Sport isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that, argues Paul Fennessy
Winston Churchill was always renowned for showing extraordinarily good judgement. During an interview towards the last years of his life, Churchill was asked to reveal the secret of how he managed to keep in such good health, despite the interminable stress which undoubtedly pervaded his political career. “Sports,” he replied. “I never played them.” Still, despite Churchill’s reservations, there is much to be said for the virtues of sport – health-related or otherwise.
Granted, following a team that isn’t Manchester United often requires zen-like patience. But then is that not part of the beauty of the game? Without the lows, the peaks would not feel so dizzying. Without 89 minutes of dour long-ball football, then that one moment of magic from an enigmatic Brazilian midfielder would not seem quite so sublime.
One other common criticism is espoused by revolutionary linguist and former UCD guest speaker, Noam Chomsky, who argues that sport keeps people “from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about.”
While it is true that watching sport usually doesn’t require rigorous concentration and a colossal intellect such as Chomsky’s, these factors hardly render the whole experience pointless. Everybody needs to switch off now and then, and watching sport constitutes the perfect opportunity for relaxation. It is as if Chomsky expects everyone to be in a constant state of anxiety, worrying relentlessly about the world’s problems.
Intellectual snobs like Chomsky are misguided in assuming that sport has little impact on the real world. Following England’s 1966 World Cup victory, there was proven to have been a direct correlation between this triumph and the nation’s subsequent economic improvement.
Moreover, sport often represents the sole hope for kids looking to escape from impoverished backgrounds. Where would the likes of Wayne Rooney and Serena Williams be without an outlet for their prodigious talents? The ineptitude of the education often afforded to people from working class backgrounds means that sport is crucial in improving their self-esteem and offering them the possibility of a fruitful existence.
Admittedly, it is indisputable that those lucky enough to acquire superstardom in sport regularly neglect their good fortune by acting in a disreputable manner. However, can the same not be said of all other characters that form part of the social elite? Surely the prominent politicians and businessmen of this world are no less averse to bad behaviour.
It is doubtless, at times, difficult to admire athletes on account of their personal failings. “But you without sin be the one to cast the first stone,” as the golfer and Bible-reader Ben Crane recently said, in reference to the Tiger Woods controversy.
Yet the foremost reason to watch and partake in sport has nothing to do with moral, sociological or economic factors. It is primarily the sense of shared community and experience that it promotes.
There are few feelings more euphoric in life than celebrating in a packed stadium when a try is scored, or a goal is registered. Although the scene in Trainspotting – whereby a moment of orgasm is coupled with images of Archie Gemmill’s famous goal for Scotland during the 1978 World Cup – was played mainly for laughs, there was an element of truth to it.
The release of mass tension enabled by this goal was considerable. Scotland had – up until that point – performed poorly, with the world watching on. Yet this glorious moment served as redemption, since it single-handedly managed to eradicate the sense of national embarrassment that the Scottish team’s performance had previously invoked.
For further proof of the improvement in national self esteem and community spirit which sport promulgates, one need only watch the recently released Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus, outlining the crucial role that sport played in improving the quality of life in South Africa.
The rugby side’s World Cup victory not only rejuvenated national pride in post-apartheid South Africa, but it also served as the ideal platform for Nelson Mandela to demonstrate his approval for their predominantly white team. The symbolic connotations of his handshake with the team captain, François Pienaar, acted as a gateway for black and while unity in a country which had previously been racially divided.
Therefore, in moments such as those mentioned above, sport demonstrates a capacity to transcend its oft-referred-to status as “only a game”. And it is for these moments that all sport fans live.