Ain’t it rum? Last week sport was morally bankrupt, finished, no longer worthy of taking up an intelligent person’s time for a single minute. This week it’s shining out as one of the glories of the human spirit. And yet sport can cope with the contradiction quite effortlessly.
It’s hard to know the worst thing in athletics right now, but it’s either the fact that Russia has been implicated in a state-run doping programme or the possibility that the former president of the sport’s world governing body is accused of taking bribes to cover it up. In football the acronym of Fifa, football’s world governing body, means corruption: nothing more, nothing less. In Southwark the Chris Cairns trial continues, with nine witnesses suggesting that Cairns is guilty of fixing high-level cricket matches.
So if we listened to all the commentators last week, we should all have seen through sport by now. We should have recognised its futility and walked away from it for ever. But somehow we didn’t. The damn stuff is still going on all over the place.
This week England played France in a football match at Wembley. You can call it a glorious assertion of the spirit of humanity, or a glorious up-yours to all the terrorists in all the world. Either way you would be right.
Five days earlier, France played Germany in Paris, and the match was one of the targets in the city-wide series of terrorist attacks. Three people were killed and others were injured near the stadium. It all seemed a bit personal to me: I seem to have spent half my life covering matches at the Stade de France and I could find my way there from St Pancras blindfold. I’ve almost certainly drank une seize at the bar near the stadium where the attack took place.
The official response to this attack on football was to play another football match; the unofficial response was to go to it. The planned friendly in London went ahead — and that seems to imply that sport is not morally bankrupt after all. Au contraire, it seems to have a hefty credit at the bank of goodwill.
People just won’t take the advice of the commentators and accept that sport has no meaning. The idea that liking sport is a grave error of metaphysics doesn’t seem to be holding up. Philosophers can produce a million arguments to show us that sport is appalling, futile, trivial, useless and worthless — but they can’t stop the world loving the damn stuff.
And no, people don’t love sport because it teaches us morals or because it brings us universal brotherhood and world peace. People love sport because it’s fabulous, because it’s joyous, because it’s glorious and because it doesn’t matter a toss.
Sport creates a living mythology of heroes and villains. The action can be thrilling. Even if you have no taste for sport, you have to accept that people who push their own limits and sometimes the limits of human potential are doing something -compelling.
It is socially acceptable to sneer at people who don’t get art. I’d suggest that the failure to get sport is philistinism in another coat. You may have seen every piece of sculpture Michelangelo ever created, but if you can’t still find beauty and meaning in the diving of Fu Mingxia or when Kohei Uchimura performs a kovacs on the high bar, you’re doing something wrong.
Sport does beauty as a matter of course. It also provides an endless series of compelling narratives. Sport gives us the freedom to experience ridiculous delight and absurd disappointment in the sure and certain knowledge that even in defeat the sun will still rise the following morning.
Sport, in short, is about joy. It’s a joy that can be fiercely personal or shared with millions. I was at the Olympic Stadium in London on that extraordinary Saturday night in 2012 when Britain won three athletics gold medals within an hour, thanks to Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah, and I was a small part of a nation’s joy.
Last week sport was attacked in Paris by the enemies of joy. A terrorist has but a single goal and that is terror, which makes sport an obvious soft target. The world’s response has been to fight terror with joy: to fight the killers of sport with sport itself. On, then, with the football match.
Thus sport, for all its failings, and for all the horrible old men who run it, finds itself landed with the job of bringing good cheer to the world: but then that’s what sport has always done. Sport can be awful enough, God knows, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a thing of joy. And it seems this week that it’s the joy that endures.
Simon Barnes is a former chief sports writer of the Times and the author of A Book of Heroes: Or a Sporting Half-Century.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.