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The Athlete: an Addict

All that remains then is a dark, empty stadium. (photo courtesy of Michael Lawrence)

Abdón Porte, who wore the shirt of the Uruguayan club Nacional for more than two hundred matches over four years, always drew applause and sometimes cheers, until his lucky star fell.

They took him out of the starting lineup. He waited, asked to return, and did. But it was no use; the slump continued, the crowd whistled. On defense even tortoises got past him, on the attack he could not score a single goal.

At the end of the summer of 1918, in the Nacional stadium, Adbón Porte took his own life. He shot himself at midnight, at the center of the field where he had been loved. All the lights were out. No one heard the gunshot.

They found him at dawn. In one hand he held a revolver, in the other a letter.

(Excerpt from Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano)

I am not sure what it is about this story, about the death of Abdón Porte, that I find so intriguing. For some reason I cannot help but feel that we, he and I that is, share something in common. But I wonder if this sense of mutual understanding does not extend to other athletes as well, which is why I bring the story to you. This shared feeling I have is difficult to describe. It is something like an undefinable, immaterial appreciation for - or perhaps more than that - an utter dependence on a particular sensation, or particular sensations, that come with athletic competition. In part it is the one you feel when your mind lets go and the body takes over. That of chasing a ball, scoring a goal, making a play. That feeling of being entirely in the moment, not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, not thinking about anything. There is no time to think. In such moments, one only acts.

But the story of Porte is more than just that. The devastation that comes with a broken leg, a torn ACL, the ending of a career, is not what killed Abdón Porte. Galeano's story illustrates a man who desired more than just to play soccer, but to be loved by those who watched him play. He craved the admiration, the respect of his fans. His reputation became his existence. Once it was lost, so was he.

His death, and the manner in which it unfolded, is nothing less than poetic.There is a perfection in it, a symmetry: it was a beautiful death. So beautiful, I cannot think of it rightfully as a suicide. For it was not Porte who took his own life, but the game of soccer. But it was not a murder. It was a natural death in the same way a lion killing its prey is natural. 

I feel there is something inherently primal about athletic competition that allows a man to express his true enlightenment, his true being. This sensation becomes addicting. Once you experience it, just like a drug, you are forever chasing it. Forever crippled with a desire to feel it again.

But the great realization that every athlete one day faces, is that no matter how hard you train, no matter how much you want to, at some point you must stop chasing.

All that remains then is a dark, empty stadium.