For the love of professional sport

For the love of professional sport

It’s easy to be cynical towards professional sport.

I can be and I sense your average Almanacker (those old enough to be cynical) is a true believer who fears something is being lost. That our sports stars, clubs, franchises and competitions, have become distant, unaffordable, inaccessible, compromised, bastardised, less familiar.

Isn’t everything different to the way we remember it? Or is this a case of rose coloured glasses and a few too many beers and snags? Maybe, but not always.

For the AFL, the bottom line is the bottom line. Fixturing, scheduling, sponsorships, clash jumpers, noise pollution at grounds, expansion, are all geared towards meeting the AFL’s priorities: more folding stuff, empire building, and bums on couches. Not bums on grandstand seats. Why not, it’s a business? And it does it well. No other sporting body in this country can touch the AFL. But at what cost?

Of course, the AFL is small fry compared to the big boys. FIFA and the IOC hold bidding cities and countries to ransom. And then there’s the corruption.

Serena Williams’ behaviour during last year’s US Open final against Sam Stosur was woeful. As was the cowardly response from the WTA. For disrespecting her sport and everyone watching, she was fined $2000. $2000! Her hotel courtesy car chauffeur, who was probably not permitted to make eye contact, would have found that bouncing around under her car seat. This was not an isolated case for Serena.

Marcos Baghdatis rarely attempts to calm his boisterous fans at Melbourne Park. Quite the opposite – he incites them. How many racquets did he smash to bits against Wawrinka last January? Seven?

The Australian Test cricket team is considered arrogant and aloof. Some say they should press more flesh, sledge less, allow the media and public into the inner sanctum.

Earlier this year, during a harsh European winter, a Rugby Test, scheduled at some ridiculous time like 9.30pm to suit TV, was cancelled at the last minute due to a frozen pitch. Too bad for shivering travelling fans.

Despite Spain’s unemployment level sitting at 25%, a Formula 1 Grand Prix was held there on the weekend.

The examples are endless. Choose your own.

It’s easy to become disillusioned and question why we bother. But we do. We do because professional athletes can cut through our cynicism with the beauty and courage of their performances. They can take us with them on a journey and provide moments that evoke joy and awe and remind us what great sport, whatever the level, is about: human endeavour at its best, most vulnerable and most honest.

On the final weekend of the EPL, Manchester City, poor cousin to its cross-town rival for over four decades, won and lost the title three times before finally grasping it in the final minute of the season. The stunned and breathless TV commentator screamed: ‘Staggering….Just staggering!’ All I could do, when watching the highlights the next morning, was shake my head.

I used to follow the EPL quite closely, but have grown tired of its overkill, exploitation of fans, spoilt rich kid stars, and dodgy billionaires. However, Man City’s win gave me a buzz that lasted all day.

If an inaccessible sporting competition exists it’s the EPL. However, it clings to some sort of democracy and purity through its fixture: all teams play each other home and away. It has maintained its tribal appeal to England’s working class males, many of whom possibly go without in order to fork out large sums for obscenely overpriced tickets to watch overpaid players who often move onto greener (folding stuff) pastures before the fans have learnt to chant their names correctly. And those unable to attend games can only watch on pay TV. Yet, the EPL is still the biggest football competition in the world.

Again, if you’re like me, you will have your own examples of when professional sport has risen above itself and subdued your cynicism.

Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic in the 2001 Wimbledon Final. Goran, a wildcard, sadly appeared destined to never clinch that elusive grand slam title. Pat was, well, Pat. Our Pat. Everyone loved him. He’d had a few beers and a barbecue the night before the final and went in as hot favourite. Due to weather interruptions, the match was held on the Monday, allowing the unwashed into centre court. The joint roared, rocked, boiled and bubbled, as they slugged it out over five gruelling sets. Goran’s sick father watched from the stands. His son hammed it up, flexing his shoulder in jest, before serving out the match. Pat was gracious as usual, choking up when apologising to Rochey for not getting the job done. I watched the match at a mate’s place. We rode the rollercoaster and finished with our heads in our hands, shattered, but also uplifted by what we had witnessed.

What about Roger’s backhand jolt down the line to save a match point against Raf in the 2008 Final? Or this year’s Men’s Australian Open Final?

The 1999 cricket World Cup; the 2005-06 AFL Grand Finals; Goddard’s mark during the last quarter in 2010; Bubba at Augusta; the Shark at Augusta – for different emotions.

Cadel rode for an hour at his absolute optimum during the final mountain climb in last year’s Le Tour, as the Schlecks tried unsuccessfully to break him.

Ali, Frazier, Fenech.

Ablett Senior.

Kieren Perkins at Atlanta.

We reconnect with professional sport when the athletes forget the purse, accolades, and their egos. When they respect fans and their sport and allow themselves to let it all hang out and be taken by the moment. When they compete for the reasons those less talented do: for the sheer love of it. We know when they do this and we love it.

So, after the adoring ticker-tape parade, when Man City players get on the blower to their managers, jump in their ferraris, and go their separate ways in search of the next pot of gold, let’s hope they pause for a millisecond and reflect on what they have achieved. I hope it means as much to them as it does to their long suffering fans.

It will give ageing Almanackers like me less to moan about.


  1. “Despite Spain’s unemployment level sitting at 25%, a Formula 1 Grand Prix was held there on the weekend.”

    …and Greece spent a lazy $11 billion on the 2004 Olympics.

    I can recommend Michael Sandel’s ( new book “What Money Can’t Buy”, particularly the last chapter dedicated to the influence of money and markets on sport and it’s impact on sport’s social function in society.

    I think the more sport shifts toward market mechanism’s (and KPIs anyone?) the more predictable it becomes.

    For me, one of the reasons for ‘Linsanity’ early in the NBA season, was that occurred outside a rational/measurable/predictable context.

  2. Andrew Starkie says

    Yep, and it’s the opium of the masses like religion used to be. Govts use sport as a diversionary tactic. Keep em occupied and distracted.

  3. RE Linsanity: And then they marketed the hell out of him.

  4. True, Cookie. Didn’t help that he was in a ‘big market’ team…

  5. Andrew Starkie says

    Bahrain just had a gp didn’t they?

    And the boss of the gp, can’t recall his name, looks like that music producer in prison for murder, say the Arab Spring was a group of kids running around?

  6. I keep a copy of a Simon Barnes’ article from years ago:
    “(Those without sport) see nothing but money. They believe the Olympic Games are about nothing but money and politics. Such things are hardly irrelevant, but if the Olympic Games had nothing more, they would have no meaning and therefore no power. If football, if cricket, if any sport were about money only, no one would watch them.
    Those without sport see only the machine. They see only the folly, the futility, the money, the politics. All these things are real enough, but we who have sport in us see more. We are able to perceive the ghost that dwells inside the machine, the thing that animates sport, that makes it live in us, that makes us care about it, that thing that is beyond explanation.
    Behind the cash and the politics, behind the hype and the nonsense, behind the cynicism and the disillusionment, comes the humanity. And that’s sport”.

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