimate top athletes when they put their minds on doing something. Already now, more than 680,000 kids participate in weekly activities that Right To Play organizes with more than 15,000 local teachers and coaches. Numerous studies show the importance of sports in early ages and its positive influence in helping kids overcome difficulties surrounding them. Koss and his athletes firmly believe in that and keep expanding their efforts, year after year.

* * *

I met Emanuelly in January in Amani Children’s Home in Moshi. I brought him soccer cleats and we kicked some. Then I watched him kick some more with his friends and I realized just how privileged I was to watch sports as it was meant to be. I doubt that I ever witnessed a purer exhibition of skill, joy and competitiveness, not in World Cup, not even in Olympics.

It was an hour of living right there and right then, sixty minutes in which only thing that existed was the ball and the desire to play with it better than the other kids did. For a moment, the troubled past and the uncertain future were nowhere to be found, buried deep under the sweat and the pride of every good pass or a fancy dribble.

* * *

Büxi is still in the middle of it all, signing one autograph after another, posing for pictures and smiling. He keeps repeating that he had everything he asked for in his life and that if his name is enough to help someone, that then there is no excuse not to do it.

Aksel-Lund agrees and adds that “it’s a shame how our lives are being dominated by negative news, how everybody just seems to talk about where the latest accident or a crime happened”. And he adds that it’s a pity, because there are so many good things going around, too. He is way above mentioning it, but he, too, realizes how none of the dozens of reporters who were covering the last race of the World Cup just hours ago stayed for the humanitarian event.

Svindal, just like Büchel, enjoys both skiing and life, and he makes no secret about it. He is someone who will make a hilarious tribute to Michael Jackson while wearing a racing outfit on the top of the glacier, but he is also a serious, eloquent leader of this generation of skiers. And as such, he knew only one answer was right when Johann Olav Koss approached him and asked for help.

Marco Büchel was sure that joining Right To Play was the right decision, too. Much more certain than he is when you ask him today what he’s going to do with all the free time coming up, something he hasn’t experienced in 20 years. He’ll do some commenting for German television. He’ll base-jump more and drive his Harley more. And he will be just a little envious of those who are preparing for the new season.

And finally he will have time to do some field work for Right Of Play. Probably in fall, he says. Probably Tanzania.

* * *

Johann Olav Koss’ start as the head of the Norwegian team went surprisingly well, considering he barely coached before. But, generally, betting on someone with five Olympic medals is not a bad idea. He already achieved an almost impossible feat – his three Lillehammer Olympic golds propelled him to becoming one of the very few Europeans who was crowned Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. A feat that he would have deserved even had he finished dead last in each one of his races.

 

 

 


Svindal & Büchel


Emanuelly


Koss


Soccer at Amani


Right To Play charity event in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany


Bananas for dessert at Amani Children’s Home

Four graphs and a story

I was eight years old the first time I searched for truth. The man in the dark suit taught me how to do it.*

* Yes, I obviously love Paul Auster

The man in the dark suit was my father and the impeccable clothing was as much an integral part of his persona as was the uncompromising desire to not only know, but also speak up the truth at any cost. There are more favorable circumstances to yield to this desire than being a lead columnist in one of the biggest newspapers of a communist country, but that seemed to interest him as little as did the inevitable consequences.

As any child does, I thought a world of my father. And as any child does, I tried to be like him as much as I could, but quickly realized that wearing a neatly ironed suit or finding an audience – any audience – is not something an eight year old can easily accomplish. I didn’t even have enough strength in my fingers to type on his geezer codger Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter* when he was not at home. So if I wanted to be anything like him, the only thing left to do was to search for the truth myself.

* Typewriters were a huge part of my childhood. Besides the two that my parents had and that were on our kitchen table for most of the time when we were not eating, my sister had one, too, and that one was in a room we shared. My sister is eleven years older than me and I am still convinced that she is the fastest typist in the world. And the loudest. She financed her education by retyping documents for diverse companies and she would do that during evenings and nights, so I rarely went to sleep without the light of her desk lamp and the sound of her mechanical typewriter accompanying me. To this day I find it easier to fall asleep on a sailing boat in the middle of the Ocean storm than in a quiet and dark room.

My father would come home around five on most days. I would first hear the car parking in front of our building and then he would climb the 114 stairs leading to our fourth floor* apartment. To this day I am ashamed to admit that my excitement for his arrival had less to do with him and more with what he would bring home day after day. Newspapers. A whole lot of newspapers.

* We actually lived on the fifth and the final floor of the building. However, the law required an elevator be installed for every building of five or more floors, so our building had two ground floors. I am serious. We had a “Ground Level Floor” and a “Close to the Ground Floor” above it. First floor was already at the height of the third deck of Coliseum, or at least so it seamed when one was a small kid.

He had a dark brown leather bag with a shiny copper buckle and inside it all the evening editions of all the major newspapers in the country. It wasn’t heavy and my father was a strong man, yet it seemed that his strength would abandon him as soon as he crossed the threshold of our home and that it was exactly that bag that was robbing him of all his power. I was too little to understand the weight this bag had on him, to understand the implications and the danger of a dissenting thought and the power of its menacing echo. To me, that bag represented a window to the world and there was nothing greater anywhere to be found. Back in the late seventies, that resentfully thrown piece of leather was my internet.

So, thirty years ago, almost to a day, I took one of the newspapers out of it and marched into our living room, opened the sports page, called for my parents’ attention and started reading an article out loud. I don’t remember anymore what the article was about, but I do remember that my parents’ faces showed that they were equal parts amazed and freaked out. I was reading an article from a Serbian newspaper. I had learned Cyrillic all on my own.

My father always told me that only when you hear the other side of the story are you ready to start understanding where the truth might lay. Serbian papers were the other side of the story, pretty much any story, and especially when that story was one of a soccer match between ours and theirs. I knew the soccer league standings by heart, so I had little problem deciphering the single letters and soon I was able to read the words, then the sentences, then the whole game recaps.

All by myself I searched for my very first truth and discovered my very first other side of the story. My father didn’t say much that day, but I remember how, later that night, he came to my side, put his arm across my shoulder, pulled me closer to him and just silently nodded.

My parents never lived to see me write or publish anything. As most teenagers, I wanted to be anything but what my parents were and as most grown ups who realize they haven’t thought of saying “thank you” until there was no more chance to do so, I regret it deeply. In every praise I ever get for my writing there is a vinegar drop, a realization that they will never know just how much they influenced me and will never have a chance to be proud of it.

Every now and then somebody who knew them well will read something I wrote, tell me that they think it was a good piece, then breathe in as if they want to say something more, only to hold their breath and stare thoughtfully at the floor or at an imaginary point way behind my back. Then we’ll just nod, tap each other on the shoulder and walk away.

I still search for truth from time to time. Sometimes it is in the photons of the optical fiber, sometimes in the thin Colorado air and it never matters. It never matters because it’s more about the journey than actually reaching the truth and because the truths I pursue are rather meaningless in the big picture. Yet, I search and every one of these searches leads me back to the warm evenings of my childhood, to the smell of the leather bag, the sound of the typewriter and my lead-smeared fingers leafing through what would be the memory of my life.

I owe you four graphs.