March 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The joy of sport

By John Harms
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Manning Clark, historian, writer and lover of the Carlton Football Club, was convinced that sport mattered in Australia. “Football,” he wrote, “is like going to a play about the wilder passions of the human heart, or hearing the coda of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. There is at least a chance we can learn a little bit about what goes on in the human heart.”

For Manning Clark, the human heart is forever thirsty. It suffers a thirst for spiritual nourishment, a thirst to know and understand, a thirst for real joy in the face of suffering. Such a thirst gives rise to what the American theologian Michael Novak calls the “appetite for the transcendent”.

Cathy Freeman’s gold medal in the 400 metres at the Sydney Olympic Games provided a profound, even transcendent, experience. It was not about base national triumphalism. It was about understanding that a young woman had been tested. She had the gift of movement; the gift of speed and strength. She had taken a risk. It would have been easier to put nothing on the line, but she chose to develop her talent, and in doing so risked the ridicule that may accompany failure. That risk, and her success, had enormous cultural significance – as failure would have. No wonder she sat on the track afterwards, physically, emotionally and spiritually drained. No wonder the country was so moved by her achievement. We know what it is to entertain risk; to contemplate failure.

Transcendence comes when football sides combine in the finest team-play, where they impose order on chaos. There is joy in the beauty of their play, which demonstrates that true community is possible, and that it lifts performance to a new level. As the sociologist John Carroll observes, when a footy side is in form, “All the individual egos are as nothing, dissolved into the group hymn.”

Sometimes sporting moments have an unexpected impact. You sit there, one eye on a sporting fixture that hadn’t interested you. But something invites you in, draws you in.

During the recent Australian Open tennis tournament a 20-year-old Cypriot won remarkable public affection for the way he played, and for his nature. Unknown before the tournament to all but the keenest followers of the game, Marcos Baghdatis found himself facing the player ranked number three in the world, Andy Roddick, on a 43-degree afternoon in Melbourne. Playing aggressively, Baghdatis took it up to the confident American. He made winner after winner, and eventually took the match.

An upset victory is not necessarily a transcendent moment; what compelled here was the way his character emerged on the court. He played tennis, with real joy. At the moment of victory you could see the delight in his face, and the pride and the love of the people in his box.

At the court-side interview following the match, commentator Jim Courier asked Baghdatis how he had managed to win the match. Baghdatis looked puzzled. “To tell you the truth, I don’t really know,” he answered, smiling. Courier then asked who all the people were in his box. Baghdatis pointed: “My coach, my girlfriend, my uncles, my cousins.” He radiated warmth and humility. He spoke of Cyprus as if it were a village.

His success continued. He upset seeded players Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian to make the final against Roger Federer, regarded by many as one of the finest players of all time.

Before the final his father Christos was interviewed at the family home in Cyprus. “I just hope Marcos enjoys himself tonight,” he said. He also spoke of the sadness of the previous years: his son leaving home at 14 to attend a tennis academy in Paris had caused much sorrow.

For a set and a half it looked like the remarkable story would have a perfect ending. Baghdatis had Federer on the run but could not find the will to finish him off. Federer rallied, gained control, and went on to take the championship.

At the presentation ceremony Baghdatis was elated, even though he was the runner-up. The crowd cheered him with affection and respect. They had warmed to him in a way that suggested it was more than just his tennis: he had made them believe in something.

When Federer came to the microphone, he couldn’t find the words to express what was in his heart. Having just received the trophy from Rod Laver, perhaps the game’s greatest player, Federer was overwhelmed. The tears flowed. They were tears of humility and grace; of his connection with history; of the smallness of each of us.

In The Joy of Sports Michael Novak writes, “Sports tell the truth about human life. They are the heart of the matter. Sports are the highpoint of civilization, along with the arts … very few philosophical-religious texts have as clear a ring of truth as a baseball smacked from the fat, true centre of a willow bat.”

This month Melbourne hosts the Commonwealth Games. No doubt Australian athletes will dominate many of the sports, and the national ego will be massaged. The athletes should be successful: compared with most other Commonwealth countries, Australian governments and businesses pump an enormous amount of money into identifying, training and supporting elite athletes. It is an entrenched system. Media interests are served. Sponsors reap the rewards. Politicians are satisfied. Sports administrators, coaches and athletes are happy. The system, which serves these interested parties very well, is sustained.

Yet, amid this industrial process and the meanings that surround it, the joy of sport will not be extinguished. There are sure to be moments that surprise. Not moments of national chauvinism, but rather moments that have you jumping from your lounge chair and punching the air. Moments of shared joy and shared suffering.

These moments make you feel alive. They make you feel that while sport is not the most important thing in the world, it can alert you to the things that are.

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