There was a time, not so long ago, when proud sports fans around the globe felt it so knitted into their DNA that life without it was unimaginable.
Sport, writing as an avowed fan of many, was a perpetual certainty like death and taxes. Periods of sporting cut and thrust mimicked the seasons of life. Every fallow off-season offered time for reflection and for absence to make the heart grow fond.
Spare time, energy and cash was spent on the varied narratives provided by teams and players engaged in sporting endeavour.
This is hard to explain to those who don’t get sport – watching and playing can feel, on some level, like the same thing.
In his book Shoe Dog, Nike Corporation founder Phil Knight described the experience and emotion of watching legendary US runner Steve Prefontaine win a big race.
I’d never witnessed anything quite like that race. And yet I didn’t just witness it, I took part in it. Days later I felt sore in my hams and quads. This, I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”Phil Knight. Shoe Dog
Hyperbolic as it sounds, sometimes watching sport does feel like that – not so much that you are watching as you are part of , critical even, to the spectacle.
Many elements build the sporting experience. There is the tribal aspect of choosing a side and standing together as one. There is the sense of the national spirit made flesh in watching our boys and girls compete on the world stage, bringing a feeling of agency and significance.
Sport becomes the place where rivalries are settled, where competition lives, gentle or otherwise.
Compelling sporting narratives keep the fire burning. Underdogs strive in David and Goliath battles and the heroic struggle for ultimate glory and success over adversity. We know the longitudinal joy in spotting a bright young thing and following their trajectory to greatness like a glowing comet. There are Shakespearian falls from grace, gossip, trivia and endless opportunities for analysis, debate, discussion and nostalgia.
There is also the connections, real and imagined, between players, coaches and fans. There are the social links – forensic water cooler post-mortems; after work seminars over quiet beers before, during and after events.
There are the offseason activities, the falling of leaves in autumn as players depart, the fallow winter where other sports emerge and take their position in the consciousness.
There is the hope of spring, renewal of team and timeline through new faces promising innovation and success.
Sport is theatre, delivering drama and joy in a way that life does not always. It is predictable and seasonal and kind in a cognitive sense. That is, of course, until it isn’t.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a wicked problem. It provides an incredibly unkind cognitive environment, where an uncertain opaqueness colours the lives we once took for granted.
Sport has been something to be missed like one might miss their favourite coffee shop over the festive break. It is the regret of your favourite restaurant closing down
Sure, the first few games felt like a cold drink after a long desert walk, but as more occur there is something not quite right, a little bit off.
This pandemic has changed perspectives and offered time and space to reflect without distraction.
In that time before, where endless sports crippled the senses with choice, the cups of the average fan filled to overflowing. Where once there was scarcity, a time before perpetual streaming and beaming, the coming of the internet created something like an all you can eat buffet.
The sporting media, belligerent and invasive, expanded their reach to every weekday and hour, spewing a circular and repetitive narrative that placed itself at the very peak of human endeavour and the utmost level of importance.
Spoiled for choice, permanently connected and crippled with options, the schedule became fragmented and sport became somehow less social. There was once a collective joy in taking something in at the same time, live and in the moment. There was something joyous about sharing these experiences with family and mates.
There was something about the Monday post mortem before you put the sport to bed for a few days and paid attention to other things. Family. Friends. Connections.
When the teams dropped on Thursday night, Friday dawned with the promise of a weekend of sport among the leisure.
After a hiatus, sport in the pandemic doesn’t seem so critical, just a nice thing to have. It certainly adds to a richer sense of living, but it is not essential for a full life.
In time, as we pared life back to the essentials, sport diminished in the primacy and it became something that is just a nice thing to have, not a need to be fed.
.In the grand scheme of things, among all the confected soap opera clashes of sports journalists with nothing to do, one thing has become obvious. Without the games, life goes on.
With the games, played before empty stands and lacking many of the elements that make the experience a great emotional phenomenon for so many, life still goes on, and the sport just isn’t that great.
In time, we will return to it and it will be glorious and engaging. But…well… there is just too much sports to go around. That is a sentence that hurt me to write, but it is true.
Sport is not essential to a rich life, just a nice thing to have. The world turns without it, and that is now the real lived experience as a sports fan, not an imagined phenomenon.
Where once we believed the world might end of they took all the sport away, we now know that this is simply not true.