A Very Unexpected Memory Jog

I’m no sports fan, so put it down to a sneaking soft spot for Matt Damon that, courtesy of my project to catch up on films that I’ve missed, that I watched ‘Invictus’ this week.

It’s based on the real events surrounding the victory of the Sprinkgboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.  It tracks a story in which Nelson Mandela, newly elected President made a calculated decision to get the post apartheid country to unite behind the team.  This was quite an objective, as until then rugby was considered a whites only sport, with the black population habitually supporting whoever was playing against the Springboks on principal.

Made with, presumably, an American audience in mind, the script either glossed over the finer points of the sport, or laboured to explain particular aspects of it, by making some characters oddly ignorant.  It was a laugh out loud moment where one had to confirm they knew about the All Blacks’ Haka , something too cinematically attractive to leave out, taken as read in international rugby, but requiring explanation to a potentially ignorant audience.

The main focus of the story was in the transformation of the attitude of the people of South Africa to the sport, and its unifying effect, as beating the odds, the Springbok advanced through the competition to eventually win the it. But there had to be some running about and cheering of crowds in packed stadia to provide the backdrop.  The filming of the matches was interesting in that it was without the thinly veiled homo-eroticism  in the usual televising of  real matches.

Because the memory that watching the film brought back to me was that I had actually watched the real match, on Eurosport, in my flat in Moscow.  That I ever tuned into that channel was itself only a reflection of the limited resources I had available to me at the time.  My ‘Kosmos’ service provided Russian channels, CNN, BBC Prime  (all the disappointing programmes the BBC had produced in  the preceding 20 years on an eight hour repeat cycle), a country music channel, MTV, and one that showed only US made for TV movies, usually involving Jaclyn Smith in her post Charlie’s Angels career.

There was an active trade in counterfeit video cassettes, but even that supply ran out on occasion, so I did sometimes stumble upon the peculiar diet of freestyle dirt bilking and tractor pulling that populated the sport schedule when they didn’t expect anyone to be watching.  One afternoon I stumbled on the rugby final, and was intrigued enough by the coverage of the presence of Mandela at the game that I stayed to watch it until the end, because it turned out to be quite a cliffhanger ending.

I don’t think I was aware of the huge significance to the country that the President’s support of the team had made, but it did register how he had decided to take advantage of the worldwide audience that the tournament would attract to show the country in a new light.  And it worked, if it piqued the interest of a sport agnostic like me.

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  1. Those were exciting times here. It was amazing how some things changed on so many different levels, and of course how some things never changed at all.


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