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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The non-political joy of sport

It’s important for us libertarians to celebrate the fun that free people have and the good that they do, and not just to bitch about politics.

Natalija Radic is handling pornography very capably, I’m sure we’d all agree. Dale Amon and I have done stuff about music. Science and technology have been celebrated here, by both David Carr and Perry de Havilland.

But sport is one of life’s great pleasures, both to do and to watch others doing. Yet sport has here mostly been complained about, by David again, picking on a sport he doesn’t like.

Last weekend’s sport was, for me, mostly good, but it started badly. I awoke on Saturday to learn from my Ceefax that England had just been slaughtered in a one-day cricket game by New Zealand. Was this an omen? At Twickenham later in the day, England were to play Ireland at rugby and experts were tipping England to win heavily. But Ireland killed Wales two weeks back, and the last time heavily-tipped England played Ireland, Ireland won. Might they sneak it again? No worries. England routed Ireland with a huge first half display (31-6) and went on to win 45-11 despite appearing to lose interest with half an hour still to go.

With this win England went top of the world rugby rankings, jumping ahead of … New Zealand! I can remember when England couldn’t lose at cricket to New Zealand in their worst nightmares, and couldn’t win at rugby against New Zealand in their wildest dreams. The New Zealand rugby team, remember, is no mere gaggle of sporty blokes who happen to like a bit of rough-and-tumble on a Saturday afternoon. This is the mighty All Blacks, the very definition of New Zealand nationhood and manhood. And now England are better than them. But worse at cricket. Strange times.

Chelsea, the club which plays the sport (football) which David Carr does like to watch, were meanwhile beating Depressing Northern Town Who Used To Be Far Better 3-1 in the sixth round of the FA Cup, and on Sunday my Tottenham Hotspur beat Post-Industrial Wasteland Rovers 4-0. Chelsea and Spurs were then drawn against each other in the quarter-finals. I’ll keep you posted about that, and perhaps David will too.

On a more serious note, I’m struck by the parallels between what David was objecting to about the Olympics and what Natalija’s opponents were saying about pornography. Both were opposing the thing in question because of what it looked like, and what it might lead to. Porn is sometimes faked up to look like something truly nasty – non-consenting sexual aggression – and hence might lead to that truly nasty thing for real. And sport often looks like Nazis being nasty, so what might that lead to?

But isn’t the point of sport that it takes a whole facet of the human psyche (especially the male human psyche) and sucks it into a morally neutral cul-de-sac with no real-world consequences? Those athletes marching through the stadium with their flags and anthems, or those fans baying in hideous, collectivist unison may be behaving a lot like Nazis, but they are not in fact Nazis. Sports fans like me talk about people getting “slaughtered”, “routed” or “murdered” (see above), but that’s only metaphorical. No actual countries are going to be invaded. No Jews are going to be gassed. Okay, sport plays with psychological fire, and sometimes it gets out of hand. In South America, footballers miss crucial World Cup penalties and get murdered by crazed fans. In Britain, unpleasant political collectivists spend their lives trying to turn the pseudo-mayhem of football into the real thing. But the real-world mayhem that results is nothing compared to the horrors of big-time political collectivism, in those miserable parts of the world where such stuff still matters.

In the fantasies of collectivist politicians, huge crowds shouting in huge stadiums only shout in their honour. Such persons must hear the roars in a British football stadium with something close to despair. They slog away at organising their silly political meetings and party rallies, and at most a few hundred political hacks and obsessives show up. Yet thousands turn out for a dreary, lower division football game. The biggest crowd in Europe in recent years was in Paris, but it wasn’t for any politician; it was when France won the World Cup.

I believe that in Iran not long ago, the government made a collective, collectivist fool of itself by trying and failing to stop an international football match. Too much collective adoration of something that wasn’t them or their boring and annoying opinions, you see. Sport only gets political if the politicians take against its essentially non-political nature, or try to use it by pretending that the crowds are really theirs. Wise politicians, even collectivist ones, leave well alone. At least, they say to themselves, the crowds aren’t shouting against us. (Might that be why some libertarians also dislike sport? Big crowds expressing hostility to the wrong things?)

Most sports fans know that sport is only sport. They go mad, scream at each other, smash into each other (if they’re playing), … and then meet up for a drink afterwards. It may look nasty for the duration, but it’s only a bit of fun, to be wallowed in when your team wins and shrugged off as only a game when they lose. We’re just blowing off steam. It’s not real. Well, it is real. In fact it’s great. It’s great fun. But only, in the end, that.

Which is exactly the libertarian defence of pornography. That too only has a tiny few nasty real-world consequences. Mostly that too is just fun.

With sport as with porn, we libertarians should draw our lines carefully. On the one hand, there is that which merely looks evil, might lead to evil, might evoke memories of evil, might lead people down the path towards evil, and which is perhaps therefore in some sense morally evil now. We can argue about the nuances of all that, but no one should be sent to prison if they lose such arguments. And then there’s that which is uncontroversially, aggressively, definitely evil, now, which should be prevented or failing that be punished, either by the law or by force of arms.

I refuse to end on that grim note. To end instead with some more consequence-free fun and to ram home just how much fun sport can be, let me tell you what my sporting highlight of the weekend ended up being. It happened not in a rugby game, or a football or cricket game, but in David’s accursed Winter Sports. The however-many-metres-it-was five blokes’ skating race. Four blokes were racing in a bunch for the medals. Bloke five, an Australian, was way behind. Then, just as they were all about to flash over the winning line, blokes one, two, three and four all collided with each other in a crazy, slip-sliding tangle. Bloke five, being far enough behind to skate around it all, but not too far behind, won. The silver and bronze medallists got their gongs by sliding over the line horizontally. David would surely have enjoyed that and maybe he did.

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