Claude Noel

WORLD CLASS: Claude Noel displays his boxing skills back in 1977.

Tears welled up in my eyes on April 12.

Yes, 2020 has given us much to cry about. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down, even forcing an unprecedented postponement of the Olympics. Surely, more tears will flow if the global pandemic ultimately cancels the Tokyo Games.

The April emotion, however, was not a consequence of Covid. Adapting to the changes that have come in recent times, the First Citizens Sports Foundation Sports Awards show was a televised production, and not a live event. Cyclists Nicholas Paul and Teniel Campbell emerged as Trinidad and Tobago’s 2019 Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year.

The latest National Sports Hall of Fame induction also featured on the show. There was much to cry about. Four personalities were inducted posthumously: table tennis great Dexter St Louis; cricket umpire Ralph Gosein; table tennis and basketball administrator David Farrell; and sports journalist Dave Lamy.

St Louis was my friend and Farrell a mentor, while Lamy interviewed me for my first job in the media. Their video features pulled at my heartstrings. But it was the induction of T&T’s first-ever world boxing champion, Claude Noel that had me sobbing.

In his inimitable style of speaking, Noel expressed his appreciation.

“They never made a mistake by choosing me to be in the Hall of Fame.”

That Noel’s induction came nearly four decades after he outpointed Mexican Rodolfo “El Gato” Gonzalez in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to claim the World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight title tells a story.

Having run afoul of the law, Noel had been previously overlooked for Hall of Fame induction. However, forgiveness is an inevitable part of life for us imperfect humans. As a member of the Sports Foundation, I was therefore extremely satisfied to be part of the process to include Noel in the Class of 2020. The revelation that he had been actively involved in dissuading young people from pursuing errant lifestyles made the decision that much easier.

At long last, Noel could breathe again. Sadly, the man who repeatedly uttered the words “I can’t breathe” while under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota, USA, African American George Floyd drew his last breath during the incident. There was a silver lining surrounding that May 25 police killing, awareness of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement having been heightened globally.

At 70, Noel is a mere shadow of the man who knocked out 18 of his 31 victims. He has slowed down considerably, and at last check, the Tobago boxer was almost completely blind. It therefore gave me great joy to hear him express relief that he had received his just due while still among the breathing.

As a young table tennis player in the 1980s, I shared floor space with Noel at the Woodbrook Youth Centre. Getting forced off the table meant stepping back into Noel’s punching range while he sparred. The last thing you would want to do is walk into a big Noel right hand!

I was privileged to witness one of Noel’s big fights, a successful Commonwealth title bout against Nigerian Davidson Andeh. But while there is that sentimental aspect, the Noel induction carries far greater significance. Like the George Floyd killing, it raises serious issues.

Top of the list is our reluctance to forgive. Even those of us who are Christians, and build lives on that crucial pillar of forgiveness, are challenged by the concept.

While doing my Masters in International Journalism at City University London, I had the opportunity to interview British sprinter Dwain Chambers in 2009 for my thesis radio documentary, “Never Ending Sentence”. Chambers served a two-year doping suspension between 2003 and 2005, but was forced to miss the 2008 Olympics because of the British Olympic Association (BOA) lifetime Olympic ban.

Chambers had served his time, but was punished again for the same crime.

“What’s the message?” Chambers asked in the interview. “When you do wrong, curl up in a ball and die? What I’m trying to do is show the youngsters that there’s life after mistakes.”

Justice was eventually served, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturning the ban and clearing the path for Chambers to don his spikes in front of his home crowd at the 2012 London Olympics. Forgiveness was long in coming, but not too late for Chambers.

Speaking about forgiveness with sports lawyer J Tyrone Marcus, he cited the stellar example of an Amish community in Pennsylvania, USA. In 2006, ten girls were shot in their school house—five died. Known as a religious group that preaches pacifism, the affected Amish families walked the walk, announcing without delay that they had forgiven the shooter, who had taken his own life after his horrendous act. The Amish went further, befriending the shooter’s parents and sharing in their grief.

There is much to learn from this extraordinary story. While sport might be considered a microcosm of life, the industry enjoys the global spotlight, creating the opportunity to lead the discussion and set the example in the area of forgiveness.

Noel and Chambers need not have been subjected to extended periods of punishment, long after completing their respective sentences.

There are others who are not allowed to forget past mistakes. That group includes T&T’s Bernard Julien and other West Indies cricketers who toured apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Australian sports writer Ashley Gray addresses the plight of those rebel cricketers in an aptly titled book, The Unforgiven.

If we all had the heart of the Amish, Julien and company would probably be enjoying a better quality of life today.

In applying the Amish lesson to non-sporting societal scenarios, I am forced to consider the case of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer whose knee squeezed the life out of Floyd. The challenge is to not be selective. Chauvin must do the time that fits the crime, but like Noel, Chambers, Julien, et al, he too is a candidate for forgiveness. Forgiving Chauvin is so hard! But it’s necessary.

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