When I was a boy my friends and I spent nearly all our spare time discussing sports. Pele was a big favourite, but nothing was as important as West Indies cricket. We were glued to transistor radios during test matches and Garfield Sobers, who time and again single-handedly rescued his side, was to us the greatest man alive.

But I disliked Mohamed Ali. For one thing British cultural brainwashing said true heroes were modest and gracious, and Ali was boastful and arrogant. His speeches about religion and race were also disturbing, for they implied that there were more important things than who won in the ring or on the pitch. Boys love games because they reduce life’s complications to clear cut rules and simple truths, and feeling my sporting illusions under threat I cheered for Joe Frazier in 1971. The entire boarding school stayed up to listen to the fight on radio and I was ecstatic when Ali lost.

I was disappointed when Ali knocked out Foremen in Kinshasha and stopped Frazier in Manila. But in 1980 I surprised myself by wanting him to beat Larry Holmes. It was partly nostalgia – for good or bad Ali was part of my youth and his defeat was a sad reminder of time’s march. But it was also a belated recognition that by always standing up for what he believed in no matter what the cost, Ali had transcended sport. Larry Holmes was a good fighter, but Ali was a man.

By then sports had lost its dominating grip on my affections. No longer did it feel like the end of the world when my favourite team or fighter lost. Why was I getting so worked up over something I had absolutely no control over anyway? And even when my side or guy won, after the initial exhilaration I would get this empty feeling of “Well, so what? How does that make you better off?”

I still thrill to the exhilarating grace of great athletes, and find the drama of boxing and the beauty of horse racing entrancing at times. And like most men I instinctively read the sports pages first. But I find it increasingly difficult to care who wins or loses. Something inside warns that this may be a sign of incipient crankhood, but then I think of St. Paul in Corinthians 1:13 “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Or as Mohamed Ali himself said “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”.

Sports plays a valuable role in society by teaching youngsters discipline. But the emphasis placed on games these days is surely excessive. Far too many young men neglect academic studies for pie-in-the-sky professional athletic dreams and throw away their futures by overdeveloping their bodies at the expense of underdeveloping their minds. The important thing in school and life after all is not learning how to dribble and shoot well but how to reason properly.

Now I don’t begrudge elite athletes their huge salaries - why shouldn’t they get what people think they are worth? But a society that willingly pays Michael Schumacher 50 million dollars a year while millions in Africa starve is acknowledging that it gets more pleasure from watching cars go around a racetrack than helping fellow human beings live decently. It is a depressing thought.

It is also absurd for men who have demonstrated no other real capacity in life but for hitting, kicking, or handling balls to be lionized as paragons of virtue and shrewd observers of the world. It might be useful for searching youth to be presented with heroic images of those they admire. But surely grownups should realize that the physical ability to make wonderful cover drives or fade away jumpers doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with intelligence or honour.

There is no reason why the average athlete should be any smarter or honest than the regular man in the street. Indeed men who spend most of their waking hours practicing serves or drives are probably not very well informed about the world at large. Yet millions of people hang on sports celebrities’ every word and rush out to buy whatever they endorse. Again I can understand impressionable youngsters unsure of their tastes looking to idealized heroes for guidance. But why should intelligent adults be concerned about the opinion of someone who has less time and opportunity than they to think about any particular matter?

Frankly grown men whose non-work interests go no further than sports almost make me curmudgeonly agree with George Bernard Shaw that “Games are for people who can neither read nor think”. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But if we don’t read and think at least some of the time, how can we ever develop reasonable ideas of our own about what really matters in life? 


Sports can have very real cultural effects. Only cricket for example unites the English speaking Caribbean. If West Indies cricket dies the very term will become meaningless, and an inimitably joyous way of life may be lost forever. Yet there was life before cricket, and there will be life after it. And while I find the overhyped repetitiveness of American sports tiresome, they do present intriguing social drama. When will black coaches win NBA and NFL championships and so completely demolish racial barriers in US sports?


The Olympics on one level really are a heart warming brotherhood of nations, and the thousands of condoms issued at each games show they make the old “make love not war” slogan at least a temporary reality. But the stupid boast of IOC President Juan Samaranch that “We are now more important than the Catholic religion” betrays a totally warped perspective.

How ridiculous to even compare immature youngsters running and jumping about with what is not only the longest lasting institution in history but one of man’s most profound efforts to make sense of existence. And what nonsense is the pretentious “faster, higher, stronger” motto, as if humanity’s highest ideals are to found in emulating cheetahs, kangaroos, and elephants. It is our minds that make human beings special, not our bodies.


Of course sports greatest cultural impact has been in Europe, where cross border football player movements have made nationality seem increasingly irrelevant and so paved the way for the European Union. And nothing could give greater proof of football’s amazing war substitute capabilities than watching English fans chant “Two world wars and one world cup” when they play Germany. Even those who despise the brutal cynicism of the so-called beautiful game must admit that free kicks and penalties are better than bullets and bombs.

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