12 July 2008

Up With People

Rejected title 1: Stop me if you think you've heard this one before

Rejected title 2: Jaysus, it's been what, nearly a week now? Let it go, man

Were I at all consistent, of course, I would right now be curled up on my bed, sobbing self-pitifully about the passing of yet another cataclysmic sporting event. I should be cursing the gods for denying me (not 'us', mark you - 'me') just another little taste of their private stash of 'for special occasions only' ambrosia. I should be writing very bad poetry. The Shins should be playing in my headphones. Sure, I'd come to terms with it, for one must. But predisposed to the nauseating shudder of sports-induced melancholy as I sometimes am, I would need to ease myself back into tepid normality.

This is different, though. That tennis match has left me like a python who's swallowed an entire gazelle in one go. There's no feeling sorry for oneself when one has had the privilege of seeing that. There came a point during it when you just surrendered yourself to its will and allowed it to take you wherever it damn well pleased. I looked forward to it for weeks before it appeared on the Order of Play, confident (though secretly with held breath) of its inexorability. I had dreams of being awed by its splendour, only for it mock me for my lack of ambition. I am a happy fool.

So I write this not with the laptop tilted at a near-90-degree angle, propped against the pillow. This is not a lament for a briefly intense but now extinguished romance. This is a celebration, a meagre offering of appreciation, a gurgle of contentment. You're still getting the bad poetry, though. And I'm listening to the Shins anyway.

Actually, no: let's change the soundtrack to something more suitable:

That's more like it.

Let us pray.

Yeah, there comes a booming sound...

I'm currently reading Simon Barnes' The Meaning Of Sport. Well, skimming, really - partly because the book's division into 158 numbered sections invites it, and partly because I'm trying to read about ten books at once, thus giving due attention to none. In any case, there's one piece that struck me as I read it today: it's a quote from Paul Westphal, former coach of the Phoenix Suns, following an NBA finals demolition at the hands of the Chicago Bulls and You Know Who Scored 55 Points in 1993. Of Jordan, Westphal said (this is in section 82 if you're following, folks) "He inflicted his will on us".

It used to come from underground, uh-huh...

Barnes expands: "not just a matter of physical ability. It was his ability to seize an occasion and to do what he wanted with it that was so perfectly devastating". It is, if I may be so bold, Simon, that and more.

Now it emanates from a kind of welfare state of the soul (yeah baby, of the soul)...

Sport is about the body like Hendrix was about the plectrum. It's one percent perspiration and ninety-nine percent inspiration. An athlete's physical gifts are but a lot of dumb gristle without the brain to put them to use. In the long term, it is the mind which drives one to utilise these finely-crafted tools and hew the body, slowly, into a glorious living sculpture. In every case, of course, the body eventually screams in ultimate protest to the mind: sometimes after it's been gainfully and plentifully employed, sometimes with cruel prematurity. Either way, it would have nothing to protest about had it not been paced and cajoled and coerced by its owner. Talent is inert unless instructed otherwise.

Not that sweet, sweet soul / Let's be certain of the deliberate monologue...

In the immediate term, in the irreversible moment, in the theatre or arena or battlefield or whatever it is, the mind is what matters. Especially at the most rarefied level, it is a contest of wits. One mind is trying to peer through the keyhole of the other, to see what's going on behind the locked door - to perhaps see some kind of pattern which might reveal to it what the other mind will do before it itself knows. At the same time, it is steadfastly guarding itself from prying eyes, keeping watch in case its own secrets leak out. In this exalted world, technique and physicality become mere analogues of the will.

As sure as if it will fall across you, unto you...

And by some quirk of nature, the visible manifestation of this encounter happens to be wonderfully pleasant to watch. In justifying our love of sport, we may invoke the greatest practitioners and the most beautiful shapes they make, but the same pleasure can come watching a pair of Wimbledon-watching enthusiasts play on a tennis court streaked with the long shadows of a late June evening, or an under-10s football match on a muddy winter's morning.

Will most certainly leave the doing, the doing undone - come on undone, come on undone...

What was beautiful about Sunday was that two great minds, two human minds, each forced the other to go places minds rarely go. Federer has played better matches before, but sometimes it seemed not so much like pushing through an open door as the door disintegrating by his mere presence in the room. Why this could almost be considered his greatest victory is that he met an equal (I'm not claiming that Nadal is absolutely equal to Federer per se, just that he was at least that in this case) who raised the stakes to ridiculous levels - and not only matched them, but himself raised them in counter-attack. Nadal would do likewise, and Federer would again respond in kind. Just as one man thought he might have the whole thing figured out, he would quickly be rebuked for his impudence. They achieved the feat (if you exclude the first two sets) of always being one step ahead of each other.

(Of course, you can substitute Nadal's name for Federer's in much of the previous paragraph.)

We are doing and we are screwing up our lives today, up our lives today...

If you are apt to think from time to time about why exactly you devote much of your time to watching and pondering on sport, you will at least once have an out-of-body experience and look down at yourself and wonder what the hell you're at. It probably won't happen in the throes of a great match; it's more likely to be during a god-awful one, say, or maybe while writing an overwrought blog post. To a non-dogmatic mind, it cannot be called unreasonable.

It's this we've chanted; it's this we've planted:...

