War minus the shooting
George Orwell famously described sport as “war minus the shooting,“ since it activated passions that pandered to the baser forms of nationalism, racism and xenophobia. Nevertheless, many of us continue to follow sports obsessively, even when, as with the West Indies cricket team, it brings years of frustration and disappointment. For any sports fan with a satellite dish and sufficient spare time, the next few weeks offer an unusual array of pleasures. Almost simultaneously the best athletes in the world will contend for the top honours in basketball, football, tennis, and at the Olympics. As it happens, each event has several compelling back-stories, and in some cases, its own moral lessons.
The French Open this weekend will see three superstars looking to reassert their pre-eminence. Following a clay-court victory in Rome, the former ‘King of Clay‘ Rafael Nadal will chase a record-breaking seventh French title. Just a few years ago his great rival Roger Federer seemed practically invulnerable, having held the No 1 ranking for 237 consecutive weeks, acquiring most of his 16 Grand Slam titles along the way. Then everything changed and Nadal seemed insuperable. Until last year, when Novak Djokovic surprised both men with a faster, more aggressive style that helped him defeat Nadal in six finals on three different surfaces, playing what Nadal later conceded was probably “the highest level of tennis that I ever saw.”
All three players stand poised to break one record or another. (With another week as World No 1, Federer would tie Sampras’ record of 286 weeks; so far in this tournament he has tied Jimmy Connors’ record of reaching 31 Grand Slam semifinals, and set a new record for career Grand Slam victories, 237.) But whoever prevails at Roland Garros will barely have time to celebrate before facing the rigours of Wimbledon. The players’ willingness to compete at this level, especially when one’s tenure is so uncertain, is indicative of their commitment to the sport, their eagerness to establish a legacy, and their palpable joy in playing at this level. The financial rewards for competing at the top of professional tennis are significant, but each of these men appears to be driven by something larger.
The NBA basketball finals are another example of the tenacity of three superstars. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were generally ridiculed for failing to win last year’s NBA finals – particularly since their simultaneous move to the Miami Heat seemed to have been orchestrated solely for this purpose. On Thursday, however, they took the court with their team facing likely elimination by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern conference finals. The Celtics had come back from a 0-2 deficit and had a 16-1 record when playing at home against the Heat. Undaunted, James produced a dazzling 46-point streak that levelled the series and set up a game 7 that will take place in front of a home crowd.
After the NBA lockout last year, and the widespread cynicism that has surrounded the sport’s best-paid players, James’ masterly performance was a timely reminder of why players like him are paid their mammoth salaries. (In the late 1960s the political philosopher Robert Nozick illustrated this with a thought experiment in which Wilt Chamberlain’s fans placed 25 cents every time they wanted to watch him play – with a million fans happily offsetting Chamberlain’s then-outrageous $250,000 transfer fee to the Los Angeles Lakers.) Even if the Heat prevail against the Celtics, they will have to face the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder – a team that has already swept the reigning champions, overcome the LA Lakers in 5 games and outclassed the Phoenix Suns (who had just completed one of the longest post-season winning streaks in NBA history). In other words, anything is possible in the forthcoming games, which is exactly why American sports franchises have such large and devoted followings.
The Euro 2012 football tournament promises comparably intense drama, particularly in the ‘group of death’ fixtures that will pit three of the world’s top 10 teams against each other: Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal. As the preparations for the tournament got underway, however, there was a reminder of the sorts of passions that these competitions can unleash, with the Dutch team’s practice interrupted by racist chants directed towards the black players on the team. The Dutch captain has already stated that he will ask referees to take his team off the pitch if this behaviour is tolerated in the matches themselves – an exemplary retort to the culture that gives rise to this sort of heckling.
Absorbing as these other events may be, the London Olympics may well prove to be the most compelling spectacle of all, not least because of the highly anticipated showing of the Jamaican super-athlete Usain Bolt. Here again there are also smaller stories that deserve more notice, such as the refusal of Saudi Arabia to field female athletes. From a sporting perspective this is inconsequential, but it serves as a powerful reminder of the sort of discrimination and intolerance that are, notionally, completely incompatible with the Olympic charter. Far more has to be done to abolish the mediaeval prejudices that allow places like Saudi Arabia to prevent females from even engaging in regular physical exercise. Only when this has been achieved will the Olympics truly have achieved its ambitious ideals.
Each of these sporting events promises a different form of catharsis, unscripted pleasure, and stories of unlikely triumphs and undeserved reversals. In an age that has more than enough genuine bloodshed, it is astonishing that we can still re-enact the passions of war “minus the shooting.“ Indeed, it is a blessing that we should never value too lightly.