Hopped up on emotions: the Euro 2020

I’m not generally into watching sports. In fact, most of the time, I cannot get myself follow what’s happening on the screen, even if I try. Somehow, this drastically changes when the football world cup (or, alternatively, the Euros) reaches its zenith. When playing ball turns into a zero-sum game, I am suddenly really invested! But only if I have people around me how are supporting their team of choice vehemently – not once have I managed to motivate myself to watch a game on my own.

My mom discovered her passion for watching soccer games later in life and can tell you everything about her favourite team, Borussia Dortmund. When there are any bigger soccer games shown on German public TV, you can be sure she’s watching. Unlike my dad, who could not care less – so much for gender stereotypes! I think it’s because of emotions running high that I also end up getting excited to the extent that I scream at the TV when it comes to all-or-nothing international matches, I even though I’m not actually an enthusiast of ANY sports.

Variations of this image capturing emotional moments of two Swiss team supporters made their rounds online during the Euro 2020

It may sound weird, but there is something really transfixing about a team trying so visibly hard to claim relevance (and a substantial price), watching them jump on each other overcome with pure joy and grown men in the audience not ashamed to have their tears being documented – something they might not feel free to do in other public contexts. I bet my grandfather shed one or the other tear as well when he religiously attended the semi-monthly games of the relatively small football team of my hometown in Germany, Offenbach (the team’s name is Offenbacher Kickers, in case you were wondering).

Even though it was sometimes bothersome living in Germany during the big football competitions, the car-hooting and late-night shouts of jubilation in the streets were somewhat infectious. It is worth mentioning that this typically only happens when male teams are playing, which tend to serve as the implied default-gender when speaking about the sport (a quick Google and image-search of the term ‘German national team’ will demonstrate this default-thinking). This is despite the German women’s national team, for instance, being highly successful and ‘women football’ having achieved record viewership in 2020 because of new broadcasting and streaming deals. But let’s bracket that for now.

I do quite fondly remember the (men’s) world cup in Germany in 2016, when, for a moment, it felt as though coming together to watch football was the only thing that mattered. I was working at a Burger King outlet at the main train station in Frankfurt at the time. Watching dressed up and cheerful fans throughout the workday made me smile and was a much welcome sight breaking with the mind dulling routine of selling burgers. It was also the first time that it was widely acceptable to ‘show flag’ again in Germany after the second world war. While I’m critical of expressions of national pride (as they tend to imply the exclusion of others) and was worried that the situation will somehow turn hostile, I recall this period to have been mostly light and cheerful.

And then, of course, there was the (men’s) World Cup 2010 in South Africa. I had been to Cape Town a couple of months prior for an internship and was planning a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town at the time, which turned into a permanent move. Given that, I was following the coverage around this World Cup especially closely on TV. The sensation of a momentary feeling of togetherness communicated through celebratory images made it all the way to my couch and got me exhilarated. The feeling was overpowering, even though it was fleeting and interspersed with news coverage about the financial spending South Africa had to undertake to be able to host the tournament, and how this compared the country’s other urgent investment needs.

The Cape Town (Green Point) stadium built at the cost of R4.4 billion for the world cup 2010

I have long been somewhat intrigued by how watching sports brings people together on the one hand and, on the other, serves as a platform for violence (again, as far as I know this is not typical for any ‘women’s sports events’). In the shape of sheer hooliganism, the latter seems incomprehensible if thinking of football as a mere ball game, especially when caught up in a beautiful moment. But it is indeed much more than that – it’s an intrinsically social affair. It is a microcosm with its own dynamics, a space with its own rituals in which everyday social rules become amended. And one that I cannot help myself getting sucked into when surrounded by football enthusiasts.

I imagine that, in one situation or another, we all might be susceptible to let ourselves float as a part of a group dynamic that emphasise commonality, nurtured with each burst of emotion. Given how dependable we as humans are on one another, having amplified responses to a tangible shared sense of vulnerability is not all that surprising from the perspective of an anthropologist such as myself. But it’s still remarkable and quite obviously something I’m not immune to. As already mentioned, the unfortunate part of the story is that where there is demarcated inclusion, there are usually also markers of not-belonging. When excitement peaks, these run the risk of being escalated. Such was evident in the aftermath of the Euro final. Footballers of the English team who were cheered on by the masses on the field found themselves racially abused online following their team’s defeat (a ubiquitous rather than an exceptional phenomenon for Black players).

