Odd encounters on the roads of Riga


Something surprising happened the other day, something truly extraordinary that I never expected to experience in my advanced age. Come to think of it, the shocking sensation might well have been the first of its kind in my entire life.

You see, for a second or two I was genuinely touched by sport. More precisely, I was profoundly moved by a handful of runners speeding past me.

The venue of the almost mystical moment was Riga, the cozy capital of Latvia, where I attended the inaugural World Athletics Road Running Championship for reasons unrelated to mere racing. I just had an opportunity to meet a long-lost friend from a distant African country there. (The good old schoolteacher had recently turned into an athletics boss!)

While standing on the curb I could easily have touched the runners, some of whom belonged to the absolute elite in their chosen field of physical activity. And they positively sped past us, the (mostly) silent spectators – no panting, no wavering, hardly no sweating. There and then I shuddered and felt tears welling up in my eyes.

What happened, and why? Last time I shed tears must have been at a funeral or at another kind of religious function. Some scholars of course argue that sport is a surrogate religion for the desolate masses of modern times, but their line of thought has always been foreign to me.

Why did my legs tremble in the wide, tidy streets of Riga, then? Is it because I once wished to be as swift-footed as the world champions I observed in the ice-hockey loving country? If not, maybe because I occasionally still think, talk and write about running? But the reason might also be related to the origins of the leading athletes; many of them were at least born in certain African countries to which I have a special relationship.

Besides, the sparsely populated streets created an intimacy between the spectators and the protagonists, an intimacy that boisterous stadium races can hardly ever produce. At one point an Ethiopian ace – he led the 5 km race – grimly glanced at me in what appeared to have been a thank-you for my timid cheering.

Be that as it may, I certainly didn’t expect to be emotionally shaken by the presence of world-beating runners none of whom I will ever really get to know. (Previously I could have recognized two of them by name.) It seems I need to attend a less familiar championship event just to make sense of my peculiar reaction in Riga. They still crown world champions in chess, don’t they?


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