Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Fastest Sport on Two Feet Goes to Africa

For those who may be unfamiliar, the oldest sport in North America is lacrosse.  It was created around 1100 by Native Americans and is played on a grass field using a small ball and a long stick called a crosse.  Traditionally, the game was played for ritual or ceremonial purposes, and would be played with hundreds or even 1,000 people on each team, lasting several days from dawn to dusk.  The sport has changed considerably in the last millennium and if you’ve never seen it before I would implore you to turn to ESPN2 or ESPNU and hunt for a match. After watching a few minutes I’m sure you will understand why it is referred to as the fastest sport on two feet throughout the sporting community.

About fifteen years ago I took a job with the U.S. Lacrosse Foundation.  At the time the U.S. was preparing to host the World Lacrosse Championships.  This event is similar to the FIFA Soccer World Cup, but focuses on the sport of lacrosse.  The Championships occur once every four years and rotates between different host countries each time.  Working for the World Championships was my first experience in the hospitality industry.  If I hadn’t worked for the event I would have never entered the larger hospitality industry afterward and I most definitely would not be a professor today.  Thus, I owe a certain amount of credit for my current success to this one experience.

The ’98 Championships were held in Baltimore (my hometown) and eleven countries participated.  At the time I was the only Phelan officially employed by U.S. Lacrosse, but it was a family affair.  I worked round the clock for two weeks as did my then 11 year-old brother, who was probably the youngest, but most dedicated volunteer we had.  Mom and Dad played integral roles as well, shuttling Tommy back and forth, showing up on the sidelines with food, sunscreen, hats and other necessities, and of course, cheering for both the teams and the hard-working Phelan offspring.

Last week the U.S. hosted the event again.  This time the Championships were held in Denver and 38 countries competed.  The four of us took the trip out west to experience the Championships from a different perspective, as spectators.  In the end the U.S. lost the gold to Canada, a defeat made especially painful considering it occurred before a home crowd.  But the title game paled in comparison to the buzz created around the competition for 33rd place.

While I was in Africa I would often tell people about my experience playing lacrosse.  No one had ever heard about the sport.  Until I went to Uganda.  A few years ago a young man who played lacrosse at the same high school as my brother, and then played at University of Delaware became a Peace Corps volunteer.  Peace Corps sent him to Uganda and while he was there he decided to introduce the sport to the country.  Due to the equipment required to play the sport, the financial investment necessary will likely prohibit most African, and Third World countries, from having teams.  But somehow Uganda generated the funding and fielded a team.  And they were so excited to be there.  And everyone was happy to see them.  The Ugandans were treated like celebrities.

Watching the Uganda team-and many of the teams which were newcomers to the sport- was similar to watching a high school match here in Baltimore.  But they definitely had the heart.  Everyone was impressed when Uganda beat Korea.  The next day they repeated the performance and bested Argentina.  Based on their performance over the two weeks of competition Uganda qualified to compete for 33rd place against China.  It was one of the most heavily attended games during the event.  There were easily over 1,000 people there sprawled across the grassy hill in the heat cheering for Uganda.  The only people cheering for China were the players on the Hong Kong team.  In the end Uganda lost, earning them 34th place out of the entire tournament.  But hey! They didn’t come in LAST!

I doubt I will go to England when they host the Championships in four years.  But I will definitely keep an eye on Uganda.  Here is Uganda in gold and China in red competing for 33rd and 34th place:

No comments:

Post a Comment