Bruce Bisset: Sport's breath of fresh air

By LEFT HOOK - BRUCE BISSET

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Bruce Bisset. Photographer: Paul Taylor
Bruce Bisset. Photographer: Paul Taylor

As the world becomes over-full of humanity and tempers fray, it's no surprise that increasingly our newspapers and televisions are crowded with mayhem and tumult, bloodshed and injury, violent confrontation and arrogant one-upmanship. And that's just the sports news.

Of course real wars of which there are far too many are insensate, macabre, brutal clashes in which lives, not just egos, are shredded indiscriminately; and I don't mean to diminish or excuse their horror by comparing them to mere games.

But there are many ways in which sports reflect warfare and vice versa, not least the devilish cross-over from innocent video gaming to directing remote-controlled killing machines.

One thing both do is entrench nationalism. Whole nations come to a virtual standstill when their premier sport is being played against a traditional foe, with fans gripped by fervour akin to that of awaiting the outcome of an actual battle.

Think New Zealand versus South Africa at rugby, or Brazil vs Argentina at soccer, or the USA vs Russia at ice-hockey. Matches that are more than sporting contests, because national pride and status is on the line.

There may not be serious injuries or deaths though some do happen and the combatants may be strictly limited in number, but it is not far-fetched to consider such "games" as playing at war.

Whether sport as a placebo for war is sociologically a good or bad thing is moot.

Fine if it allows people to let off steam, but passions inflamed during a match can spill over to the street, causing riots and lasting enmity.

Sport is said to break down barriers between peoples and I'm sure that's true for most sportspeople themselves. But for the great mass involved in a game the fans a bad result can create more barriers than it eases.

Especially if there is something "unjust" about it.

If my theme seems overstated, consider the civil disruption in New Zealand over the 1981 Springbok tour.

Choosing a playing-field instead of a battlefield to resolve antagonisms may be a step forward; but apart from during the Cold War era of East vs West, sport has been used more as an adjunct than an alternative to fighting.

Which is why the Commonwealth Games are such a breath of fresh air.

As diverse as the nationalities participating are, and as fiercely as the players might tackle their individual tasks, there is an overarching sense of comradeship and mutual celebration that transcends nationality.

Doubtless this stems from the common link for participants: All coming from countries which were once part of the British Empire.

For as various as the wrongs the British meted out may have been, their "gentlemanly" attitude towards sporting fair play has coloured the cultural values of all the nations they once ruled.

So while larger meets like the Olympics can seem an impersonal production line of athletes with only their country's flags to distinguish them, the Commonwealth's are more intimate, more relaxed and, yes, more friendly. More what sport should be about, in short.

A century after the "war to end all wars" began, armed conflict is now so prevalent the whole world could be said to be at war.

This is World War III it's just not as we imagined it would be.

In this environment, sporting contests between nations have the potential to either spark or defuse actual conflict.

If we cannot remove the nationalistic element from our games, we should at least take care not to build them up into more than what they are: physical exhibitions of skill that, primarily, are supposed to be enjoyed.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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