By Matthew Syed in THE TIMES, 4 December 2019
As of yesterday morning, we knew him only as Lukasz. We knew, too, that as Usman Khan — a deranged fanatic — was seeking to wreak carnage upon the very people seeking to help him, Lukasz was in the basement of Fishmongers’ Hall washing up. That was part of his job description as a kitchen porter at one of the most beautiful livery buildings in the capital, a stone’s throw away from London Bridge.
Needless to say, Lukasz is what we sometimes call an “ordinary” chap. He is not the kind of person to have ever been invited to Buckingham Palace or on to The Graham Norton Show. He has never been awarded an MBE, still less a knighthood, or stood atop a podium, whether at the Olympic Games or anywhere else.
But as I was reading about his actions, then hearing about them from Toby Williamson, the chief executive of Fishmongers’ Hall, I had a moment of moral clarity; a moment that made a mockery not just of the terminology we impose upon sport and its attendant stars but upon its moral categories.
Courage? How often do we misuse this term when discussing a footballer nailing a penalty or a darts player a double? I have been as guilty as anyone of this tendency, but doesn’t this debase an important concept? Isn’t “nerve” a more accurate term to describe the art of marshalling one’s feet or hands to propel a projectile towards an artificial target, or do a somersault on to a beam, or get off to a sharp start in a sprint final?
Courage implies moral virtue, a willingness to encompass risk on behalf of another, as Lukasz did, hearing screams up above, determining to give assistance, witnessing scenes of carnage that defy adequate description but holding back any temptation to blanche.
To resolve — in that instant of decision, something infinitely more admirable than any impulse in an invented game — to engage with mortal threat, to take the fight to the terrorist with a long stick, to beseech bystanders to flee, to make strategic decisions in what politicians, some of whom fail to understand the term, call the public interest.
Sacrifice? Is this really the right term to describe a sportsman training hard so as to arrive in peak condition at a tournament? Is it the right term for athletes eating healthily, waking up early and forgoing free time? Isn’t “investment” the more apposite term given that, in all these cases, sportspeople are taking short-term hits to maximise long-term advantage? How is this different from a businessman seeding funding to an investment or a student swatting to pass a personally advantageous exam?
Sacrifice is surely more accurately applied to Lukasz, who not only sought to help others, with no consideration of personal upside, long-term or otherwise, but also prioritised those less able to defend themselves from this pitiful fanatic. That he took five knife wounds to his left side but continued to do what he considered his duty merely adds to one’s awe. This was sacrifice of the kind that the term was originally coined to encompass; the kind of sacrifice that we commemorated a few weeks ago on the second Sunday of November.
Role model? Sportspeople are role models, to a point, perhaps. We certainly know that children look up to them, seeking to mimic them in ways that relate not just to how they play sport, but how they dress, how they do their hair, how they conduct themselves in their private lives. This explains why celebrity endorsement has become so lucrative, and why athletes are so often honoured with MBEs, knighthoods and the like.
In the latter case, we are told that they have performed “services to sport” but isn’t this another of the great euphemisms of modern discourse? A moment’s reflection tells us that these athletes have, in fact, performed services to themselves, pursuing careers from which they acquire fame and fortune. Shouldn’t these honours be bestowed upon those who go out of their way to help others, who make sacrifices (see above) and demonstrate courage (see above)? Shouldn’t they go to people such as Lukasz and others who, while not necessarily placing their bodies in harm’s way, make smaller sacrifices of a kind that, cumulatively and by degrees, strengthen the backbone of our nation?
Pressure? I know that it is nerve-jangling to hit a backhand down the line at match point down, as tennis players have to do, or a black along the cushion, as snooker players seek to do. And yet aren’t there degrees of pressure? I think of Lukasz, in the basement of that building, on a modest wage, living in an expensive city, working long hours, seeking to support loved ones, wondering how to pay for Christmas presents. Doesn’t this exert a kind of pressure, too? A pressure that so many unsung heroes meet with equanimity.
Above all, I think we need to reassess the way we mythologise not just sportspeople, but the broader cast list of modern-day celebrities. Actors, social-media influencers, celebrity hairdressers (did you know that David Cameron’s barber was awarded an MBE?) and more. We even have what are now called “reality TV stars”, people who most perfectly fit Malcolm Muggeridge’s expression, first used in the 1960s, “famous for being famous”.
Don’t we need to reset? At the very least, don’t we need to recognise that by eulogising celebrity, fame and synthetic success, we overlook many of the people who matter most? We only know Lukasz is a hero because he happened to be in a specific place at a specific time and had the courage to step forward. But that heroism, that bravery, was always within this remarkable individual, merely needing the opportunity to emerge into the light.
I wonder if we should take a little more time to honour the courage of “ordinary” people; to salute the greatness that exists within so many in our nation. I hope Lukasz, whose surname, it was reported yesterday, is Koczocik, a 38-year-old who lives with his girlfriend, a “humble man who doesn’t wish for the spotlight” according to a colleague, becomes a metaphor for that hidden greatness. He is the best of British. The best of Polish. The best of humanity.