27 March 2009

Sport, the cosmos and you: A user's guide

"We'll see the stars that shine so bright
The sky was made for us tonight"

―Iggy Pop, 'The Passenger'

"She loved the sea only for the sake of tempests, the meadow only as a background for some ruined pile."
―Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

"Winning isn't everything — it's the only thing."
―Whoever Vince Lombardi stole it from


That the spectator is at its heart is the central conceit of modern sport. Such is the potency of uncertainty resolving itself in the works of the master practitioners of the craft — with, sometimes, astonishing beauty — that it appears to make pure sense. The analogy is subconsciously drawn between sport and theatre and cinema: arts constructed for the purpose of being viewed; indeed, whose existence depends on it. And what must be viewed requires viewers. The illusion is that sport exists for us — even because of us.

The idea is reinforced in an age when "anyone can conceive a god on video". [Link: sweary.] Live and recorded footage is in plentiful supply on television and, in a way which just about eludes the gamekeepers, online. Like all luxuries, it can become routine with numbing haste. Moments that once would have existed with brief, vital incandescence and then become ghosts — differently-alive imaginative presences, mutating as they pass from primary to secondary memory — now turn into icons, facsimiles. Che, Campbell's soup cans, Beckham's free kick against Greece, an amusing own goal from the Segunda B.

Sport flatters us at every encounter. In the same breath as it proclaims itself as divine epiphany, it promises you a seat front and centre. You can have a chat over a pint with the Creator; he's just a normal bloke like you. Phone-ins, blogs and message boards persuade us that we have an opinion, even if we don't, and that it is of pressing import. Flattery reaches its destination as self-flattery. The game would be nothing without us.

In truth, the game is fundamentally indifferent to the spectator. More than that — it is so to practically everything that surrounds it. The manager, the administrator, the stadium, the groundsman, the journalist, the bloodsucking pimp monster agent, the police officer on horseback, the person who switches on the digital advertising hoarding, the batter burger, the ad-laden matchday programme, the kiss-and-tell nanny, the endorsement contract, the venture capitalist, the gambler, the Pools Panel, the he'll-be-unhappy-about-that, the OB truck, the takedown notice, the smart-arse blog commenter, the fire-hazard replica jersey, the satellite dish: any or all of these could vanish and there would still be sport. The player is sport's basic unit, and were it to vanish, the centre would not hold. The game grew out of our natural instincts for play and for competition, and for the sake of the player, of the competitor. The player is sport's pulse, its life-force, its raison d'être, its beginning and end.

This isn't a film crew's zoomed-in espying of frolicking tiger cubs we're talking about, though. Of course, there is a relationship between spectator and spectacle; a symbiosis, even. The act of observation will invariably have an effect on the subject. The shifting sounds of a crowd will play its part in animating a match. Taste morphs into expectation and shapes the culture of a sport. Professionalism is defined by being watched, and brings with it profound effects on the playing of a game. The mid-ranking player has the opportunity to crash his Lambo into a central reservation as a result of being fellated by a woman of scant clothing and scanter acquaintance whilst simultaneously trying to fish out that zip-lock bag of cocaine that's fallen between his seat and the door, because of us.

Sport would indeed be very different without viewers. But its participants do not merely perform for our pleasure. It's not a TV show. (Incidentally, what is reality television if not sport for people who don't know they like sport?) Players play to play. The trappings may come later, but it begins with that instinct. Players would play whether or not they were the centre of attention, or in its peripheral vision, come to that. This is evident every day, anywhere, in the endeavours of the amateur. It is most striking at the Olympic Games. It is interesting to note how, even as the sense of the vastness of sport is receding in its ever-increasing accessibility and convenience, there are still swathes which go untended by most. The gold medal won by a Phelps or Bolt is the same as that won by a modern pentathlete or shooter. The difference between the two sets is not an inherent one, but that one is watched by many more people than the other. If a record falls and there's no-one around to hear it, it does make a sound, you know.

The disconnect between the drives of participant and onlooker is real and practical. What it comes down to is that it's bloody hard to win. It takes all one's competitive instinct simply to stand a chance against the machinations of the other lot. There is practically nothing left to divert towards another cause. That competitive instinct is so strong that it demands attention, undivided and unwavering. As intimated above, sport is less art than craft, and less craft than a craft, sailing determinedly towards its distant goal, beset by squalls and pirates and chance, humming with incantations of received wisdom and kept steady by superstition.

When a goalscorer says he just swung a leg at it and luckily it went in, he is not displaying a failure to intuit his action's deeper meaning. He really did just swing a leg at it, and it probably was due to luck, at least in part, that it went in. When a manager tells us he's in the results business and if you want entertainment go to the cinema, he is not revealing a lack of imagination and a hypocritical refusal to acknowledge how he has personally gained from his sport having been co-opted as a branch of the very entertainment industry he professes it to be apart from. Okay — not just that. The rewards, the spoils of triumph, are fulfilling — glorious — enough to justify the one-track approach to the beautifully, cruelly well-defined success sport offers.

The study of strategy and tactics, the mechanics by which this approach is executed, is an interesting subject in itself, and improves the viewing experience. It is to be encouraged. But it is not absolutely essential; it is not what we respond to most primally. One does not need to know how the taste buds are sensitised to different foods to savour eating. It is sport's miracle that it possesses an intrinsic beauty, and it is this that draws us to it. Not, of course, that its every movement is a holy revelation. But even at its most mundane, it attracts. We can divine morals in it and tease mythology from it. We can tell stories of it in which the basic truths of winning and losing play but a part. Sport must be played forwards and understood backwards, as someone didn't say. At its greatest, it allows us to be privy to acts of transcendence, to survey a street of neat semi-ds that is interrupted by someone fashioning planets from primordial sludge before our eyes. That these arise unchoreographed and apparently almost randomly does not detract from their splendour — it enhances it. They cannot be called up at will. We implicitly make this bargain when we engage in sport; we accept the game on the terms of its strictures, and on those of the universe. And it's enough, dammit.


Richard Whittall 27/3/09 5:19 PM  

But this leaves no room in sport for the machines. What about the machines!?

Fredorrarci 27/3/09 5:27 PM  

Actually, now that you mention it -- I have a horrible feeling that this post could be seen as an excuse for the existence of Sam Allardyce. Somebody, please tell me it isn't so! My brain is mushy after writing it and I can't tell...

Brian 27/3/09 10:02 PM  

I read it more as saying, "Sam Allardyce doesn't have to justify his existence on your terms, but, as you are removed from the responsibility of justification, you are free to interpret his existence according to whatever terms you choose."

Now I have a horrible feeling that I've just used Sam Allardyce as the God-term in defining a Sartrean theology...

Fredorrarci 27/3/09 11:59 PM  

Now I'm just scared. Wish I hadn't written it now...

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