The highs and lows of achievement in life and sport remind us that hope is priceless writes Greg Cary.

One of the enduring attractions of sport is its capacity to keep charting new territory – to get excited about human excellence.

It struck me the week the Rosetta spacecraft landed on the comet 67P that unless you are at least in your 50s you would have no real memory of Neil Armstrong’s first historic steps upon the moon. No sense of the transcendence or sense of possibilities instilled by that singular act. It occurred to me as well that those who have grown up surrounded by the miracles of modern technology and have never known a time when television and computers didn’t exist, might not have felt the thrill of a small piece of equipment travelling six billion kilometres in ten years to land on something just four kilometres long. And to think I consider it an achievement to land a golf ball on a green 130 metres away!

When, in the early 60s, President Kennedy aimed his sights on the lunar surface he made the telling point that the US would do it “not because it was easy but because it was hard”. In one sense, landing on the moon (or the Rosetta landing on a comet) was not the point. More important was that we could do it. I felt a certain sadness (perhaps misplaced) that the more recent generation or two hasn’t experienced the extraordinary highs those of us who are slightly older have witnessed: the Berlin Wall coming down (you would need to be 40 or more to begin to comprehend the magnificence of
that moment); the still anonymous Chinese protestor who stood in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square; the release of Nelson Mandela; and the
collapse of apartheid. Who would’ve thought in the midst of the racial protests and the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 that we would welcome the first African-American president just 40 years later. That Barack Obama hasn’t lived up to his heightened
oratory means less than the optimism his promise of hope unleashed. It is hope that is priceless and it is here that sport has always played a crucial role: providing people with the possibility of doing things that have never been done. Of aiming their own Rosettas at distant targets.

Does it really matter that Kieren or Grant can swim 30 lengths of a pool in under 15 minutes? No, but what does matter is the sacrifice, hard work, courage and precision of stroke that makes it possible. Courage? Of course. To know with certainty the pain you are about to confront—lung-bursting,
breath-depriving, muscle-burning pain—and to do it anyway. They also exposed the 15 minute “barrier” for the imposter it was. All limits are arbitrary
and made to be smashed. That, in large measure, is the story of human progress.

When Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile in 1954 he did more than run faster than anyone had – he ran faster than anyone thought could be done. Doctors and scientists said it wasn’t possible, but they bet against human aspiration. Never wise.

The Rosetta reminds us that challenges remain and are worth the struggle. It raises too, a question: how many personal Rosettas have remained unlaunched, never to find out how far they could have travelled – or where they might’ve landed?

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