I’ve been thinking about a charming movie I saw years ago called My Life as a Dog. It’s about a twelve-year-old Swedish boy whose family life is a mess. He copes with his own losses by comparing them with others who had it even worse, such as Laika, a dog sent into space on the Sputnik rocket with only a five-month supply of food. Here is one of Ingemar’s musings:
In fact, I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective. It’s important to keep a certain distance. I think about that guy who tried to set a world record for jumping over buses with a motorcycle. He lined up 31 buses. If he’d left it at 30, maybe he would have survived.
This movie was in my head when I read about a fatal crowd crush at the Africa Cup of Nations soccer match in Cameroon. It happened on January 25, 2022 at the new national stadium in the capital, Yaoundé. According to BBC Africa Sport, “The problem is, 30 minutes before kick-off, only one gate – the south gate – was open… Security at the Afcon stadiums could be better – there is a significant police presence but it is not as organised as it could be. Some gates are flimsy with temporary fencing supported by breeze blocks that can be pushed down – though this was not the case with the south gate, where people were trampled and pressed against fences in the crush.” At least eight people died, including boys aged 8 and 14, and 38 more people were hurt. In the aftermath, Cameroon’s president ordered an investigation.
Remarkably (to me), a report was issued within a week. ESPN reported that the government blamed the crush on a “massive and late influx of supporters and spectators,” while also noting that the south entrance was “temporarily closed by police in the face of a surge of spectators while other doors were operation” and “security forces proceeded in a reckless manner to open the gate at the South Entrance, causing the stampede.” Evidently that concluded the investigation and the stadium was allowed to reopen. The government report, although cited in several articles, is nowhere I can find.
I noticed this ingress disaster because I am a soccer fan and it was covered as a sports story. Only when I looked for the government report did I see any mention of what had happened just two days earlier in the same city. At Liv’s Night Club in Yaoundé, 17 people died and eight more were seriously hurt after fireworks inside the club’s main room set the ceiling on fire, causing two explosions.
Both the nightclub fire and the stadium ingress crush are horrendous in their own right – together they are truly calamitous. Twenty-five lives lost, including children, and many more hurt. Not to pick on Cameroon, but both incidents arose from causes that have been addressed many times at events in other parts of the world. My heart ached at the roll call of similar disasters – The Who, Hillsborough, Walmart Black Friday, The Station, Lame Horse, Kiss nightclub, among others – all of which are well-documented, any of which would have served as object lessons how to avoid that week’s carnage.
This parade of horribles was rocketing through my brain a few days ago when I was contacted by an investigative reporter from a national media outlet here in the United States. They wanted my thoughts about the causes of the crowd disaster which is the shiny object at this moment in this country. They said the story was important because of the number of people who had died, a number far less than 25. Since I have already discussed that subject as much as I care to right here in Adelman on Venues, I turned them away.
But little Ingemar got me thinking about this reporter’s notion of what’s “important.”
To me, any needless death is a story that deserves to be told in order to tease out the lessons that make repetition less likely. I cannot imagine deciding what number of deaths makes a story worth one’s time, versus some smaller body count that is not. How does that math even work? Does the number of children make the tale more or less newsworthy? If the fatal incident happened far away, is it okay to care less, even if we experienced something similar much closer to home?
Similarly, what does it tell us about ourselves if we are more interested in a tragedy in a famous place or with famous names than one with only anonymous victims? Are stadium ingress disasters really sports stories that deserve our tiny attention spans because so many of us are football supporters? Is it okay to be satisfied with less information about a deadly club fire because anyone out at 2 AM is looking for some kind of trouble?
These questions make me feel nauseous, and shallow, and guilty. Perhaps a good litmus test is whether we could tell the family of a victim how much or little their loss means. If we can’t, then maybe more stories are important, more losses deserve our attention. This is on us, dear reader, because in the event world, we are the people who see problems where others don’t, who can use our knowledge of history and operations and our smart friends to mitigate risks – maybe even to save lives.
I don’t think that is overstating our role. I learned early in my career as an event professional that our job is to sell the dream while living the reality. Let’s embrace that by holding ourselves to a higher standard. Let’s care about event attendees in an African nation that we couldn’t find on a map because caring about them helps not only their families, but ours too.
And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.
No tragedy is important solely because of the number of people who die, or the prominence of the proper nouns involved. Instead, I believe the importance is the opportunity for us to learn, to fix, to improve. When we fail in the future, as human beings inevitably will, at least let’s make a new mistake, not the same one as before.