Sport and national pride

In the publicity for the 1975 cult classic, Rollerball, the catchphrase used to attract audiences was the sonorous and pseudo-prophetic: “In the not too distant future, wars will no longer exist, but there will be Rollerball” – an obvious allusion to the conceit that sport is war by other means or, as George Orwell famously wrote, “war minus the shooting.” Indeed, during the Cold War, the USA and the USSR were notorious for turning sporting arenas into virtual battlegrounds, as they vied to demonstrate the superiority of their respective systems.

The twist in Rollerball was that in the fictional future, the nation state as we know it no longer exists. Countries are replaced instead by an Orwellian global corporate state, with corporations sponsoring city-based teams to engage in often mortal contests, in order to boost their prestige and ultimately reflect their power over society and the individual. Not much different from the deadly gladiator games of ancient Rome actually.

Thankfully, sport nowadays, while it can be intensely competitive, is rarely regarded as a matter of life and death, notwithstanding the celebrated view of Bill Shankly, the late, great Liverpool manager, that football was “much, much more important than that.” In fact, team sport today owes much to Victorian efforts to impose order and notions of fair play on ball games and other athletic pastimes. Football, rugby, hockey, boxing and track and field, for example, all benefited from the imperial passion for rules and a more disciplined society. And with the spread and apogee of the British Empire in the 19th century, sporting prowess was also naturally viewed as a reflection of dominance and ‘civilization.’ Ever since, for better or worse, there has been no separating notions of sporting success and national prestige.

Consider Spain’s summer of sporting success, encapsulated in one giddy month, July. On July 4, Rafael Nadal won his second Wimbledon crown, after having won the French Open in June, also for the second time. On the 11th, Spain held the World Cup aloft, thanks to Andrés Iniesta’s late goal, which brought the Spanish Queen joyously to her feet. Then on a sensational Sunday, the 25th, Alberto Contador won the greatest cycle race in the world, the Tour de France, for the third time; Fernando Alonso won the German Formula One Grand Prix, albeit in controversial circumstances; and Jorge Lorenzo won the US motorcycling Grand Prix to tighten his grip on the 2010 MotoGP championship. Spanish sports fans have probably never had it so good.

With the country mired in recession and people losing jobs, Spain’s triumphs have come at the right time, as press reports indicate that national pride seems to have gone a far way towards alleviating the economic gloom and doom. Indeed, there are studies purporting to show that national sporting success can stimulate economic growth through engendering greater confidence about the future. Undeniably, sporting glory can lift the human spirit in a way that few other things can.

Just think back to Jamaica’s fantastic performance at the Beijing Olympics two years ago, when not only Jamaica sang and danced for joy but the whole Caribbean united in celebration of Usain Bolt and company, in a way not seen since the halcyon days of West Indies cricket. And without dwelling on the woes currently bedevilling our cricket, many of us can remember how our champions took on the world and won; how they whipped our former colonial masters in particular, giving us self-belief and the conviction that our small, newly independent countries and we ourselves could hold our own on the global stage.

Now let us reflect on the pride and elation we Guyanese are feeling because of our cricketers winning this year’s regional T20 tournament. As they are preparing for the Airtel Champions League in South Africa, hopes are high in Guyana that they can put on a good show. Why, we even dare to dream, despite the well-known shortcomings of cricket governance in Guyana and the region and the militancy of the West Indies Players’ Association, that our boys will do us prouder still and at least equal Trinidad and Tobago’s feat in reaching the final last year, if not win the competition outright.

A letter writer yesterday suggested that the Guyana T20 team should have a name. This is not a bad idea at all. Perhaps the Guyana Cricket Board could organize an online poll to choose an appropriate name. The authorities should do everything possible to motivate the players and rally the nation behind them.

Victory in sport is most often the reward of a combination of investment in talent and dedication to one’s craft. Discipline, training, mental attitude, caring and efficient management, and proper facilities are essential elements for success. Sport has always been critical to building individual self-esteem. Let us not underestimate how much sporting success can mean to national pride, especially in a country such as ours, prone to divisiveness and squabbling.

As long as any team or individual in national colours performs to the best of their ability, whenever our sporting representatives have the Golden Arrowhead flying high, we should take heart. The values they demonstrate are the best representation of nationhood and their performances and success are incalculable contributions to nation-building and national well-being.

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