It’s a rum go, working in sport professionally. Your business is everybody else’s fun; their frivolity is your seriousness. Still, at least I was able to watch the Australian Open Final in Norfolk this year. Two years ago I watched the semi-final in a landside bar at Terminal Three. When Andy Murray won, I invented a new sport that combined sprinting with weightlifting, crossed the terminal without dropping any baggage, checked in, made the plane, just, and flew to Melbourne for the final. Murray didn’t win a set. Sportswriting can be a daft business. This year Novak Djokovic beat Murray in the Aussie Open final again, and it was a triumph of athleticism. Not touch, not artistry, not, heaven forefend, subtlety. It was all about running hard and hitting deep. That’s modern tennis for you. Frank would have hated it.
I owe Frank Keating. He showed me how to write about sport. Frank, who died last week aged 75, wrote for the Guardian and for years was sports columnist for The Spectator. Frank wrote journalism with a novelist’s freedom. When I started to write about sport for the Times I decided to write like Frank. Not in Frank’s style: that was too deeply idiosyncratic. It was also too dangerous: anyone with a less certain touch would have fallen into self-indulgence. There were plenty of legendary names around when Frank was at his best: and he was better than all of them. Better, because a larger man, with larger values.
I took over Frank’s column in the Speccie and did it for several years. Shortly after I stepped down, Frank stepped back and again showed me how it should be done. By this time, he had fallen out with modern sport. He became a full-time nostalgist, and he did it brilliantly. After years of sharp-end journalism, he was entitled to the shift, though this too can be dangerous. Frank carried it off, but perhaps the rest of us should have an annual nostalgia check-up: as important for the ageing male sportswriter and as uncomfortable as a prostate check.
Sport is not what it was, but then nor is anything else. That’s time for you. And sport changes faster than anything else: it’s history on fast-forward. When I was a new bug and Frank was in his prime, the FA Cup was a big deal. Now it’s a sideshow. Last weekend, Liverpool, Spurs and QPR all fielded weakened teams, and were all defeated. Oldham Athletic, the side that defeated Liverpool, were less than ecstatic. Their chairman Simon Corney described the result as ‘awkward’. You can’t bank glory.
It’s easy to wail about the current state of sport. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times when stoned out of his head on EPO and whatever else was in the fridge. Football’s January transfer window has been the usual merry-go-round of millions. Last week a footballer kicked a ballboy. Test cricket is struggling against the 20-over game, like chess being replaced by snakes and ladders. Change and decay in all around I see… rolling and rhythmic words, but they’re not synonyms, are they? Sport changes as time changes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that sport, or society, has got worse. They’ve just got different. Sport has swapped the hypocrisies of amateurism for the brutalities of commerce. The answer is not in the past, the golden age, back in my day, when there were real characters. Sport teaches us one of the most uncomfortable of all lessons. It’s not sport that’s decaying and it’s not society that decaying. It’s you.
We’ve reached February, thank God, which means that they’ll be laying off what James Joyce called peasants and phartridges. Saturday mornings at home will be that little less like World War Three as a result. Pheasants, eh? Has any creature ever thrived so much because of its ability to die? And what an extraordinary way to run a nation’s countryside. People complain about exotic species: ring-necked parakeets, Canada geese, muntjacs. And yet we release 40 million pheasants every year. Besides, shouldn’t a blood sport carry an element of risk? All proper sports should have the potential to hurt. Every sport should require a little bit of physical courage even to take part. Even on the village green the cricket ball is hard.
There’ll never be a sporting year like last year. That’s not nostalgia, that’s fact. Even without the London Olympic and Paralympic Games it would have been exceptional. But now I must plan for another year: one built around the cricket and back-to-back Ashes series. Australia are in England this summer, and then, if we’re all saved, the England team and I will make a trip to Australia. I’m hoping there’ll be no need to sprint across the terminal. I check myself over with some care. No enlarged nostalgic gland just yet. Modern sport still has me enthralled.
Simon Barnes is chief sports writer at the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013