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28 April 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 2:02pm

I will thank the pandemic for one thing, at least – a summer without sport

Whether it's Ulster, Exeter, Ireland or England  – I was finally liberated from arranging weekends around rugby fixtures. 

By Pippa Bailey

The pandemic gave me something I could only dream of during my long, PE-humiliation-filled school years: a summer without sport. No more arranging weekends around rugby fixtures so my boyfriend can tension-squat over the sofa and shout “GO ON!” at the TV at such irregular intervals I can only conclude he’s trying to kill me. Ulster matches must be observed assiduously, as if on pain of excommunication.

And if it’s not Ulster, it’s Exeter, or Ireland, or England, or really any team will do. If it’s not rugby, it’s cricket, or football, or golf. (Rugby is the worst of these – a game with rules so convoluted it sounds like it was invented by a child who doesn’t like to lose: “OK, so I’ve won now?” “Um no, you haven’t actually because you didn’t pirouette while clapping before the ball hit the ground.”)

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I find televised sport utterly inane: time slows down and the noise of it all sets me on edge. There is no bliss quite like the silence when the constant yammering of commentary has been switched off. I am the very worst kind of spectator, interested only when England reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, and unwilling to put in the time to watch them get there. I observed with detached bemusement last week as the men of Twitter fell over themselves to declare the European Super League a sign of the End Times. Try as I might, I simply cannot wrest myself into caring.

This is not an inherited attitude. I spent many childhood afternoons in the pub, licking the dust out of salt and vinegar crisp packets while my dad and brother watched Manchester United play. You could tell how well the game had gone by the force with which my dad closed the front door on returning home. My mum rarely missed Wimbledon, and watched snooker on a TV – wood-panelled with a dial to change the channel – with such bad colour contrast you couldn’t tell which ball was which. Even my grandmother once played hockey for her county.

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As a teenager I often pretended to enjoy sport for boy-related reasons, hoping that no one could see through the studied intensity with which I followed the ball, the slight delay before I joined in with the cheers and jeers – all of it a performance. I learned the offside rule and how best to demonstrate it with condiments commonly found on restaurant tables, à la Bend it Like Beckham, to prove I was definitely not a female stereotype on dates when asked (and, oh, they asked). These days I make no secret of my distaste for sport; I simply plug in my headphones and watch something else instead.

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Perhaps I would enjoy watching games if only I could play them, but my hands – which work as I wish them to for many other, more intricate tasks: knitting, aggressively fast typing – seem to turn to Angel Delight the minute a ball is flying in my direction. While my classmates signed up for the 800 metres or the high jump at sports day, I took banner-making, or snack-providing. By the time I reached Year 11, the teachers had abandoned hope, and for our “PE lessons” we were dispatched to the bowling alley, where we inserted 20ps into vending machines in return for a handful of hard candy, or to a local gym, the route home from which handily passed the chippy. Maybe if televised sports involved some sort of group snack time I might find them marginally more relatable.

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I am not being deliberately obstinate; I would really like to enjoy sport. And not just for the sake of my relationship, or so as not to break out in a cold sweat when someone suggests a game of rounders at a picnic – but because it seems like fun. I envy the sense of belonging in supporting a local team, the generational connections, the link to a home town long since left. One game appears to encompass a whole span of human emotion, to create lifelong, goosebump-inducing memories.

I suggest to my boyfriend that perhaps the rush he gets watching Ulster beat Munster is like the one I experience when watching a really perfect film for the first time – and I’m told I’m nowhere close. Having lived for six years within hearing distance of the Emirates Stadium, perhaps it’s time to go inside.

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas