Simon Barnes works as the Chief Sportswriter in ‘The Times’, the English newspaper. I enjoy reading his pieces for ‘The Times’. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I read all of his pieces. In his Olympics pieces, there was a slight bias against China and a stronger bias in favour of Barnes’ favourite sports and athletes – 100m sprint, beautiful Russian athletes, gymnastics, British sportspersons at the games – but his pieces were in general a pleasure to read. I got this book by Simon Barnes, one year before the Beijing Olympics. The title, ‘The Meaning of Sport’ intrigued me. I thought that Barnes had taken time off from his journalistic work to write a profound, philosophical book on sport. I was hoping that it will become one of my favourite books on sport. As happens so often with books about which I have high expectations, this book continued to adorn my bookshelf, without me making any attempt to take it down and read it. I decided that I will remedy the situation this year and got it down a few days back and read it. I did a readathon today and finished. Here is what I think.
What I think
The bad news first. The title of the book raised my expectations and made me think in a particular way. I thought that it was a profound, philosophical meditation on sport. I thought Barnes was going to look at the history of sport, going into ancient Greek times and tracing how sport evolved into its modern form. I also thought that he was going to trace the history of how sporting achievements were judged – how during ancient Greek times the athlete who finished first was not necessarily given the first prize, but the athlete who ran the race more elegantly, more beautifully from an aesthetic perspective and who showed wonderful technique, won the first prize, and how the modern way of judging a sporting performance has evolved from this start. I also thought that he would write about how the ancient Greek poet Pindar celebrated the victory of athletes at the ancient Olympics through his poetry, and touch upon how the modern sport correspondent might be an extension of Pindar. I thought he would write about the modern Olympic movement and how Baron Pierre de Coubertin said that it was more important to take part in sport than to win. I thought that he was going to meditate on how sport is a microcosm of life. I thought that he would look at the phenomenon on why people follow sport with a lot of passion when it would be better off to spend that time and energy and passion in things that we value in the real world – like the people we love, our career, our interests. I thought he will answer the question – ‘What is the meaning of sport?‘ – in the way philosophers try to answer the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’
Unfortunately, though the book discussed some of these topics, it was not what I expected. The title was misleading. The main intention of the title seemed to be to grab the reader’s attention and suck him / her in. The book has 158 chapters, each of which is around one or two pages long. The chapters of the book look like newspaper articles. In some places, two or more articles are continuous. In other places, they are standalone. It would be safe to say that one can look at any page of the book and read a chapter without losing continuity. My own conclusion is that the book is a compendium of newspaper articles that Barnes wrote for ‘The Times’ suitably modified so that they could hang together. Unfortunately, they don’t. The first article starts with the English football team’s World Cup qualifying match in Portugal in 2004 and ends with the English football team’s exit in the 2006 World Cup. Simon Barnes writes about specific sporting events and victories and defeats in these two years. In some places he tries to provide insight into everyday sporting happenings, which is the stuff of his newspaper articles. When I was halfway through the book, I was extremely disappointed, because I expected it to be a book, but it was a compendium of articles masquerading as a book. Also, the articles were set in a place and time and so they were dated – they had lost their freshness. But I didn’t want to give-up the first book that I started reading this year and so chugged on and completed it.
So much for the bad news. Now it is time for the good news.
Each of those articles is quite well written. It is a pleasure to read most of them. Barnes tries to see deeper into everyday sporting events and defeats and victories. This was one of the reasons I followed his pieces during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He covers his favourite sports – football (most of the time), Olympics (especially athletics, gymnastics and rowing), tennis, horse riding and cricket. He mentions basketball and Formula 1 racing in passing. There is a mention of Snooker in one of the sentences. Most of the North American sports – baseball, American football, ice hockey – are ignored. I was hoping that he will write about Snooker too – because of its rich history and epic matches and because of Jimmy White – but Barnes disappointed me. I was also hoping that he will write about chess – such a beautiful intellectual game. And Badminton – with the All England chamionships, being held in London every year, with its rich history. But Barnes doesn’t do that. There is also only a passing mention of hockey where Great Britain is one of the strong teams. But I am not really complaining about that. Barnes is entitled to write about his favourite sports. The important events Barnes covers in the book are those which happened between 2004 and 2006 – the Athens Olympics, the 2005 Ashes series, the 2006 Football World Cup. And other events which probably didn’t have as big an impact in England, but which are equally important from the sporting perspective. During the course of the book, Barnes looks at many issues related to sport – including the role of women in sport (and how they are sidelined) and racism in sport.
I didn’t agree with Barnes on some of the things that he said. For example, in one place he says that John McEnroe wasn’t the same player he was earlier, after his great rival Bjorn Borg retired. This is one of the great tennis myths and though it is true that the Borg-McEnroe rivalry was great, it is not true that McEnroe wasn’t the same player after Borg’s retirement. McEnroe won three of his grand slam titles after Borg retired. Though many tennis connoisseurs rate McEnroe’s match with Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final as one of the great matches, many connoisseurs also say that McEnroe’s finest performance was at the Wimbledon final in 1984 when he imposed his will on Jimmy Connors and lost just four games on the way to the title. Old-timers say that it was a masterclass on grasscourt tennis by a genius. It happened three years after Borg retired. McEnroe was also one of the alltime great doubles players and he kept winning grand slam tournaments in doubles even into the 1990s.
Another thing I didn’t agree with Barnes was his description of Ayrton Senna as a ‘saint’ and a ‘mystic’. Well, Senna was a ruthless racer who was ready to do anything to win. His death at Imola was a tragedy, but he wasn’t a nice person either. He and his own teammate Alain Prost didn’t get along well. He once drove Prost off the track, so that he could win the race. That was how ruthless he was. In another context, Barnes says this :
A few lines of a lost great poem, a fragment of a sculpture : these things have a perfection that not even the greatest finished piece of work can ever rival. The reason is that we can fill in the gaps with ourselves. We can elevate the promise into an imagined perfection that can never, in the harshness of the real world, actually exist.
I think this is the reason why Senna has become a mythical hero today. Because he was an unfinished piece of art. Which racing fans can imagine to be perfect.
Also, because the book is set in a particular point in time, things might have changed with respect to some of the things that it talks about. For example, Barnes says that the second most important sporting moment that he has ever witnessed is Ben Johnson’s 100m run in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 in 9.79 seconds. It was definitely a great moment, till Johnson tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Ignoring the drug part for the time being, Johnson’s 9.79 seconds has since been surpassed by Usain Bolt, whose current record stands at 9.58 seconds. Barnes himself wrote beautifully about Bolt’s record breaking race in the Beijing Olympics. On the cricket front, Barnes glows about Andrew Flintoff’s captaincy – saying that he stayed as on of the lads but still captained his team well. Flintoff’s captaincy has since been exposed and ended in disaster during the 2006-07 Ashes. Andrew Strauss is the one who is making the England flag fly high now. These are some of the problems in making universal judgements and generalizations on topical issues – they get dated as soon as the book is published.
I loved many passages throughout the book. I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages. One of my favourite passages was this :
The Luangwa River changes its mind and its course every season. It is not a tame river. There is nothing tame about the place at all. And I was parked on an abandoned bit of riverbed, a place whhere the river no longer flowed : a stretch of sand and beyond the short sheer cliffs of a Luangwa riverbank. Watching sport. No humans for miles around, save the two or three in the Toyota Land Cruiser with me. I was standing behind the driver holding a powerful spotlight, and I had the sporting athletes right in the middle of the beam.
Lion. No, not hunting. Hunting is not sport for a lion : it is a job and a passion. They were playing. And what they were playing was sport. It was a group we called the Fubsy Cubs : three cubs, generally found with two or three adult females, one their mother, the others either aunties or older sisters. A pride is a female system with an attendant obstreperous sperm bank.
And when we were lucky, the Fubsy Cubs did sport for us. They sported themselves. They played. The games were Scrag Your Brother, Pounce on Your Sister, Stalk Your Mother’s Tail, and an endless variety and fusion of these three basic themes. Fighting games, hunting games, roughing and tumbling games. And it was clearly sport, because it was a metaphorical version of the real thing. It was pretend hunting and pretend fighting, just as tennis is a pretend duel and football is a pretend battle. No one was going to get hurt, save the odd bang. That was not the idea. The idea was a deeply serious kind of fun. Sport, as I said.
On one occasion, I saw one of the adults initiate play : rolling over onto her back to grab a passing cub and toss him into the air. The cub, delighted, landed heavily on a furry chest and batted at the whiskered face before him with paws like little sledgehammers, then fell over and was pounced on by brothers. Play is for the young, but not only for the young. At times of contentment, repletion, safety, adults too can indulge in sport.
For those lions, sport was fun, and sports was frivolous. It was also deadly serious : preparation for a lion’s life ahead, when stalking, pouncing and scragging would become not sport but survival skills. But during this very young, very safe time, there was a feeling in the air that sport could also be pursued for its own sake. It seemed then, to me, as it no doubt seemed to the lions, that sport was an end in itself.
Another of my favourite passages is where Barnes describes the beauty of Federer’s game to make a point. It goes like this :
Roger Federer is not an artist. He is a businessman. He does not seek to beguile our senses or to make us sigh with pleasure. He is just a man looking for the best method to win tennis matches. Yet for some reason this method is sublimely beautiful.
Federer is no more seeking to create beauty when he plays tennis than a cheetah is trying to create beauty when he pursues a gazelle. Federer is not seeking to create anything. Like the cheetah, he is seeking to destroy. His job on Friday was not pleasing me : it was displeasing Sebastien Grosjean. Tennis is not an art form : it is a stylised or metaphorical duel. It is the opposition of one will and another. But, when Federer plays, he creates a strange illusion, that he is creating a spontaneous work of art for our particular delight.
I suspect that this is because there is an illusion within the illusion. When Federer becomes the boy with the racket of fire, creating the illusion of art, he also creates an additional illusion : that his opponent is not, in fact, opposing him. That his opponent is in fact co-operating with him : conspiring with Federer to create these patterns of angle and trajectory, of curves and straight lines, of criss-crossing white-clad bodies, of singing stris made, at one moment, from cobweb, the next, piano-wire. It becomes a pas de deux choreographed by Federer, dancing with a man who is partner, stooge, straight man and butt : a partner who is cherished, ravished, made much of and humiliated before our eyes.
And it looks so pretty, so devoid of anger, so devoid of malice, so devoid of intention : it looks as if Federer were trying to create something pure in a naughty world. And it lifts our spirits as we watch, even while we see through the illusion and we know that all that is really (but what is really?) happening is that two millionaires are hitting a furry ball back and forth, and that one of them has a mouth that is filled with the bile of frustration.
Some other passages I liked were :
Falling in love is also something that gives you a very high chance of disappointment. Having children brings you a certainty of anxiety. A lifelong marriage gives you a 50-50 chance of bereavement. It seems to me that the human condition is based around things that give you a very high chance of pain, misery, distress, anxiety. We do not seek to avoid them at all : on the contrary. We seek them out, avidly, voraciously, incontinently. We do this in the name of nothing less than love. We all know that the joys of loving make pain inevitable; but we do not ever seek to avoid love. And, after all, there is only one truly efficient way of avoiding love, and that is dying.
Humans are contradictory creatures. This matter is familiar to us all. We want at the same time to be married, to be free; to be wildly promiscuous, to be forever faithful; to travel, to stay at home; to see adventures, to remain in safety; to be idle, to be rewardingly busy; to revel in company, to be contentedly alone. And sport, being a human pursuit, is naturally filled with contradictions. We relish the brilliance of a great opponent; we delight in the fact that he has trodden on a cricket ball and can’t play; we want to see genius in action; we want the team we support to render genius ineffectual.
You do not have to experience what you are writing about in order to write about it meaningfully. Marcel Proust wrote Swann in Love without being fully heterosexual. Anthony Burgess wrote Earthly Powers without being homosexual. James Joyce wrote the Molly Bloom soliloquy without being a woman; Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment without being a murderer; Homer wrote The Odyssey without being a god.
Writing does not depend on direct experience, it depends on the imaginative strength of the writer. I don’t mean imagination as in the ability to make things up : I mean imagination as in the ability to understand what something is like for somebody else. The entirety of human society depends on the ability to imagine what it is like for another person : we tend to avoid situations in which we imagine that another person will feel pain, discomfort and distress : we tend to create circumstances in which another person feels content.
When I started ‘The Meaning of Sport’, I wanted to like it like I did my favourite sport books. I wanted it to find a home in the exalted part of my bookshelf which houses my favourite books. I wanted it to be like CLR James’ ‘Beyond a Boundary’, Mike Brearley’s ‘The Art of Captaincy’ and Ed Smith’s ‘On and Off the Field’. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t like it as much. It didn’t belong in the company of these other great masterpieces. But it is a good book. It is light and is a pleasure to read. It is a good book to read during a summer afternoon, while one is lying lazily on a hammock. Or during a winter afternoon, alongwith a hot cup of tea.
Have you read ‘The Meaning of Sport’? What do you think about it?
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