The Sporting Lie

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In my youth, hard though it is for me to recall it now, I was quite good at sport. I could never have become better than quite good at it, however, because I never took it seriously enough to do so. A game for me was but a game: I could put my heart and soul into it only while it lasted. After it was over, it was as smoke dispersed by the wind.

I had nothing against those who devoted themselves to sport, but thought them fools; I continued to play tennis, sometimes regularly, but winning or losing caused me only fleeting emotion, exultant or sad as the case might be. The game for me really was the thing.

But the Olympic Games repelled me from the first, with their nasty political overtones both childish and sinister, their obvious cheating (did anyone really believe that Tamara and Irina Press were women like any other?), their bogus amateurism, and their deformation of human lives dedicated, for example, to putting the shot an inch farther than it had ever been put before. A life down the coal mines seemed to me far better spent than that.

Since then, my attitude has only hardened against sport, and now I feel a visceral dislike of it. Whether this signifies a change in me, or in sport, I am unsure. Sport is nowadays a bit like propaganda in a totalitarian society: it is inescapable. For example I was recently in quite a good restaurant in Washington D.C. in which, nevertheless, there was a large flat-screened television relaying a baseball game. Someone once explained the rules of baseball to me, but it bored me even after I had fleetingly understood them. The players seemed too fat to be real athletes, and as for the girls waving pompoms and the men dressed in the colors of their favorite team, they seemed archetypes of willing suspension of intelligence and self-respect.

Things are no better in Europe, where it is soccer that is inescapable. People talk about it as they walk down the street together; the newspapers are full of it, indeed fuller of it than of anything else; bars and pubs relay it, seemingly twenty-four hours a day; and most sinister of all, people are afraid to express no interest in it. A old fellow student of mine, now a distinguished professor, recently gave an interview in a learned journal and was asked what gave him the greatest pleasure in life. He replied that it was when the team he supported scored a goal.

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