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Salvation through sports

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David Broder
June 10, 2010
— A fascinating test of the curative power of sports has been unfolding this week on both sides of the Atlantic, as Washington and Johannesburg look to athletes to lift the gloom surrounding their political leaders.

On Tuesday night, this capital took a grateful respite from the oil spill, the congressional primaries and the endless debates on Capitol Hill, and adjourned en masse to watch the Major League debut of Stephen Strasburg, the much-ballyhooed rookie pitcher for the Washington Nationals.


The 21-year-old right-hander, the first pick in last year’s amateur draft, faced the Pittsburgh Pirates before a crowd of more than 40,000 people, twice the size of the pre-Strasburg average.


Much as Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 spurred hopes that a new era was opening, so long-suffering fans fantasized that with Strasburg pitching and this year’s No. 1 choice, junior college slugger Bryce Harper on the way, the Nationals were destined for better things.


Strasburg more than fulfilled those hopes, striking out a team-record 14 batters and yielding only four hits and no walks in his seven innings, on the way to a 5-2 victory. From my seventh-row seat behind the plate, watching him deliver 100 mph fastballs and sharp-breaking curves over the corners, it was possible to believe the Nationals would win every time he takes the mound.


The anticipation that surrounded Strasburg was small compared to the emotion filling Johannesburg for Friday’s opening game of the World Cup soccer tournament between Mexico and South Africa. The quadrennial event, which regularly draws the largest worldwide television audience, is being contested for the first time on the African continent.


Washington badly needed the lift promised by Strasburg’s arrival. That morning’s Washington Post reported that its latest voter survey had yielded the worst vote of confidence ever for congressional incumbents, with only 29 percent of respondents saying they were inclined to vote for their own representative.


But however sour the mood in this capital, our problems fade to insignificance compared to the difficulties in South Africa. Those who loved the upbeat ending of the movie “Invictus,” celebrating the triumph of Nelson Mandela and the national rugby team, face a severe letdown if they turn to the 16-page special report on South Africa in the latest issue of The Economist.


The visiting journalists found five assorted spokesmen to bolster the semi-upbeat conclusion that “the fundamentals are there” for South Africa and “our future lies in our own hands.” But the previous pages detail an array of challenges that make the next period of South Africa’s history as daunting as its past escape from apartheid and its 16 years of shaky democratic rule. Still saddled with a one-party government, under the African National Congress, and with deep racial divisions lingering from the days of minority white rule, the country is struggling to convert its mineral riches into the makings of a modern economy.


Unemployment is officially estimated at 25 percent, and current growth rates are inadequate to reduce it much. Despite an expanded welfare program, economic inequality is severe. Most whites are doing well, but only a few of the black majority have found their way into the middle class.


Four great barriers stand in the way of progress.


Corruption is pervasive, at both local and national levels, and the government is so awash in rumors that it appears powerless to combat it.


Crime is a daily threat to blacks and whites alike, and is fed by staggeringly high unemployment among youths. A Durban magistrate who sentenced three young men for killing a teacher by throwing her off a bridge, commented, “We are scared to the point where we are no longer free.”


An official of the Development Bank of Southern Africa calls the education system “a national disaster,” with test results ranking at the bottom of all countries on international scales. The appalling weakness continues to the university level, crippling the economy for lack of skills.


Finally, one in eight South Africans is infected with HIV and an estimated 350,000 a year are being added to the 3 million believed to have died from the disease.


It takes something more than courage to look past all that and celebrate the joys of international sports competition. But Washington, in its fashion, is trying to do much the same.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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