Sport was never "only a game"

This summer, it's sport that has made us human.

In the future, if people want to explain sport’s appeal, its reach, its capacity to engage and to capture not only the imagination but the intellect too, they could do worse than pick the summer of 2013 to use as an example.

At Wimbledon, the quality of the tennis played and the scale of the upsets invigorated a tournament that can sometimes seem like a procession of international superachievers, illustrating a point I have made before on this blog that not knowing who is going to win is key to the attraction of sport. On the final weekend, number 15 seed Marion Bartoli’s focused and gutsy victory was refreshing in so many ways. And yet, irritatingly, much of the coverage focused on the crass remark made by a BBC presenter about her looks. Even more irritating was the glee with which much of the press asked for her reaction to the observation that she was "not a looker".

That Bartoli responded to crassness piled upon crassness with a smart and dignified dismissal – "I am not blonde, yes. Have I dreamed about having a model contract? No. But I have dreamed about winning Wimbledon" – did not detract from the depressing fact that sporting women are still too often judged on their looks almost as much as their ability. The debate on women in sport continued in the build-up to the men’s final. Andy Murray, we were told, could become the first Briton for 77 years to win at Wimbledon. The fact that Briton Virginia Wade was a Wimbledon champion in 1977 eventually registered. Murray went on to become the first British man for 77 years to win a Wimbledon singles title, sparking a debate about national identity.

The observation that Murray was a Brit when he won and a Scot when he lost has been dated for some time, but appreciation of the wonderful tennis of his epic final victory soon gave way to earnest discussions about how comfortable Brits are with the national identities that intermingle in these islands. Murray’s victory also raised other questions of identity and community too. In England, tennis is seen as a posh sport, but not so in Scotland. Unlike the ever-so-English Tim Henman, Murray’s social class and nationality defined him as an outsider to many in the English tennis establishment. The debate continues, too, about whether his victory was secured in spite of English tennis.

In the Tour de France, some fascinating early displays of what sportswriter David Walsh dubbed “chess on wheels” gave way to an astonishing performance on Provence’s Mount Ventoux by Chris Froome in which he established a seemingly unassailable lead. But such is the history of the Tour that astonishing performances soon give way to questions about how clean the performance was. Froome and his teammates are, understandably, annoyed about this but, as The Times put it , Froome “has inherited a poisoned chalice, and his success is burdened by the legacy of Lance Armstrong and Generation EPO”.

In Seven Deadly Sins, Walsh’s account of the years he spent pursuing the Lance Armstrong story, the journalist says: “Enthusiasm for the game is what drives our work. When doubts about the worth of the performance arise, it drains our enthusiasm. That is why so many refuse to ask the obvious questions.” That unwillingness to question what we want to believe is something all sports fans have to deal with, increasingly so in a heavily commercialised age in which the uncertainties that make sport sport rub up uncomfortably against the certainties in which business likes to deal. Walsh has also said there is no evidence that Froome is doping, and cycling website Twisted Spoke made the point that Walsh began his pursuit of Armstrong on the basis of research and witness statements. “He didn’t just howl into the wind like a fool with no proof.”

Sporting ethics, journalistic ethics – the debates all revolve out of a cycling race, a simple sporting event. And there’s more.

The purity of victory and the many faces of cheating are important debates in sport – and arguably beyond. So when two of the world’s fastest ever sprinters, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, failed drugs tests this week the ripples ran wide. Cases such as this damage sport because people need to believe that what they see is real. How can we trust what we see? If these athletes are doping, doesn’t it follow that others must be doping too to compete? Powell says he has never “knowingly” doped; Gay says: “I put my trust in someone and was let down.” You might think that they would say that, wouldn’t they? But ask yourself, is it really possible for someone to know exactly what they are putting inside themselves with every mouthful, every drink, every injury treatment?

In cricket’s First Test at Trent Bridge, the issue was not cheating but the more subtle one of sportsmanship. England’s Stuart Broad edged a ball to slip but declined to walk back to the pavilion, waiting instead for the umpire to decide if ball had touched bat en route to gloved hand. The umpire said not out, and Australia had used up their appeals, so Broad stayed, providing a perfect example – to some people’s minds – of the phrase "it’s not cricket". The sport arguably has more quirks and traditions than any other, and the issue of what constitutes sporting behaviour runs deep. The incident prompted much discussion of declining standards or whether the desire to win had elbowed the proper playing of the game aside.

But, as sportswriter Adam Powley points out in his book When Cricket Was Cricket: The Ashes, the view of a past golden age when players were gentlemen in every sense is not – as these golden ages often turn out not to be – entirely accurate. In the 1882 Test , Australia’s batsman Sammy Jones completed a run and grounded his bat before walking away from the crease to pat down a divot. W G Grace, no less, received the ball from the wicket keeper and whipped off the bails. The umpire upheld his appeal for a stumping and gave Jones out. There was enormous controversy but, in a twist that would grace a film script, an enraged Australia went on to tear England’s batsmen apart – Fred Spofforth taking a haul of seven wickets for 44 runs – and won the game.

The argument over whether Broad’s behaviour was sporting may not be a new one, but arguments over the effects of technology on the old game are. A dramatic Test featured a number of moments in which technology played a key role, none more dramatic than the final action of a game that was poised on a knife edge. Once again an edged ball was to prove decisive, the cameras detecting the slightest of hotspots to give England their vital last wicket. The climax of a wonderful five days of cricket would soon give way to discussions of whether technology was enhancing or ruing the game.

It’s all just sport, and it is wise to remember there are more important things in life. Really, there are. But we’ve talked here about gender and class and identity and prejudice and nation and ethics and conduct and personal responsibility and belief… Just this snapshot of one summer illustrates the appeal of sport and how it spirals into so many other areas. The New Statesman magazine is currently running a series on What Makes Us Human. "Sport" is not a bad answer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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