A Sheep in Sports Clothing

Published Northsider April 2016

After three seasons in goal for the mighty Eagles, my daughter has decided that she’s not playing football this season. It’s been replaced with fishing. One sport for another. But is fishing a sport, and who decides?There’s much debate on the question of what constitutes a sport, and what does not.

I and my friends found ourselves in a similar debate thirty plus years ago. We were spending too much time in London’s drinking establishments. Not to mention it’s greasy spoons, rapidly expanding fast food joints,  Indian restaurants and when desperate, kebab shops. The time had come to take up a ‘sport.’

We’d only been out of school for few years so could recall the sports we’d tried, liked and hated. Football was the dominant force in working class comprehensives. We’d been raised on a diet of local rivalries and hatred. We’d all wanted to be Stanley Bowles, Charlie George or Martin Chivers at some juncture of childhood (please note I’ve not mentioned any Chelsea players here.) However, we could also remember how cold it got on a football pitch. And we’d all experienced having a frozen leather ball toe punted into our punk faces at point blank range. Which was very much like being punched by a heavyweight boxer with a frozen haggis strapped to his fist. I remain astonished that I was able to feel the impact of the ball. My head was already cryogenically frozen from suburban London’s sub-zero temperatures. I can still taste the post ‘ball in face’ snot running down my top lip then onto my tongue (which by then would have been hanging out of my mouth.) Not to mention the ringing in my ears and the thought that my nose had probably disappeared into my face.

Pole vault, high jump, cross country running, cricket, baseball (rounders) and gymnastics were also uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. So after much consideration we decided snooker was the sport for us.

There were detractors amongst our ranks. Some said snooker isn’t a sport, they’d probably say the same about fishing. A few of us argued passionately that if we booked a table in the farthest corner of the hall, the walk to the bar was significant. And there were a dozen or so full sized snooker tables to navigate on the way, it was impossible to walk in a straight line. Often we’d have to traverse the outskirts of the hall to avoid bumping into local villains. The return journey was no less tricky due to the addition of a tray full of lager. The kind of balance required to make it back with beer intact was not dissimilar to Olga Korbut on the beam. Then there were the arcade games, donkey kong and outrun, one would burn calories (and coins) playing those. In truth, my advocation for snooker as a sport was driven by my résistance to being cold, wet and out of breath.

It’s generally accepted that sport is something that requires physical exertion and a skill set. There should also be a competitive element, individually or collectively as a team. Finally, it should be entertaining. If entertainment is a primary consideration you can cross cricket off the list. Along with fishing, AFL, Formula 1, Golf, lawn bowls and a host of other mind numbing faux sports. I’m sure you could add a few of your own.

So who decides what’s a sport and what isn’t? Well, we do. Sport, as in beauty, remains in the eye of the beholder. One woman’s fencing is another’s tiddly winks. It’s also relative to which sports we’re exposed to during the formative years. And that can be dictated by our geographical location. My friends in Melbourne tell me that AFL is the greatest sport of all time. They also say I can’t live in Melbourne and not barrack for a footy team. The truth is I can do what I like. And I like ignoring AFL because I think it’s rubbish, plus it annoys my friends if I refuse to barrack for a team.

The English will argue that proper football is the best sport in the world. Of course, most of my Melbourne friends would consider this statement balderdash. By this logic though only people born within twenty kilometres of the Crucible in Sheffield would love snooker. And only people who come from places that end with ‘on the Thames,’ ‘by the Yarra’ or ‘on the River’ will dig rowing. Or perhaps homosexual gentlemen who frequent gay saunas could be drawn to a sport that requires ‘new balls’ every fifteen minutes.

I was going to throw a Kiwi perspective into the equation but bungee jumping truly isn’t a sport. And I couldn’t think of any other sports New Zealand had invented. Though they are rather good at the Rugby Union. Which incidentally is one of the few sports I like to watch.

The truth is we’re all sheep. I played football and watched Queens Park Rangers because I was instructed to do so. My friend loves the Hawks because he was equally indoctrinated in the ways of Aussie Rules. When I was young only posh kids played rugby and cricket, simply because Harrow and Eaton told them to play rugby and cricket. If an overzealous schoolmaster told them to slam their fingers in a desk they’d have probably complied. There’s little free will in any of this.

Inventing a sport doesn’t guarantee success. The Brits claim to have invented Cricket and Soccer yet they’re crap at both? Australians claim they are the best in the world at playing ‘footy.’ That’s true but only by default. Outside of Victoria, the interest is limited. Outside Australia, it’s non-existent. Unless you’re in an Australian theme pub somewhere abroad.

So there you have it, sport is whatever you want it to be. Within reason obviously. Dogging is never going to be an Olympic event. Nor is snorkelling or pétanque. Well not in my lifetime I hope.


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