17. How Much Is Actually Yours?

If you haven’t noticed, 2016 is the year of the underdog. Those accustomed to losing are winners this year. In the US, the city of Cleveland won it’s first title (basketball) in almost 50 years. In the Premier League (British Soccer) the team from the less-than-powerful city of Leicester won the championship beating 5000 to 1 odds. In more soccer, Portugal won the European championship for the first time ever. If the Chicago Cubs win the World Series this year, then I think that I may have to re-evaluate my understanding of the higher powers that control the universe.

*On a side note… from my perspective living in another country, calling the American baseball championship series “The World Series” comes off as a bit arrogant.  Shouldn’t you have to compete against other teams in “The World” to call it that?

broncosparade 3
1 million people showed up to celebrate Denver’s Super Bowl victory

This year the beloved team from my city also won as underdogs. Historically the Denver Broncos have had more luck on their side than any team in Cleveland, but nonetheless they were not favored to win. When the team from your city wins it’s great fun. You celebrate, throw things, hug people, and walk the earth like you own the place for a few days.

The Jockey in Siena’s Palio is like an athlete that wins a title. They’re happy for all the work that they’ve done to get to the top… but they also know that they’re getting paid.

For me, just for a moment, that feeling of elation made me reflect on what it means when your team wins. It’s a strange thing if you think about it. Fans are a bit of a paradox. The team doesn’t actually need fans to perform. As hard as I hoped for the team from my city, I am actually quite certain that my influence on the outcome of the game was none. Despite what we like to think, even home-field advantage is only a small advantage statistically (some data from one of my favorite podcasts Freakanomics). On the other hand, sports can only exist if there are fans watching, and there is money to be made from them.

What do you get when your team wins? Unless you’re on the team that wins or you work for the organization of the team, you really don’t win anything. You don’t get paid. What you “get” is the temporary acknowledgement that your allegiance is to the organization that is, momentarily, the best in it’s field.   All we have is our allegiance, which is only morally binding and allegiance does not equal ownership.

I don’t want to get too far into the philosophical question of whether it’s actually possible to own things. That’s a question for another blog, one that I don’t think that I’m going to write. I will say that in Siena, people own much more of their passion than the rest of us.

The days preceding Il Palio

I wrote last year about Il Palio in a post about family (link to the post if you didn’t catch that one). This year the Lupa Contrada, that hasn’t won in 27 years, finally could claim that the jockey that they paid to ride on a horse that they were given (temporarily) rode past the finish line before the other jockeys paid by other Contradas.   The string of 2016 underdogs continues. People went nuts. Weeks later they will still be going nuts. Months later, they will still be celebrating.

lupa winner
Victory after 27 long years

To an outsider it seems a bit fanatical. The key to understanding the Sienese pathological dedication to their horse race is to understand their alternative concept of ownership when it comes to the Contradas.

There are 17 contradas. They are neighborhood territories that have remained without any changes for hundreds of years. People are baptized at birth into a contrada. Nowadays it’s the parents choice, but when people used to be born at home, your contrada was literally the one where you were born. OK, so they are loyal since birth.  That’s not that unique.  One could say that my parents baptized me into being a Broncos fan the first time that they took me to a game. It’s only a symbolic induction in either case.

The relationship encroaches into unfamiliar territory for most when you look at what being a member of a Contrada means. The members of the contrada are essentially the protectors, purveyors, and promoters of their neighborhood and everything that it stands for and has stood for in the past. They are the owners. Take the city of Cleveland. They were happy to see Lebron James and the rest of the team win. Now imagine that the money paid to Lebron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers was earned solely through the year-long efforts of the citizens of Cleveland through things like fundraiser dinners, bake sales, birthday parties and paying dues to the organization. Imagine, if you can, that the stadium was operated by local volunteers who cleaned the aisles before and after games and that the electricity bills came out of the same funds that pays the players. This is the best way to understand the Sienese and their Contradas. They raise money all year to pay a jockey. They clean and operate their museums. They help out those less fortunate in their neighborhood and they keep their own streets clean.  Their presidents are volunteers, elected by the members.  Each contrada has it’s own constitution and set of rules for how it is to be governed.

In the end, it they have just as much to do with the outcome of the horserace as I do on the outcome of the Super Bowl. But the pride that they get to flaunt upon winning is amplified by how much they put into their passion.

Here’s to the underdogs in 2016! And here’s a video that I made for Sean to get him excited about the Palio and his Contrada.

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