Sport is played by humans, possessed of the same matter as you or me. One feels squeamish about using the word 'hero' to describe a great athlete: they don't save lives or make them materially better. Some people, I'm told, manage to go their whole lives without being bothered about the presence of these athletes in the world. Anyway, you're supposed to grow out of believing that an Anders Limpar poster in Shoot magazine is a representation of heroism. No, sportspeople are people too. They do their job in a heightened state, routinely pushing their minds to levels we ordinary Joes rarely experience in our workaday lives. The ways this is physically represented - bashing a ball back and forth across a net, kicking a synthetic bladder around a field - may appear trivial when looked on from a certain angle. But I don't believe they are - as we've touched upon already, there is no shame to be had in being moved by the dance, or swept up by the improvised drama it often provides. And underneath the show-stopping superficies, there are ordinary human minds thinking extraordinary human things. It may be that these things are bad qualities, and this we must accept as part of our lot. When they are good qualities, we can claim a stake in them too: these athletes' greatness is an embodiment of what we as a species can do, what one as an individual can, maybe, just maybe, do. We're not just observers of the game - we're playing it, too.

Come on, progeny...Come on, progeny...Come on, progeny...Come on, progeny...

Simon Barnes has also talked about how society has "come out of the closet" with our attitude to sport in the last couple of centuries; we are at last open about the value of the sporting instinct (which, by the way, Barnes believes is mammalian, not just human). I count myself lucky to be around in such an age. Perhaps it is rather safe and de-humanising to experience all this vicariously through others more willing than you, be they real flesh-and-bone people in front of you or what are essentially characters in a television programme. Perhaps. I'm also thankful that I live in a part of the world where going to such extremes is an option and not a necessity. I'm thankful to be part of a species that can create such conditions, when it really puts its mind to it. And I'm thankful, in my passive-consumerist, too-comfortable-in-my-ass-groove way, for those who excel and let us see them do so.

Doo-doo doot-doot-doot-dooo doo-oo-ooooo....

(Next time on Sport Is A TV Show: All-time top 10 John Terry dick jokes!)

Photo by Kevin In Canada


Steve 13/7/08 3:38 AM  

When you mentioned bad poetry, my ears turned a little red. I was glad to see that someone else had that dubious distinction, not me, and that for your own part there were no rhymes, rather just good writing about a truly remarkable event.

I just wish I could have viewed it under different circumstances. Like you, I was looking forward to it for a long while. The spanking Roger took at the French, Nadal's improved game overall, and the roll Spanish sportsmen were on made it seem like Roger would have his hands full, even more this year than last with the intense five-setter.

Susan was more ready than I was to see Nadal's full ascent. I like Raffa a lot -- his athleticism, mental toughness, off-court demeanor, and his game. But I like Roger even better. I won't attempt to explain any more than to say amen to David Foster Wallace's piece.

When Djokovic lost early, it seemed certain we'd get another chapter of the continuing saga. And it was one for the ages, I agree.

The problem was that we had arranged a while before to meet our daughter on campus for a nice summer outing. We had to leave to meet her 3 points in to the first tie-break. Susan set up the DVR to record the scheduled coverage along with the 2 shows following it just in case it was needed. Fat chance of that, I thought, with Federer down 2 sets and hitting too many into the net at inopportune times. Still, you never know.

Anyway, we had a nice lunch with The Girl (as Susan calls her) and were relaxing at a park along Lake Michigan when she got a text from a friend who wanted to get together to play tennis. He had evidently seen the match and was inspired to play. I made an offhand remark that since this guy had done a study abroad in Spain and really liked it there, that this must have meant that Nadal had won. I said this quietly as an aside to our daughter so that Susan wouldn't hear. After calling the guy back to confirm a time to meet at the court, she whispered back to me that I was right. I didn't really want to know, but wasn't all that surprised given that it looked to be headed that way. Susan was sweetly oblivious. When we returned home and started viewing the match, it became more interesting to her when it turned out Federer had taken the 3rd set. My only reaction was a bit of relief that he hadn't lost in straights. Of course, I didn't dare tip Susan off that I even knew the outcome. I feigned as much interest as I could for a match I knew my guy had lost. When Roger won the second tie-break, it was more salve for the wound, but I already knew the wound was fatal. The deeper into the 5th set it went, the more I resented knowing the outcome. How nice it would have been to bear witness to the drama. I even asked myself if it was possible I hadn't heard my daughter correctly, but I knew the truth.

Sorry to write such a whiny comment when you wrote such a wonderful piece, Fredorrarci. I promise not to whine again all summer if Roger wins the US Open. And if he ends up breaking Sampras's record of 14 major titles, I won't ever whine about tennis again (unless Jaden or Jaz Agassi decide someday to mess with my sporting emotions).

Richard Whittall 13/7/08 1:37 PM  


This is awesome. It reminded me of an article our local columnist and playwright Rick Salutin wrote about the 'Utopian ideal of sport,' the living embodiment of the hope of a world where groups or individual can excel participating in a world governed by a conventional rule of law (although the prem often stretches this a little).

fredorrarci 14/7/08 11:14 PM  

I should clarify that my 'bad poetry' remark was one of ironic self-deprecation - ironic because, as I'm sure is obvious, my writings are as if floated down on a gossamer parchment by an archangel.

Good to know the post made sense. I think I was starting to get a bit punchy by the end.

It was probably unfair to print a song lyric and expect it to make sense. It suits the song much better than a blog post. While we're at it, and seen as I've illegally uploaded it, I should give it a plug: the song is called 'Up With People' by Lambchop from their big warm hug of an album Nixon.

And Steve, whine away - I seem to remember leaving at least one extended whine on Soccer Orb...

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