Written by Robert Burgin
Photo by Bruno Ruas
One of my favourite Rugby League writers, Brad Walter, shared two old stories about the Olympics recently, prompting some thought about the way Brasil and other ‘outsider’ nations will be perceived at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup.
The first story Walter shared was of the swimmer Eric Moussambani, more commonly known as ‘Eric The Eel’.
Eric was the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who became a cult phenomenon after winning his heat at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (the other two swimmers were disqualified), despite swimming the slowest time in Olympic history for his event.
I remember sitting on my couch at the time, not long out of university, and listening to the commentators.
They talked about how Eric had no access to a 50m pool before the Olympics and had instead prepared in lakes, rivers and a 12m pool that he could only access for one hour per day.
Depending on which version of the story you read in newspapers, those bodies of water were ‘infested’ with crocodiles, sharks and snakes – though I’m sure some poetic license may have been allowed.
Anyhow, I remember Eric’s event as being one of the first occasions my young, testosterone-filled male mind comprehended the fact the Olympics, and all other sports, were not a level playing field.
I’d grown up watching the Olympics thinking athletes from the USA and USSR were better than everyone, just simply for the fact they were superior human beings.
I thought Australians were great at cricket and Zimbabweans were not, because in my undeveloped, super-competitive brain, that was simply the value of them as people.
If you were born in a certain place, I reasoned, it just made you a better, more hard-working, more successful person.
It’s cringeworthy thinking back to some of the naïve concepts you adopt in youth to make sense of the world. But certainly, at the time, a lot of those sort of notions were reinforced either by the older generation or in popular media.
The other video which journalist Walter shared to his social media account that got me thinking on this tangent about Brasil Rugby League, was of Cathy Freeman running off a 42m handicap to win the 400m at the Stawell Gift in 1996.
Amazingly, the year before in 1995, she had a disadvantage of 54m and won even easier, albeit against a seemingly less competitive field.
I’ve taken on board those memories of Eric and Cathy as we prepare for the Women’s World Cup in 2021.
Let’s make no bones about. It’s not a level playing field.
The amount of time our staff spend translating documents, creating others from scratch and filming things in Portuguese is phenomenal.
Nearly the entire knowledge library for rugby league is in English.
Even accessing the basic rules of the game in languages other than English and French is largely a dead-end road.
Commentary of professional and semi-professional games is in English, correspondence with officialdom is in English, media requests are mostly in English.
Sure, it makes sense. There’s no real way around it. But I’m lying if I say it’s not an impediment to Brasil, where a survey revealed that 80% of our athletes don’t have a conversational level of English.
If your staff, who all work fulltime jobs and have families, can still somehow find 40 hours a week to dedicate to the team, around half that precious time is taken up with translation or generating instructional content that doesn’t exist elsewhere.
That’s none of the other competing teams’ fault however, or even that of the Rugby League World Cup organising committee.
It’s a historic problem for the International Rugby League that requires fairly immediate attention.
Rugby League is a sport with ambitions of one day being at an Olympics or attracting enough member nations to be taken much more seriously by governments, sponsors and broadcasters.
Yet, I’m not sure that the official laws of the game even exist in Chinese, in Hindi, in Arabic, Japanese or Russian – unless they were created by a diehard native of those languages who was probably paid nothing for the thankless, time-consuming task.
It’s equivalent to the executives of Giant Vacuum Company Inc. telling its salespeople it wants to conquer the world, then sending them abroad with a website, pamphlets and instructional manual that can’t be understood by potential clients.
Whose fault is it if their product doesn’t catch on? The customers’?
If you look through the requirements for each team at the Rugby League World Cup, there are certain levels of accreditation that staff members must possess.
However, a lot of these accreditations have never been disseminated worldwide.
They are in English and directed mainly at people living in the South Pacific and the United Kingdom.
And, ultimately, where does our game remain largely ensconced?
The staff for Australia’s and England’s World Cup teams will roll out of bed this week, prepare for their paid jobs within the game, without even giving a fraction of a second’s thought to these matters.
Yet for other nations, it is what their volunteers will be constantly preoccupied with.
No doubt, Australia and England will work just as hard as everyone else – if not harder – but they will do so in areas that take them ahead leaps and bounds in athletic and on-field performance.
At this point I choose to diverge from the ‘whoa is me’ narrative and highlight another piece of media I consumed recently which has influenced me.
It was an episode of the show ‘The Playbook’ starring NBA coach Doc Rivers.
In it, he recalls the mantra of his parents: “We are never going to be victims.”
There’s no value in Brasil getting caught up in what systematic advantages opponents may benefit from.
The young fan sitting on the couch – and probably lots of adults for that matter – won’t comprehend a distinction from the black-and-white ‘win=good, lose=bad/lazy/loser’s mindset’ type of philosophy.
Brasil’s job is to get the job done by whatever means possible, whether that is metaphorically swimming in lakes and rivers full of carnivorous predators or not.
However, it would also be a failure of us to not use the platform we’ve been given to raise awareness about something that is holding other emerging nations – and the sport we all love – back.
It’s interesting to note that after ‘Eric The Eel’ swam a glacial 1:52.72 for the 100m freestyle in 2000, with encouragement and greater resources he basically halved that time to 56.9 seconds within a four-year period.
In 2006 he allegedly recorded 52.18 seconds at an event in Germany, a time that would have won gold at many earlier Olympics in the mid-1900s.
Victims don’t improve like that.
If you fancy supporting underdogs Brasil on their World Cup journey, it is possible to make a one-off or weekly donation that will go towards the costs of their training camps and warm-up fixtures – or even get your name on their official training shirt. Click here to support Brasil’s women’s team, a team that will consist of approximately 90 per cent domestically-based players.