Answering to a higher god

2011-06-18 00:00

THANK goodness for golf and tennis! As the waters become ever murkier elsewhere, these games continue to provide inspiration and entertainment. Overall, it’s been another rotten week in sport.

Soccer has been hurt by a governing body that refuses to accept any blame for corruption in its ranks and by a chief executive so arrogant that he cut short a press conference and told journalists they ought to thank him for coming along.

Closer to home, Cricket South Africa has become immersed in another scandal about bonuses. The independent inquiry into the previous example of greed ought to widen its terms of reference. Bonuses are always risky. Better to pay cashews, not peanuts, in the first place and to abolish all these extra payments.

Next came the sight of Tamil Tiger soldiers and civilians being summarily executed in the dying throes of the civil war. By all accounts the footage was gruesome. One England captain said it was the most horrible he has seen since the Sudan food crisis. Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for airing it. The only way to reduce man’s inhumanity to man is by showing it on TV every day. Dispense with the tinsel. A Congolese student staying in my house saw soldiers from the current regime burning soldiers from the previous gang.

My main contribution to cricket writing over the last 25 years has been to put the game into the widest possible social, religious, racial and political context. In my mind sport is part of the fabric of society, part of its story, and ought to accept its responsibilities. Sport is one of the ways a nation and a person expresses itself. It is not a trifling matter, but part of life, a tale whose outcome is unknown.

Now I am wondering whether sport is not better off tucked away in the entertainment industry. Perhaps the old stagers were right as they sought to keep sport alongside the movies and theatre, as a separate place free from wider considerations. Does sport really have the power to change anything or is that merely a delusion developed by sports writers anxious to justify their existence?

Of course, sport has its own flaws. Even left to its own devices, it is far from perfect. Rigged cricket matches, corrupt soccer officials and drugged cyclists confirm that its wellbeing depends on the quality of those taking part. Some people come into sport for the right reasons, to test themselves, to compete, to represent. Others are in it for the money. As the rewards increase so the balance changes.

Tennis and golf remain blessedly free from rigging and so remind observers that sports can be clean and healthy. Both retain their honour. To watch the epic contests between Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the French Open was to observe three great players showing transcendental skills and grace under pressure.

All of them respect the game and each other. The tussle between Djokovic and Federer counts amongst the finest tennis matches ever played. Djokovic hit the ball with immense power, but somehow the Swiss kept returning with interest. The standard in the first set was extraordinary and it hardly slipped as the match unfolded.

Nadal was no less impressive in the final. As a player he is raw, almost brutal. As a competitor he belongs in the highest class.

It was a privilege to watch these champions at work. Nor did any of them stoop to conquer. Now they join hundreds of comrades at Wimbledon, all hoping to lift the trophy, all knowing that the game is greater than any individual.

Golf is even more impressive. It, too, has a glory missing in other recreations. It is a greatness founded upon honesty. Repeatedly players desperate to survive the cut or take the title or feed their families record a penalty against themselves because the ball wobbled a fraction at address or else a branch moved in the backswing. Even those as unversed in the etiquette as your correspondent know that the rules are rigidly applied. Open championships have been lost because a player refused to cheat.

Now the U.S. Open is under way. Apparently the hosts do not hold any of the Majors and are anxious to find a home winner.

Tiger Woods is injured and anyhow has lost his spark. He cheated off the course, never on it.

As people, golfers and tennis players may be as bad as the rest of us. On duty they answer to a higher god, one that permits no shilly-shallying. It is an outlook rarely observed elsewhere, one that reminds us of the possibilities of life. But there it is, an affirmation that sport can shine a light. Let it do so.

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