The Solar Eclipse and other great sporting moments

I went to see the solar eclipse last Wednesday. In a moment of extravagance my friend and I booked into Cairns for a one night hit and run. The thought that I should go had been drifting around in my head for a long time, but to be fair my friend was the one that turned a vague idea into hard reality.
I wanted to go because the odds of a solar eclipse are so small. Not the odds it will actually happen, the mathematicians wouldn’t be embarrassed that easily. The odds relate to the event itself. The two most important celestial bodies we have, one 400 times the diameter of other, but by a fluke of nature almost 400 times further away from our lonely blue planet. On the very rare moments when they cross paths in the sky they are a perfect match. It’s easy to explain the physics, but the chances of this happening are so miniscule that we suspect our view is unique in this pocket of the galaxy. A perfect moment in space-time.
My friend and I didn’t mention it much, but the other reason we went to Cairns was to test our luck as spectators. The tropical weather in November is patchy at best, and the chance that the whole trip would be for nought was very possible. Twenty hours of travel for two minutes of madness is hard enough to explain. Try telling the missus you saw nothing.
So what does all this have to do with sport? Well assuming like me that you have resigned yourself to the fact that playing in a great event is not going to happen, the next best thing is to witness it – live if possible. I’m not talking about a great sporting extravaganza here, more a great sporting moment. The problem is that unless you share tea and scones with the likes of Roman Abramovich, small details like work and finances get in the road. You have to pick your targets wisely, and understand that great sporting moments don’t happen on cue. The odds are against you.
Success of course is in the eye of the viewer. I happened to be at Old Trafford that famous day when Warne bowled Gatting. I was even watching the game. My clearest memories however are not of the ball kissing the off bail, but of Gatting’s stunned expression and the look of trepidation on Robin Smiths’ face as he walked to the crease. You wouldn’t think you could see this from the stands, but you could. Their body language gave the game away.
I wouldn’t consider this a great spectator moment though. It happened too quickly, and I never had the chance to get emotionally involved. A far better example was the same summer in England. I followed Greg Norman through the last round of the Open at St George. On the Saturday he got himself into contention with steady golf. On the Sunday he led the field, but as Leigh Mathews once famously said, ‘I knew they ’de be coming’. By the 17th the pressure was really on. I have vivid memories of the tee. A sweeping wind left to right, taking any stray litter across the dunes and off to oblivion. Norman naturally plays right to left, and as he stood over the ball he was aiming OOB. I was petrified for him, and could only think of the soul destroying ‘blocks right’ from his tragic past. In deathly silence he surveyed his destiny, and then unleashed. If I close my eyes I can still see the ball heading off to the dunes, and then against the wind and his history it turned and drew back onto the fairway. Now I’m not someone who needs to be involved in public displays of man love, but I could have kissed him. The euphoria of his victory stayed with me for days.
So this for me defines a great viewing moment. You need enough time to digest the possibilities of failure and have an emotional investment in the outcome. By the time Gary Ablett stuck a paw up over Micky Martin’s outstretched fingers in the 1994 preliminary final all of us at the game had died and been reborn many times. I recall hugging the man next to me, a stranger in the night, and walking on air away from the ground. I only saw John Aloisi’s penalty on television, but marvelled at it, and the reaction it produced. Soccer’s greatest attraction is its ability to produce moments of exhilaration.
I have almost chanced on some other great sporting moments. I saw Roger Clemens on the mound for the Blue Jays, ninth innings, two out, two strikes and a celebrated ‘perfect game’ in his grasp. His final pitch was picked off, and we all went home dejected. I was due to go to the UK open in 2004 on the night Phil Taylor had a nine dart finish, but missed the chance through some laziness. I have also seen persistence rewarded. My father looked for the Swans to provide a great moment, but left the 20th century behind both exhausted and unfulfilled. Leo Barry you star!
As for the eclipse, well it’s not out of place in this story. The rain fell on Machans Beach the evening before, and when we arose with the sparrows a heavy bank of cloud greeted us on the Eastern horizon. Our local host was quietly pessimistic, but some glimpses of blue had my friend quoting us ‘a chance’. As the moon crept across the sun’s disk our stated odds fluctuated wildly. At one early stage the clouds moved and we were 6:4 on, but as the moment of totality finally approached the clouds thickened and a depressing 10:1 against was mentioned. In the last few moments some remarkable things happened. The large cloud mass somehow vanished, but left behind one small grey puff. To either side was clear sky, but as the great orbs aligned and darkness descended we had a view of the stars and planets, but not of the eclipse itself. And then the screaming at the cloud started. Go you grey thing! Go the Goondiwindi grey! Go Gunsynd Go! And like the Cox Plate in 1972 it did, and we were blessed with possibly the greatest sight on Earth. For a minute or so we yelled and screamed and looked skyward, and then the rays of the sun kissed our cheeks again and after the handshakes and hugs the world returned to normal.
So what does all this mean? A Solar Eclipse forces you to look beyond yourself. Our own moments in space-time also won’t last forever, and whilst life is many things to many people, a lot of us define our existence by our greatest memories. Though it drives the content of this story, sport of course provides only some of them. My plan going forward is to choose my events wisely, involve those close to me and to hope a great moment comes my way. You won’t catch a trout without a fly on the water, but few of us can afford to spend all our time fishing. My friend witnessed the ‘Bubba’ shot at Augusta last year. A lot of cash and credits spent, but worth everything invested to see a flawed athlete triumph. He knows it could have ended up with Peter Hanson making bogie for a three stroke win. Not all the punts we take will be winners, but we should celebrate the ones that are.


  1. I wish I was there.

    Love that Leigh Tudor’s kick has the same cosmic gravitas as the movement of two enormous masses. About right too.

  2. Michael Howard says

    So true about Tudor’s kick John. Success in recent times has dulled the my anguish from the 90’s, but at the time a grand final shot would have sat ahead of lunch with Elvis. Solar eclipses were a dime a dozen compared to Cat premierships back then. .

  3. Peter Schumacher says

    My wost sporting moment yet in a way my highlight was Mannum beating Birdwood by one lousy point in the 1959 (I tbink) Torrens Valley ( South Australia) Grand final after Birdwood gained a five point lead when Captain Coach Vern Mueller kicked a long bouncing goal from the centre bounce. with what I and the whole of Birdwood thought was on the point of siren time. It wasn’t, a Lutheran Minister playing for Mannum, Clem Traeger and another player broke away from the centre bounce and after a series of handballs over Birdwood defenders Traeger kicked a goal. The siren sounded. I reckon that I was in the right place at the right time to witness the best game I have ever seen even though I was gutted.

  4. Mick,

    And then there are the events where you are not truly cognisant of what’s going on

    Murali no-balls at the MCG!


  5. Matt Dowling says

    Then there are the life changing, tick box, finally I’ve seen it moments… Watching Manchester City win the league for the first time in your lifetime after scoring the winner with virtually the last kick of the game, last game of the season and snatching the title from your most bitter rivals. A true “I can die a happy man” moment. How do you get a cork back into a champagne bottle? … Ask a Manchester United fan.

Leave a Comment