Where there are moments of sheer thrill, these are not bound to last. A mere day after the Euro final, all its intensity had completely worn off for me. And whomever stranger one had ended up hugging and crying with in the audience of a stadium, one may keep their distance from the next day when meeting at the supermarket. But there is always a next time to get that intriguing rush of raw, unfiltered human expression. Hopefully minus any potential elements of aggression.

For whom the bell tolls

Do we benefit from scientific advancement equally?

December 2nd 1921, 14-year-old Leonard Thompson is admitted into the Toronto General Hospital. Emaciated and weighing just 29.5 kilograms, suffering from severe diabetes in a time where treatment could only delay death through fasting on a calorie-restricted diet, his prospects of survival are low. However, in a small laboratory not far from where Thompson lies, a series of small successes have laid the groundwork for a medical breakthrough. In January 1922, Thompson becomes the first person to receive medically administrated insulin, stabilising his blood glucose levels and ultimately sparing him from an untimely death.

So important was the extraction and purification of insulin that, only a few months after their success in treating Leonard Thompson, Frederick Banting and Professor John Macleod were awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work and the intellectual property of the extraction process sold to the University of Toronto for only $1 each. The patent application itself stressed that the patent was only necessary to ‘restrict manufacture of insulin to reputable pharmaceutical houses who could guarantee the purity and potency of their products’ and ‘prevent unscrupulous drug manufacturers from making or patenting an impotent or weakened version of this potentially dangerous drug and calling it insulin’. Insulin would also earn Professor Frederick Sanger and Dorothy Hodgkin the 1958 and 1964 Nobel prizes in Chemistry respectively for their work on understanding the molecule, and would go on the be a poster-child for biotechnology as transgenic yeast cultures replaced dogs and cattle as a more ethical and sustainable source.

In his meditation ‘No Man Is An Island’, John Donne likens humanity to a continent which becomes less of itself when even a single clod is washed into the sea. For Donne the funeral bell, which tolls in mourning for a lost life, rings not just for the dead themselves but for the loss in us all. More than a century after Leonard Thompson was saved, insulin remains the source of many preventable funeral bells despite being an easily synthesised and administered compound. The reason is economic and in the United States of America insulin prices more than tripled between 1995 and 2014 such that, although the country only accounted for 15% of the global insulin demand, it generated nearly half of the global pharmaceutical industry’s insulin revenue. As a result of these price hikes, one in four of its citizens with diabetes have no choice but to skimp on, or even skip, lifesaving doses. When individual access to capital remains a deciding factor in who can access even the most basic of medical care, a public good and a product of science, it begs the question: for whom does the bell toll?

In 1970, Dr Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work developing high-yielding wheat cultivars. Scientific advancements across all agricultural science disciplines saw The Green Revolution, for which he was the figurehead, produce more food than ever before through unprecedented increases in yields. Although this lead to substantial decreases in world hunger in the latter half of the last century, global hunger is once again rising. In 2019, there were 60 million more undernourished people in the world than in 2014, and not for a lack of produce. In Dr Borlaug’s own words, ‘food is the moral right of all who are born into this world’, yet consumer-level food wastage in the Global North waste amounts to almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. Food wastage is an incredibly complex problem, but when there is greater economic incentive to over-supply rich consumers while the workers who produce this food go hungry, it begs the question: for whom does the bell toll?

The on-going SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, a source of immense loss, has reinforced how interconnected we are as a society and further laid bare the entrenched inequalities. The rapid development of the various vaccines coming onto the market has shown what can be achieved when there is a coordinated global effort. Yet, as countries scramble to be the first in line to secure vaccines for their citizens, countries from the Global North have voted against South Africa and India’s proposal for the World Trade Organisation to suspend SARS-CoV-2-related IP until the pandemic is contained. When the Global North chooses pharmaceutical profits over sharing life-saving knowledge in the midst of a global pandemic, it begs the question: for whom does the bell toll?

These examples are by no means outliers, and form part of a long list of instances where the fruits of scientific progress are enjoyed only by those with sufficient capital. Many science enthusiasts continue to regurgitate the mantra that science is apolitical, but as I have said in many of my other posts this is patently untrue. Until we address the inequalities which not only hinder access to the benefits of science, and determine who is disproportionately represented in the body of scientific understanding, we are perpetuating grave injustices. My hope for a post-pandemic world is that we take a deep reflection on who truly benefits from scientific progress, and take a more committed and coordinated approach to building the global social safety-net necessary for a more cohesive and equitable society. When the bell tolls, it must toll for us all.