Never mind the quality, feel the width
I mentioned in my first Vie Hebdomadaires post on Monday that I learn valuable lessons from occasional differences of opinion with Ray Girvan, amongst our frequent agreement … and so it is this first Olympic Games week. I wouldn’t go so far as Ray does in his 29 July post in my opinion of “sport, and any celebration of it” but I do have concerns.
I don’t have any poor opinions at all of sport in principle. My own personal preference has always been for other physical activities (walking, climbing, cycling, even for a time in my mid teens, cross country running … usually solitary, which probably says more about me than anything else) but I am happy for other people who enjoy more organised or team oriented ones. I can even enjoy watching them, even if others around me find my enjoyment strange.
I can enjoy watching anyone do anything well, and celebrate their doing of it. I can enjoy beauty, and expression whether beautiful or not, wherever I find them. I don’t ever tend to initiate the watching of sport but today, for example, when my partner was watching the athletics, I enjoyed many parts of it in exactly the way that I would enjoy an act of modern dance. When I spend an afternoon with my step son and his family, and a game of soccer is on the television, I enjoy that in the same way that I would enjoy a ballet (he, like almost everyone else know, finds that equivalence hilarious … but it stays with me).
What I can’t manage to do, in either of those examples, is manage to care in the slightest who wins.
There is an old chestnut, frequently quoted at me when I was a spotty, skinny, uncoördinated schoolboy suffering joylessly through a game of Rugby: “it’s not the winning that matters but the taking part”. I could buy that … but, alas, it is almost always spoken in hypocrisy. Sometimes the hypocrisy is a vehicle for comfort and kindness; sometimes not; but I have very rarely heard it said in sincerity. For many players of games (not all; I’ve watched youngsters turn out all season, in all weathers, week in and week out, to play soccer or rugby despite winning not a single match), as in so many areas of life, winning matters very much. For most spectators, it matters even more.
More worrying than the individual desire to win, though, are the outbreaks of mob “chimpiness” (for which word I am again indebted to Ray) which surround sporting events: Quatermass and the Pit style spasms of our biological heritage. At the crudest and most obvious level, it emerges as football terrace violence. More insidiously, but just as definitely, it can be seen in the bean counting which is going on in Britain (and most other countries) at the moment: not honouring the achievements of the participants, but totting up how many medals “we” have won.
It goes way beyond the sports themselves, too. The arts are, by and large, less afflicted by this mass effect – but not once sports have raised the temperature. Despite many detailed reservations and relativist economic concerns, I could enjoyed the Olympic opening ceremony too: as a superbly well designed and executed piece of spectacular theatre put on by a huge cast of committed volunteers. But … so much of the commentary was not around the performance itself but concentrated on whether or not “we” had trumped the equivalent effort four years ago in Beijing.