Sports, Sportswriting & The Celebration Of Being Alive ..

Long hiatus and can’t possibly be sure if its a resumption of the blog from its spontaneously combusted state. Its just that earlier this morning (admittedly days after it was published first in the Times UK), I happened to read a brilliant piece by Simon Barnes.

Its a piece as much about boat racing as its about other sporting disciplines and in my view, captures the essence of sport.

Here is the link to the piece. But I’m not going to take a chance with a link dying somewhere down the line – and so here is the piece in full.

The Boat Race: a joyous celebration of pain

Sport is supposed to be a sorting process, one that separates winners from losers, first-raters from second-raters, champions from also-rans. The Boat Race tells another story: 16 faces alike in distress, two crews united in the democracy of pain.

Winning is bad enough. To lose the Boat Race is perhaps the most devastating defeat in sport.

There is no consolation. There is no money for coming first, let alone second. There is no fame. The Boat Race offers nothing but the staggering drudgery of training, impossibly combined with some form of academic work, and the return to obscurity. Boat Race oarsmen pass from nonentity to nonentity through a brightly lit valley of pain.

And if you happen to be watching the Boat Race with the wrong sort of person, say a would-be intellectual smartarse or a girlygirl without sensible shoes, you know what follows: “Why do they do it? Why? What on earth’s the point?” One answer – if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.

But let’s look a bit farther. Most of us who read the sports pages will be sympathetic to the view that there is a point in rowing yourself stupid and feeling agonies you never thought possible. But all the same, what is it?

It’s not a bloke thing. I remember, years ago, standing at the finish of the Devizes to Westminster canoe race, an event that makes the Boat Race look like a paddle round the Serpentine. It’s 125 miles, takes 20 hours if you’re good and if you’re less good the agony lasts a great deal longer. Men and women take part and I met woman after woman leaving her slight boat with extreme difficulty and saying: “Never again!”

“The first time it’s a challenge to complete the run,” one contestant told me. “You don’t even consider doing it twice. Then around Christmas you say to yourself, ‘The old DW is coming up again…’” And they’re back again, and they paddle again and they finish again, and they step from their boats and what do they say? You’ve guessed it.

So here are some of the things that bring a person to an extreme event like the DW, like the Boat Race – bearing in mind that women have a Boat Race, too, and it hurts just as much and they don’t even get an audience.

Beauty

Rowing feels good. Each stroke contains a beautiful, stretchy moment when, as you withdraw your blade, the boat glides on. It’s as if you get more for your effort than you put in. Most sports are in some senses lovely to do: to kick a ball, to run, to ride a horse or a bicycle – these are things people do for the simple pleasure of it. Being very good indeed at such things makes them feel better.

Pain

Your smartarse and your girlygirl will look at the rictus of agony on the faces of the dying oarsmen and sneer: “They must be masochists.” This is a shorthand term we use without much thought, meaning someone whose wiring is wrong, someone who finds pleasure in things a normal person would find intensely disagreeable. But pain proves you have done something. Pain tells you that you have done the best you could. Pain tells you that you have pushed your limits and probably shifted them a bit. Pain is a validation.

Team

Some social anthropologists explain that the English love sport because it is a social facilitator. We use it to get over our awkwardness and relate to other human beings. It’s an excuse for intimacy. While I would reject a lot of this (see beauty, especially), it is certainly true that for many people, being part of a team is a supreme experience.

If you share an experience of great intensity, you have links with that person for as long as you both live. A chance meeting with old members of the Tewin Irregulars is not a trivial matter to me. Sharing big matters is a powerful thing. I remember, a few months ago, sharing an evening of quite extraordinary euphoria with a group of strangers after an incredibly close encounter with bears. Sport unites.

Competition

Sport gives you someone to beat. It gives you a simple and irrefutable reason for doing something. In order to be part of us, you need a them. It is a concept that brings life down to a brutal and glorious simplicity. Sport divides.

Elitism

To take on something a little out of the ordinary is to promote yourself. You do something special and you are a little bit more remarkable. You have taken the road less travelled by; and that makes you slightly special. People will run the marathon for that reason. No one runs the London Marathon for charity. Rather, charity is the beneficiary of the urge to be a little special. Raising a lot of money for a good cause by running a very long way – it’s an incredibly potent combination.

Addiction

As you push the beauties of doing the thing to a higher level, so you find a new kind of beauty. In rowing, in running, in endurance riding, you find a self-hypnosis, a meditation, a way of stepping beyond yourself that is as near as we get to meditation in the West. It is not purely a matter of endorphins, either. It is the setting aside of self, the ultimate simplification, in which you do not take on a task, you become that task.

Ambition

When you do something that matters to you, you want to do it better. If you run for exercise, you want to improve your time. If you cook, you want the next meal to be the best. If you watch birds, you want to improve your field skills. The desire to do things a little better is part of the pleasure of doing them. You want to go beyond your own boundaries, and as you do so, you are inspired by the thought that you can do still more. You find twitchers who want to see every bird in the world, you get athletes who want to set world records. If you are good at rowing, you want to row still better. A great event, and better, a victory in that event, is a peg on which such ambitions can be hung.

Self-knowledge

There is a strange attraction in the idea of testing yourself. You really don’t know whether or not you will pass. You want to be the sort of great person who doesn’t break, but in order to find out, you have to put yourself to the test.

Anti-death

All these matters come down to this last. All the guff about dreams and challenges and honour and glory come down to this: the seeking out and accepting of an opportunity to live more intensely. It’s about being alive, about knowing you’re alive, about celebrating being alive. Look at the losers in their agony – they look as if they’re dying, they feel as if they’re dying, but they have never been more alive. So don’t sneer. Don’t pity. Envy.

I’ll leave you with a tale told by Sir Michael Parkinson: “We were sitting together watching the World Cup on television and Holland were awarded a penalty. The taker scored but was ordered to retake it because of a technical offence. As he placed the ball on the spot looking nervous, the commentator said: ‘Who would want to be in his shoes at the moment?’ ‘Oh, I would,’ said George Best. ‘Oh, I bloody would.’”

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5 thoughts on “Sports, Sportswriting & The Celebration Of Being Alive ..

  1. Hi

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  2. Although I am an Aussie now, I usually agree with Simon. His article on deaths in the boxing ring being a case where “things go horribly right” will stay with me forever. However his attacks on a good and decent umpire for merely upholding the laws of the game were not his high point. This one is more an average observation, hardly ground-breaking.

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