In the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the sporting community has responded swiftly to contribute in whatever way it could, both financially and qualitatively. While it's easy to cynically dismiss this as a token gesture, the unprecedented generosity allows us to view organised sport from a different perspective, says VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.
(Clockwise from top left) United in their actions -- Michael Schumacher; The Canadian ice hockey team; World XI bowler Shane Warne with Asian XI player Sachin Tendulkar; Carlos Moya.
IN a shrinking world, increasingly driven by the laws of business and whose dynamics are governed by hegemonic politics, sport can sometimes seem like a trivial pursuit; an indulgence that we allow ourselves in the name of distraction. At a time like this, when thousands of people have died and at least a million have lost their homes, it might appear morally dubious for the rest of the world to carry on living with an almost indecent momentum. In the face of death and destruction everything let alone sport seems insignificant. Turning the TV on and snuggling in your couch, as Thierry Henry races away on the screen like Speedy Gonzalez, therefore makes you feel a little uneasy. For some reason it feels unreal.
In some ways, professional sport makes only peripheral contact with the boundaries of reality. Like mainstream cinema, it gives us an opportunity to detach ourselves. The spectacle might inspire at the end a deep catharsis, but that release of emotion occurs mainly because the average viewer empathises with the stoic sportsman as easily as he might, with Humphrey Bogart's character in "Casablanca". In that sense, sport mimics real life although sometimes it does seem as if athletes (like actors) breathe, eat, sleep and otherwise function within the eerie microcosm of a more carefully-controlled environment.
`Sport, like war'
Sport, George Orwell once remarked, was like war; only without the bullets. That analogy has been stretched to the point where death is today employed as a somewhat exaggerated metaphor for defeat, with the farcical consequence of athletes "dying" half-a-dozen deaths in the course of one languid afternoon.
That said; sport is not a complete stranger to the life-extinguisher. Contact sport is a dangerous hobby and an even riskier profession. Every once in a while a boxer dies in the ring or a soccer player collapses on the field, and such tragedies make us acutely aware of our own frailty. But for every racing car driver whose career is tragically cut short in its prime, you have half-a-dozen geriatric tennis stars reliving their finest moments on the Veterans' Tour. To most athletes, mortality remains an abstruse philosophical concept holding no practical significance whatsoever at least, not for the next three decades. The illusion of immortality allows them to concentrate on the present.
Responding to tragedy
But the display of single-minded dedication certainly does not imply athletes and administrators are self-absorbed insofar as they are insulated from the outside world. In the aftermath of the recent natural disaster the sporting community has responded swiftly to contribute in whatever way it could, both financially and qualitatively. The International Cricket Council has organised two charity matches, the first of which reportedly generated $11 million.
The ATP made its own contribution towards the cause, and several players including Carlos Moya donated the prize money they earned at the Chennai Open. Formula One champion Michael Schumacher alone donated $10 million towards relief work.
That kind of money could help stabilise the volatile economy in a medium-sized banana republic; and while it's easy to cynically dismiss this as a token gesture, the unprecedented generosity certainly allows us to view organised sport from a different perspective. It's as if we've been introduced to an altogether new dimension, one that we had no clue existed.
Perhaps, that conclusion is a trifle unfair. Yes; literature and art lend themselves more spectacularly to the idea of revolution - indeed, transformation appears to be their raison d'etre. Nevertheless, sport has also played a crucial role in the response to human tragedy. Beginning with the 1940s, non-whites in South Africa resisted apartheid through the mechanisms of domestic cricket, and the Basil D'Oliviera affair sparked international outrage (albeit belatedly) towards the end of the 1960s. Cassius Clay made a political statement against white supremacy by changing his identity; Muhammad Ali, as he came to be known, subsequently used his fame as a boxer to protest the Vietnam War. Closer to our times, Australian athlete Cathy Freeman made reference to the marginalisation of the Aborigines ahead of the Sydney Olympics.
But there is a catch. While sport has often proved an effective means to further a cause, in many cases sportsmen were directly involved not the administrators. The latter category in general has proved unusually resistant to change and on several occasions, let conservative politics undermine the idealism behind change. In cricket, for instance, administrators and sportsmen have clashed on numerous issues. The Packer revolution sparked off a tussle for power once the impact of the broadcast medium became obvious, and since then disputes have erupted once in a while across the continents.
The issue of loss
To its credit, sport has recognised that such details are almost childish and inconsequential compared to the emotional suffering thousands must inevitably experience in the coming months. Sympathy is easy to summon; but few of us can even begin to comprehend the extent of their loss which is what makes the guilt harder to deal with.
Do we have the right to enjoy ourselves anymore? Is it meaningless to derive pleasure from watching sport? Is the notion of entertainment disrespectful to the memory of the dead? There are no easy answers to these questions. Yet, we must remember that sport is an ideal by itself. In its purest form it is forever a quest to raise the bar of human potential, to test our limits against one another, and against nature.
We must recognise that sport has never needed an excuse to exist not even in the shadow of death because in the end it holds out the possibility of redemption, offers us a glimpse of perfection; and above all, reminds us that we are privileged to be alive.
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