Friday, February 19

In defense of sports

Let's have some fun with Christopher Hitchens' recent piece in Newsweek, a screed against the Olympics and basically anything sports-related. I generally like some of what Hitchens writes, and usually think he at least marshals a coherent argument for his points even if I don't agree with them (see: War, Iraq), but this piece is a terrible, bitter, artless, pointless diatribe. I can't remember the last time I read something this stupid that wasn't constructed mostly out of anti-atheist sentiments. I'm going to line-by-line it.

Fool’s Gold
How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature.

Without sports: perfect world peace. We're off to a good start here. There are also unflattering photos of athletes mid-competition, which strikes me as a pretty cheap graphic device. People make funny faces during sex too, and you don't see people writing anti-sex articles. Or maybe they do, who knows.

And now for a sports roundup: in Angola in early January a gang of shooters sprays the bus carrying the national soccer team of Togo, killing three people in the process, and a local terrorist group announces that as long as the Africa Cup of Nations tournament is played on Angolan soil, fresh homicides will be committed. The member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that have the task of hosting both the Cup of Nations and the soccer World Cup in Cape Town this summer are in disarray as a consequence of the dispute between Angola and Congo over the "security" aspects of these allegedly prestigious sporting events.
This is a "sports roundup" for you? Have you ever even seen a sporting event? They heve them on TV all the time. This has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with unstable politics. Here's a news roundup: things are kinda messed up in Africa. You don't need to involve soccer to find examples of violent conflict.

On my desk lies an essay by the brilliant South African academic R. W. Johnson, describing the waves of resentment and disruption that are sweeping through the lovely city of Cape Town as the start of the World Cup draws near. Cost overruns and corruption, the closing of schools to make room for a hastily constructed new stadium, violent animosity between taxi drivers and mass-transit workers, constant disputes over the rigging of "draws" for the playoffs, allegations of bribery of referees … Nothing is spared.
Corruption and violence in South Africa? Say it ain't so! Plus: please stop using soccer examples. Surely Hitchens must know that soccer is the most popular game in pretty much every developing and third-world country, and is naturally going to be surrounded by some violence. Can I interest you in the NFL Playoffs?

(Incidentally, isn't there something simultaneously grandiose and pathetic about the words "World Cup"? Not unlike the micro-megalomaniac expression "World Series" for a game that only a handful of countries bother to play.)
I can see the argument for World Series, even though all of the world's best players come here, but World Cup seems entirely appropriate for the world's by-far most popular game. What else would you call it? How on Earth is that pathetic?

My newspaper this morning bears the tidings of another unappealing moment in Indo-Pakistani relations: Pakistani lawmakers have canceled a proposed tour of India after the larger neighbor's Premier League failed to bid for any of the 11 Pakistani cricketers who had offered themselves.
You can't seriously be blaming Indo-Pakistani tensions on cricket. Can you be? A well-balanced article here might have mentioned ping-pong diplomacy, or the progress Jackie Robinson's integration into MLB made towards civil rights, but Hitchens does not believe in balance.

Meanwhile, genial, welcoming, equable Canada, shortly to be the host of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, is now the object of a stream of complaints from British and American sports officials, who say that their athletes are being denied full access to the venue's ski runs, tracks, and skating rinks. Familiarity with these is important in training and rehearsal, but the Canadians are evidently determined to protect their home-turf advantage. According to one report in The New York Times, the Whistler downhill skiing course was the setting for an astonishing scene, as "several medal contenders were left watching over a fence as the Canadian team trained. 'Everybody was pushing to get on that downhill,' said Max Gartner, Alpine Canada's chief athletic officer. 'That's an advantage we cannot give away.' " Nah nah nah nah nah: it's our mountain and you can't ski on it, so there, or not until we've had the best of it. "We're the only country to host two Olympic Games [Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988] and never have won a gold medal at our Games," whined Cathy Priestner Allinger, an executive vice president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee. "It's not a record we're proud of." But elbowing guests out of your way at your own party—of that you can be proud.
Not Canada's finest moment. The solution: let's cancel all sports forever!

