Impossible to divorce sentiment from sport despite duplicity

Thousands on this island will tune into Arsenal v Chelsea tonight and worry about the result

Ramires of Chelsea (right) celebrates scoring  at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters

Ramires of Chelsea (right) celebrates scoring at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters


Only two days to go now, two days of ulcerating stress that will at some stage have even the most equable among you fervently signing along to Eric Idle’s Yuletide classic – “F*** Christmas!”

It can be hard not to feel a little grinchy at this time of year, especially in terms of sport. Too much sugary sentiment to be good for anyone, like wading through molasses: end-of-season PR gabfests, pious aspirations for the new year, suits proclaiming sports stars as an example to youth, and the country as a whole: God bless us everyone.

And all the while knowing over Christmas, there’ll be 10 athletes doping, nine jockeys stopping, eight players betting, seven locks injecting, six strikers roasting, FIVE . . . you get the idea.

The thing is though that this seasonal Yin-Yang between sentiment and scepticism will two-step in synch into 2014 as it always does. And it’s important it does, necessary even. Anyone unprepared to gaze through sceptical binoculars at some of the stuff passed off as legitimate can hardly be expected to marvel fully at the real deal when it happens in front of them. And if that’s too sentimental, then call me a romantic softy.

Sport without sentiment is nothing anyway. Just a lot of sweat. If you’re not prepared to fling dollops of indulgent goo at the act of moving from A to B against someone dressed differently, then it really is time to head for the telly that isn’t flat screen in the spare room and flick over to The Great Escape.

Overstated importance
Thousands on this island will tune into Arsenal

v Chelsea tonight and worry about the result: as in get properly stressed out over one bunch of international millionaires getting the better of another – investing it with a significance that is rationally ridiculous, but none the less real to those choosing to invest so much into something so trivial.

And you’d think those who rule sport would recognise their fundamental self-interest in making sure the investment is continuous: got to keep those customers buying after all. But maybe the suits don’t care enough even to care about taking care of business.

A pal has given up investing. Still takes an interest, but not in the obsessive “knows-who-played-left-back-for-Mali-in-the 1967-who-gives-a-crap-cup” way he used to. This is someone who can tell you every meet Steve Ovett appeared at in Ireland, recite every statistic about Christy Ring, up to and including the rate of erosion in the famous Cloyne hairline. But it’s not the same anymore.

That’s partly due to kids, work, mortgage and other stuff. But it’s also disillusionment and not being able to park his scepticism far enough to the side anymore. No point getting older unless you get a little wiser he says, and too much has been uncovered. Too much about Lance and business outmuscling ethics every time, too many footballers kissing the shirt, too many form fluctuations in athletics for it to be in any way believable, too much about steroids in racing to make it just an aberration, too much cynicism all round, too many too good at talking the talk and covering their arse in the face of what’s basically just cheating.

That’s what gets him – the cheating and the only crime being in getting caught. And it’s more than a little sad. Not hospital sad, but still sad, and even sadder for it being completely understandable.

On so many levels sport can be shameless, from blatant corporate manipulation down to fatuous gestures of the sort Michael Ring,

Minister of State for Sport, made last week when urging foreign corporations based here to fund more Irish sport, appealing to “corporate conscience” of all things, which is a bit like appealing to crocodile compassion.

The good fight
But without wishing to overindulge in too much seasonal schmaltz, dismissing sport because cheating goes on is like dismissing the world because it’s polluted. Cheating never fully goes away because it’s in us. It’s like herpes. But that acknowledgement doesn’t mean the fight against cheats is futile. In fact it makes fighting them, and being seen to fight them, meaningfully, and with every possible resource, even more vital.

Because it is always necessary to remind the suits that sport’s greatest selling point is fairness, or at least the illusion of fairness, and especially now. When you look at the state of our civic society or the busted flush of a business elite that preens itself in the mirror of a supposed entrepreneurship, or the vacuum left for many on the back of a morally bankrupt church, only those with an agenda can maintain even the pretence that fairness isn’t just a snappy soundbite. No one looks for fair anymore, anywhere. Mere survival is a pleasant surprise.

Sport doesn’t exist in a well-insulated bubble but what can be forgotten among all the cheating and the back-page bullshit is the entirely artificial, but never more vital, role of sport in providing at least the ambition that out on that pitch, or on that track, or on that court, merit is rewarded, regardless of who you are, or where you’re from; that merit alone can be enough.

Even the idea of that in most every other aspect of life is laughable. So without wishing to dip too deeply into a vat of seasonal saccharine, investing in silly sentiment is not only fun, but worthwhile.

So cheer up, and, all together now: Always Look on the bright side of life!