Be a Sport! By Trevor Plumbly

Most countries seem to have an unhealthy obsession with breeding world champions at some sport or other. It’s probably inherited from the Stone Age ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ contest, with the winner claiming the prize of the maiden. I have reached that august age where prowess of any sort is not of great import, thus I can look at the fleeting fancies of conquest with a jaundiced eye. Ordinarily, embryonic world champs (if there are such creatures) have some sort of sporting implement or ball practically glued to their hands or feet the second nappies are no longer required, and the truly committed continue to clutch or kick them, well into their teens, in defiance of puberty’s attempts to spoil the Olympian dream.

Sporting glory never beckoned me; I was hyper-nervous, skinny to the point of emaciation and, as a result, shit-scared of bodily contact with either sex, regardless of the rewards. Others ‘played up and played the game’, dreaming of FA Cup Final glory, whilst I pondered the point of it all. The benefit of being kicked and barged around over possession of a ball was never fully explained beyond ‘it’s good for you’ (pain is good?). I soon learned that the safest place on a soccer field was as far away from the goal as possible, so I played on the wing, practically ignored by all. No-one in that school ever made it sportwise, despite years of effort. Cynically, even then I wondered how they ended up: disillusioned or resentful? Who can blame them? They spend about ten years kicking a ball around and finish up with bugger-all except educational shortcomings, dodgy knees and not much in the way of career options.

In New Zealand, rugby rules, and as such the physical and mental toll is more apparent. Even as a child I was intelligent enough to give rugby grounds a wide berth; if somebody was prepared to inflict bodily injury just to get their hands on a bloody ball why not just give it to them and avoid the aggravation? Not these Kiwis! Every week right across the country the kids swarm to the pastures of punishment. On the touchline parents brave the weather, Mum having her third fingernail snack whilst Dad gets into the spirit of things by exhorting junior to ‘get stuck in’. In the car after the game, Dad gives junior a post-match pep-talk, Mum drives, white-knuckled and teeth gritted knowing she’s got next week’s little bit of punishment to look forward to. Assuming junior gets through schoolboy rugby relatively unscathed, he can move up to club level. Here he can leave the field wearing a broken nose or black eyes like badges of honour; hell, if he gets stretchered off he’ll get a round of applause. As a substitute for military combat, I suppose rugby serves to drain the native aggression out of the lads, but once again, where’s the profit? The dream is obviously to be an All Black, but the population’s about 5 million, so mathematics alone should prompt junior towards another career path.

Proponents of boxing paint a pretty picture of ‘the noble art’. I’m fairly sure that this description is in deference to the Marquis of Queensbury who is credited (if that’s the word) with giving us the modern rules. I’m prepared to bet that the good Marquis never actually climbed into the ring; he became a ‘patron’ of the art, realising perhaps that watching someone being pummelled senseless was a lot more fun than being pummelled senseless yourself. Even in those days the British aristocracy retained a high regard for their personal well-being. Boxing today at junior and amateur level is a pretty harmless pursuit with the accent on skill rather than prone opponents, but professional boxing has evolved into one of the ugliest, corruption-prone contests in sport, with managers, promoters, bookies and trainers more in control than the fighters themselves. They will, of course, move on to the next great hope when the current one fails or simply can’t take it anymore. The image of a shuffling brain-impaired ex-boxer isn’t movie hype, it’s real! Getting punched in the head on a regular basis for fifteen years doesn’t promote clarity of thought or the ability to manage one’s own affairs competently.

Of the millions that play sport, less than 1% will achieve world recognition for their efforts and of those millions, 50% will be on the losing end of every contest, barring the odd draw. With odds like that it’s staggering that people can be bothered, yet they continue to put their bodies and emotions through this form of social warfare. On the touchline, rival parents exchange insults, even blows; on the terraces opposing fans riot, and in the home it’s not unusual for grown men to hurl epithets at the referee via the TV set. All that emotional energy wasted on what are touted as pleasant pastimes. Not from where I’m sitting mate! It’s a physical caste system and, from my school experience, a not-so subtle form of bullying served up as healthy and character building. Did I ever take part? Yes! I did cross-country running and I was bloody good at it! It kept me away from the bear garden of school ‘sports’ because the main person I was competing against was myself.

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