I didn't have to read far to find the comment I knew would be made about this spiteful, petty conduct. A hurt-sounding Ron Rossi, who is executive director of something snow-oriented called USA Luge,
Even if you somehow don't know what luge is, would it really have taken so long to look it up? Don't you have an assistant? I'd say luge is more "ice-oriented" than "snow-oriented." Either way, this phrasing is unnecessarily belittling, and I don't want Hitchens to think he got away with it without me noticing.

spoke in wounded tones about a supposed "gentlemen's agreement" extending back to Lake Placid in 1980, and said of the underhanded Canadian tactic: "I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship."

On the contrary, Mr. Rossi, what we are seeing is the very essence of sportsmanship.
You have apparently never once, ever, participated in an athletic activity. Go have another cocktail.

Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want — as in Africa this year — or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere)
None of these things have anything to do with sports. Millions of people have problems with guns, domestic violence, animal abuse, and substance abuse - we just hear about the ones involving pro athletes because they are famous. Do you actually think that, if people did not participate in sports, these sorts of things would not occur? There's neither correlation nor causation here.

you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay "The Sporting Spirit," after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field

"sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will."
So, I hate all the guys I play basketball with? Weird, I thought we developed friendships by playing games. Good thing Hitchens is here to tell me these things. I wonder who else I have ill-will towards?

As he went on to say: "I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles."
Remember the orgy of hatred that followed the Super Bowl this year? Me neither.

Putting it a bit strongly, you say. But what about the border war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, when the violence set off by a disputed soccer match escalated to the point of aerial bombardment? In Khartoum recently, a soccer game between Egypt and Algeria led to widespread violence, a sharp exchange of diplomatic notes, a speech about affronted national honor from President Hosni Mubarak, hysterical hatred pumped out on state media, and an all-round deterioration of what you might call civility. And this between two members of the Arab League!
A group historically known for rational, calm discussion of international affairs.

Incidentally, that observation takes care of the excuse that is sometimes offered: that if rival countries confine their contests to the sporting field, they allow the quarrel between them to be settled vicariously. Before the match in Khartoum, Egypt and Algeria had no diplomatic quarrel. After the game, perfectly serious people in Cairo were saying the atmosphere resembled that following the country's defeat in the June 1967 war … In the India-Pakistan case the position is almost the reverse: relations between the two countries have been poisonous enough for decades, but there is no doubt that the cricket snub has almost effortlessly made a very bad situation even worse.
I've already made this point several times, but let's try again: these countries already don't like each other. Sports are tangential to nations warring.

Yes, yes, I know about Invictus and am a slight friend and strong admirer of the author of the original book. But it was the use of rugby and other sporting cults to reinforce and exemplify apartheid that had been the problem in the first place. And no clear-eyed observer of the South African scene thinks that the Invictus moment was any more than a brief pause in the steady decline of friendship between the country's ethnic groups: a decline that has much to do with sporting rivalries and the idiotic loyalties and customs on which such allegiances depend. So here's something so toxic that it's even Mandela-proof.
I didn't see Invictus, but nothing Hitchens has written so far makes me inclined to trust his take on it.

(I suppose that the people who so willingly describe themselves as "fans" are aware of the etymology of the term but consider it to be no insult.)
You are correct on both fronts.

I'm not done. Our own political discourse, already emaciated enough, has been further degraded by the continuous importation of sports "metaphors": lame and vapid and cheery expressions like "bottom of the ninth," "goal line," and who knows what other tripe.
These are actual metaphors - your haughty disdain of them does not warrant the use of quotation marks around the word. Nice try, though. Frankly, I don't see what's problematic about these expressions. Is making an analogy between a political process and a well-known phenomenon from athletics such a bad thing?

Hard enough on the eyes and ears as this is — and there are some cartoonists who can't seem to draw without it — it also increases the deplorable tendency to look at the party system as a matter of team loyalty, which is the most trivial and parochial form that attachment can take.
Partisanship = Because of sports.

Meanwhile, the sponsorship racket means that a string of thugs and mediocrities
Like Roger Federer and Peyton Manning, to name two.

is regularly marketed and presented for "role modeling" purposes, and it's considered normal for serious programming to be postponed or even interrupted if some dull game goes into (the very words are like a knell) overtime.
Oh no, 60 Minutes is on five minutes late!

I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower.
It was at this point that I resolved to write this article blasting Hitchens' ridiculous hatchet job. There are so many things wrong with it, I'm having trouble keeping score. It's like a full-court press of inaccuracies. A home run of inanity. A perfect game of pompousness.

I like the semi-heroic imagery of his lunging for a newspaper during "a time of crisis." I like the overdramatization where the sports headlines (which almost always are confined to an upper corner) completely block his ability to understand said crisis.

Then there's the phrase "the already known result of some other dull game." First off, are you suggesting that newspapers should publish unknown results, perhaps of games that are to take place in the near future? Should they do the same thing with political news as well? "Already known" is a bizarre adjective here. Then we have "some other dull game." How do you know it was dull? You obviously didn't watch it and are too self-important to read about it, so what exactly leads you to conclude that it was dull? Maybe it was really exciting, like Cavs-Nuggets last night, or the NFC Championship.

Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day.
Here's a TFB challenge: find me a sentence more pompous than this one. I doubt you'll succeed. "Degrade the act of reading"? Dude, make sure you don't fall from that high horse.

These avid consumers also have tons of dedicated channels and publications that are lovingly contoured to their special needs. All I ask is that they keep out of the grown-up parts of the paper.
Thanks for the condescension. You know, a lot of people think English literature is every bit as aimless as you think sports are.

Or picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d' to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people.
Sports bars don't have maitre d's, you idiot.

But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation — "Steelers,"
I agree that "Steelers" is pretty dumb :)

say, or even "Cubs," for crumb's sake — and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner.
You may not be aware of this, but people tend to watch sports in groups. It's a fun social activity. Thus, you're not a "special case." And I can't recall having been treated in a "soothing manner" for having cheered for a sports team in a public eatery. What planet is this guy from?

Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn't even know was being played?
"Game," not "match," Zoolander. One of the chief problems with this piece, other than its unnecessary hostility and overbearing condescension, is that Hitchens apparently knows almost nothing about sports. It's generally not a good idea to tackle a subject about which you have no knowledge. Does anyone get the feeling that Chris wasn't a real great athlete in his day?

Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen?
I don't especially like my face being called "pathetic." Take that back! And most sports fans aren't posers as you claim. I root for my teams because I like them.

If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look — and talk — as if they were suffering from a concussion.
How is this a metaphor?

Wait! Have you ever had a discussion about higher education that wasn't polluted with babble about the college team and the amazingly lavish on-campus facilities for the cult of athletic warfare?

Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle?

Worried when retired generals appear on the screen and talk stupidly about "touchdowns" in Afghanistan?
That means "good." I can write you up a list if it will help.

By a sort of Gresham's law, the emphasis on sports has a steadily reducing effect on the lowest common denominator, in its own field and in every other one that allows itself to be infected by it.
Sports = pure viral evil.

Though I didn't think the story belonged in the news section at all, I did learn today that there's not enough snow for this bloatedly funded spitefest

in Vancouver and so they'll be choppering some white stuff in from the north. That at least might be momentarily interesting to watch (Haitians in particular would, I bet, be riveted to see it).
Way to exploit a recent tragedy that has absolutely nothing to do with your argument. I really thought you were better than this, Mr. Hitchens.

Meanwhile, with millions of other don't-care people, I won't be able to escape the pulverizing tedium of the events themselves.
If you don't like them, don't fucking watch them.

Global warming never seemed a more inviting prospect. Let it not snow, let it not snow, let it not snow.
Global warming increases precipitation, including snow. Maybe if there weren't all those articles about sports on the front page of the newspaper's science section, you might know that.

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