Rohit Brijnath on Sanctity in modern sport. (From The Straits Times this morning)
A RETIRED Indian cricketer is discussing a book project with a journalist friend a few months ago. He is interested in a book but of a certain type. He might examine greatness but not gossip, he may offer the secrets to his genius but not of the dressing room. He is blunt: “Did I play cricket to make friendships or to sell books?”
He is a noble fellow who considers his cricket relationships to be sacred and unprintable. And he is right. He will not sell many books.
Alex Ferguson is selling a lot of copies of his book, My Autobiography, and not because he is a mild gossip but because of the excellent mind he has and magnificent club he managed. His book is chatty, informative and perceptive, ghosted by the terrific writer Paul Hayward and mottled with enough tidbits to guarantee sufficient controversy which in turn makes book publishers drink congratulatory gins at long lunches.
So Ferguson tells a few dressing room tales. Yawn. Who doesn’t these days?
Australian cricketers, a gruff, hard tribe of beer drinkers, now point fingers about dressing room spats in breathless books. In England, a “space monkey” story escaped the football dressing room before its final line was probably uttered.
Sacred anyway seems out of date as a sporting idea. Sacred appears an uncool, romantic notion in a confessional culture. Sacred can’t survive in a planet of tweeting players, club Facebook pages and official websites that tell you “10 favourite snacks” of a new football signing as if revealing the menu of the last supper.
Modern sport is caught in a mindless feeding frenzy and sacred just needs to get the hell out of the way. Every line is being blurred or crossed as entertainment is no longer restricted to the field. This year, America’s National Football League ordered that cameras be situated in every dressing room. It is terrible news for we are about to discover that the average football coach is not Denzel Washington reciting a speechwriter’s brilliance in Remember The Titans. Still we will watch.
I must step carefully for as a journalist it is my job to get into sacred places. I have sat in team buses. I have waited with a player in the dressing room as he readied for a Davis Cup tennis match. I’d sell some of my friends just to attend a half-time team talk in football. I asked a Singapore coach once. He told me to buzz off.
Maybe he did the right thing. Maybe the tension of winning a match or the terror of losing should always be private. The defeated must be allowed their dignity and the victorious their brief moment of collective joy.
Part of the allure of sport anyway must be its mystery. How did they do it? What did the coach say? To have everything in sport filmed “live”, every team instruction relayed to us, might be vaguely interesting but it is also the death of imagination.
We will never need to wonder what happened. We will never grow legends in our minds or build myths and sport is less interesting without them. Ferguson’s “hairdryer”, for instance, was far more fun when it was still a myth.
The sacred in sport is dying not just because of our craving for detail but because the athletic community is neither protesting it fiercely or protecting it faithfully.
The dressing room retains an element of sanctuary, a sweaty temple of “us against the world”, a place where men can reveal their furies and foibles and not be judged by all of us. Till the tell-all books hit the shelves and athletes tweet about in-house discord. We love this gossip but perhaps we are losing something precious in the bargain.
The sacred in sport is not sustainable any more, it is not sound business. Now most things are for sale. Now any hallowed ground is open to be stamped on by logos. Now Ferguson, who didn’t much care for the media, is doing interviews all over the media.
But just when you think sport has tossed out everything sacred – even golfers call each other cheats in public these days – something gently old-fashioned and cherished occurs.
On Sunday night, Roger Federer lost in the final of the Swiss Indoors in Basel, collected his runner-up trophy and the crowd clapped and it would not stop. They clapped till he was bewildered and they clapped till their hands must have hurt.
No one was gaining anything here. No secrets were being shared. No ratings were at stake. No intrusion was occurring. It was just a nation offering its man a standing ovation. And in doing so they gave us a sweet reminder. Some rituals sacred to sport are still loudly alive.
A video of that ovation.