The Story of Sport

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The last 2 months in this country have been an amazing time for sport, and not solely because of the Olympic and Paralympic games in London. We’ve also seen a British winner of the US PGA Championship (Rory McIlroy) and, just last night, a British winner of the US Open tennis tournament in Andy Murray. Before the Olympics we had Murray in the Wimbledon final and also the Euro 2012 football tournament, though the less said from an English perspective the better really, and in a few weeks time we have the Ryder Cup which is quite possibly my favourite sporting event. Then, dotted throughout the summer, there’s been a great test series between the top 2 countries in the world of cricket, South Africa and England. It wasn’t as close as anyone had hoped. In fact, it wasn’t close. But it was still entertaining.

But why bring all of this up? It doesn’t seem like the closest fit with the other content of this blog. Not only that, but sport isn’t normally associated with the nerdier people in life* (Statto aside, perhaps) and I am a self confessed nerd (I mean, come on, I’ve written a science fiction book). But I have always held a passion for sport. When I was young I was always playing some kind of sport or other. Maybe not well, but I was playing it. And now I am forever rotating through a number of sports and trying not to get too distracted from the writing that must be done. But I have been thinking about what the true appeal of watching sport is, both in general and particularly to me, and I think it can be summed up in one word – narrative.

Yes, we look for moments of individual brilliance – Cisse’s goal for Newcastle against Chelsea and Usain Bolt’s 9.63 seconds in the 100m in London were both breathtaking – but what carries us through for the long haul are, one way or another, the stories. Those stories can be the course of the football season: The Premier League was Manchester City’s, then Manchester United’s and on the last day, seemed to vacillate between the two before, at the last possible second, coming down on City’s side. Or they can be the ebb and flow of test match cricket, with each session offering its own stories, and the bowlers and batsmen providing individual bouts of conflict.

The phrase’ soap opera’ is often used to describe some drawn out and unseemly saga – see the Kevin Pietersen fiasco currently raging in the England cricket team – but it would be truer to say that that is the role that sport as a whole has come to play, and the term shouldn’t be used in the derogatory manner in which it currently is, but as praise. These are the stories we cling to as a society. In many ways, they have supplanted Eastenders and Coronation Street.

The reason why both cricket and the Ryder Cup work so well for me lies in the combination of the micro and macro. They are team sports, but they are also individual pursuits, with those smaller battles against both foe and circumstance building to a greater whole. Batsmen and bowlers are battling each other and the conditions, golfers are head to head and against conditions and course. But perhaps the greatest beauty of the stories that unfold is that, more than fiction, anything can happen.

I recently saw the brilliant documentary The Imposter (this is going somewhere, I swear). I won’t reveal anything other than to say it’s about an imposter and should be seen. Beyond that, you should go I cold. Anyway, I heard an interview with the director where he related being asked why he had made the film as a documentary and not as standard film. His answer was that if he had made a ‘Based On A True Story’ film, no one would have believed it. The story is too ridiculous, too outlandish, that it couldn’t happen in real life. Except it happened in real life. By making a documentary the audience is prepared to believe the incredible circumstances presented.

The reason for this is that fiction has conventions. There is a narrative structure that is imposed, there are things you must reveal so that the story doesn’t fall foul of using a dues ex machine (Harry Potter can normally use magic to get out of his problems, but he must learn the right magic first, else it would feel like a cheat). Watch enough drama on television or in the cinema  and you become used to the conventions, you understand how the plot works, you can start to feel the twists coming. You can never be surprised.

What sport offers is a story that develops in front of your eyes that you can never truly predict. The best sports will always have that ability to surprise. As they say of American football, on Any Given Sunday any team can beat any other. And even if you can predict the overall narrative arc, such as in the England – West Indies test series earlier this summer (England won pretty easily), there will always be strands that surprise and delight, like Tino Best’s 95 not out.

And it’s all of this that makes me (a little) surprised that the nerd culture, which so often gets caught up in stories being told in one form or another, isn’t more caught up in sport*. I listen to The Nerdist podcast interviews with various ‘nerdy’ individuals and it’s noticeable how frequently both the presenters and guests will confess to having no interest in sports and yet be eating up so many other stories in so many other forms.

But over this sport-filled summer, I have noticed the frequency with which the commentators mention the ‘story’ of someone – “Mo Farah is such a great story, growing up in Somalia and moving to Britain aged 8…”. Sport used to be a niche thing, something it was easy to avoid and ignore, and it was often followed by people who were admirers of the feats the sportsmen and women could achieve**. Now sport is almost unavoidable (I don’t know how you could have avoided the Olympics over here, had you wanted to. Though why would you want to?), the appeal has to be broadened, it’s not just about the things people can achieve, it’s also about the journey they have taken to achieve it. Athletes are becoming actors in their own private Truman Show***.


*Yes, I am aware that ‘nerd’ can really be used to describe anyone who has an obsessive knowledge of pretty much anything, and hence you can have cricket (or baseball, for my US readers) nerds. Or nerds of any other sport. I’m using term in the more generic, mainstream sense here (alright, stereotypical), the sense that incorporates those obsessed by comic books, science fiction, fantasy etc and so on.

**I am also aware that there is a great appeal to the idea of belonging, of tribalism, around following a local sports team. One could argue that this is, in part, followers inserting themselves into the story. The ups and downs of a team’s performance are no longer ‘theirs’ and something for us to watch and unfold, but ‘ours’ and something to take part in.

***Brief Andy Murray digression. Andy Murray appears to be someone who refuses to take part in this Truman Show. He is often brushed off as being surly and miserable, but as Charlie Brooker pointed out, he’s not miserable, he’s just normal. All the other tennis players have done their media training and smile for the camera and answer the same bland questions over and over. Andy doesn’t seem to like that and so does what he needs to and gets on with his life. By all accounts he’s a funny chap and a bit of a pranker in his training sessions.


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