THERE IS something faintly ridiculous about a grown man walking across a large expanse of land, swinging a club at a dimpled ball to get it into a tiny hole. Or someone trying to kick a larger ball between two poles. These may be some of the most pointless things man can do. Yet it is this very pointlessness that gives sport its allure. It is artificial, controlled, and takes the shape of the emotions poured into it.
It is also the most profound activity we can engage in; more raw emotions are on display over the 10 seconds of a 100-metre sprint or in the split second that it takes to score off a penalty in football than in a whole season’s performance of Shakespeare’s plays. Countries have gone to war over sport, economies have improved or collapsed over world championships, dictatorships have been given legitimacy over a tournament.
This is the irony of sport — it is a pointless exercise full of meaning, an evolutionary step that makes us fully human. Where else but on a sports field can you break a stranger’s nose, fracture his skull or cripple him for life without facing criminal charges? Where else can you be a hero or villain depending only on location? A Maradona scoring a goal with his hand in a World Cup is a hero to all Argentina but a villain in England. That was in 1986, and the player at least made an attempt to pass off his embarrassment with humour, calling it the ‘Hand of God’ goal. But it was cheating.
Now, five World Cups later, the embarrassment has gone out of cheating. Uruguay’s Luis Suarez whose deliberate handling of the ball in the last minute of extra time against Ghana enabled his team to make it to the semifinals, says, “It was worth it to be sent off in this way. It was complicated and tough. We suffered to the end but the hand of god is mine now.” Forget the tedium of the twice-told tale, but notice how he considers the exchange a fair one — I go out but my country stays in. Is he a super patriot or a sportsman who has brought the game into disrepute?
Bill Clinton might have cheated on his wife, but had he cheated at golf, there would have been no redemption
CONSIDER GERMAN goalkeeper Manuel Neur’s reaction to the goal by England’s Lampard that was disallowed by the referee: “After I turned around, I just focussed on the ball. I tried to continue playing quickly so that the referees wouldn’t notice the ball was in.” Or Thierry Henry’s confession after the referee failed to notice his handball that led to a goal in the crucial qualifying game that knocked Ireland out of the reckoning: “It was a handball. But I am not the referee. I played it, the ref allowed it,” and then, “It was necessary to exploit what was exploitable.”
At what point did fairplay and sportsmanship ooze out of sport so thoroughly to be replaced by the need to win at all costs, and the deification of the cheat who doesn’t get caught? On the other hand, why should sport — widely believed to mirror society — answer to a a greater morality than other fields of human endeavour?
Sport and morality have a special relationship. The very artificiality of sport gives us the right to inject it with a greater moral purpose than say, business or politics. Even politicians who cut corners or take bribes are expected to be honest on the golf course, for example, even when no one is looking. In fact, that can serve as a good definition: a sportsman is what you are when no one is looking. Bill Clinton might have cheated on his wife, but had he cheated on a golf course, there would have been no redemption.
When the rules of the various sports were codified in Britain, the moral element was introduced subtly. Team sports taught boys such things as the importance of working together, loyalty, the need to sink differences in the larger cause and to play to a code of conduct. Sport, as one commentator pointed out, was not real life, but a moral preparation for real life.
The membrane that separates sport from real life is semi-permeable, allowing situations from the former to get into the latter. When Richard Nixon asked the moon-walking astronauts, “Did you get the results of the All-Stars game?” it seemed both natural and vital. Sport can seep into life, but when the reverse happens, as when the cheating, lying outside world enters the football field, that upsets the natural order of things. Sport cannot be a mere reflection of society, it has to be a superior realm where there is always sunshine, fairness and due reward. It is a fantasy world, and in a fantasy world everything is perfect or should aspire to it.
If we cannot tell ourselves, at least in theory, that sport should somehow elevate itself above everyday life and sportsmen should be conscious of the moral and ethical issues on the playfield, then we have failed, and so has sport. If sport, art and literature, some of the highest levels man can attain physically, emotionally and intellectually, become hostages to the basest that is in our nature, what hope do the lesser activities have?
It was necessary to exploit what was exploitable. In 1996, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler was awarded a penalty against Arsenal despite telling the referee that he had not been fouled in the box. Fowler made his point by missing the penalty. So rare are such gestures that they are talked about for years. In sport, the good that men do lives after them while the evil is oft interred with their bones when there’s too little of the former and too much of the latter.
Consider the rash of theatrics this World Cup has been subject to. Arjen Robben falls over clutching head, stomach, leg, whatever, even if an opponent merely breathes near him. Likewise Kaka. That is how two of the finest see their job, to fool the referee. And they were successful too, notably Robben against Brazil.
Moral standards are not always attainable, but unless sport makes the attempt to reconcile what is with what ought to be, it cannot claim a special place. The dignity of sport comes from this attempt
The Nobel-winning author Albert Camus’ famous line is resurrected every four years: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in my football club.” The code of conduct, the conventions have been given breath in most sports by including them in the rules of the game. What was once unwritten is now written in, for the generation that thrills in finding loopholes in the rules.
Luis Suarez became a hero in Uruguay — but sport must not tolerate partial heroes. That is another aspect of its artificiality. Heroes must be made of sterner stuff, and those who cheat like Suarez ought to be banned for a few years, not just a single match