This Sporting Life: The Ultimate Short-Term Activity

The future is unremittingly bleak. What is to become of sport if our very existence is at stake?

Melting sea ice in the Arctic; dying coral reefs; heatwaves; increased flooding and monsoons. The United Nations’ warning to the world was stark: climate change is not something to worry about in fifty years. It’s here, and it’s biting, now.

This news was delivered via the more thoughtful sections of the British press on the same weekend that Liverpool bested Tottenham 4-0 to move to the top of the Premier League. Delivered on the same weekend that Novak Djokovic thrashed Rafael Nadal in Florida. The same weekend that Bangladesh went crazy as hosts for cricket’s twenty-over World Cup. That’s Bangladesh, whose lands experts warn will be amongst the first to disappear as sea levels rise and rise and rise.

In the US, they thought long and hard about baseball and the NFL draft. In Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ near-annual slide from playoff contention was the main talking-point. Why should Australia have had any cause to ponder any subject but the fate of Flight 370 – plus their own Aussie Rules, and the current failure of their cricket team?

Sport is the ultimate short-term concern. It’s Marx’s secular opiate: it makes us happy, and sad, and frustrates us in easily manageable chunks. Your team loses over ninety minutes? It hurts – but it’s an isolated pain, because deep down you know: this does not matter. Metaphors are by their nature superfluous when it comes to the Big Stuff: life, death, the survival of the human species. Sport is an addendum to life – but it can blind, too.

It’s an addendum – and a luxury, too. If those climate prognostications come to pass – if water becomes ever scarcer; if crop yields begin to fail – surely games would be some of the first items to be chucked from the ark. The latest IPCC report predicts that trillions of dollars will be wiped from the global economy as we struggle to balance modern life with encroaching disaster. What then becomes of the false economy of football? Suddenly, Luis Suarez’s projected price tag of £100 million begins to look less ludicrous and more tragic: a symptom of a world clouded by short-term self-deception. Wayne Rooney will certainly have to accept a reduced contract when large swathes of Manchester are struggling to eat.

In JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, Earth’s last remaining citizens live in the treetops above vast swamps: fluctuations in solar radiation have caused the ice caps to melt and London to be submerged beneath the sea. “Ballard is a prophet,” wrote Philip Pullman in the Guardian – and that’s true now more than ever. His nightmarish visions can no longer be classed as science fiction, implying as that does events far beyond the bounds of reality. Of course, there’s something deliberately missing from Ballard’s novels – and it’s true of dystopian fiction in general. Nowhere does he write about sport, either in a competitive or wider, amateur sense.

Look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy: the unrelenting bleakness of a future world leaves no room for the pure escapism of fun and games. Ballard’s High Rise describes a society confined to tower blocks, watched over at every moment – not dissimilar to 1984, where the only exercise taken by Winston Smith are brutal callisthenics for the Party’s satisfaction. Prophetic authors – those concerned with big questions of the fate of the world and humanity’s precarious position in it – have invariably chosen to ignore sport: because when life comes crashing down around our ears, we will think of death, not metaphors of bat and ball.

The counterparts to these authors are no less realists, only theirs is a short-term realism that thus finds a key place for sport: the ultimate short-term activity. Chad Harbach’s 2012 campus novel The Art of Fielding revolves around one baseball season at the fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. Such is the centrality of baseball to the book that it serves as a literary device: excerpts from the (fictional, too) Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez provide inspiration to the hero Henry Skrimshander and stand alongside Moby Dick as the key intertext about which the novel hangs. Ironically, Harbach does touch upon concern for the environment through the illicit affair between a student and the College Principal. But this is very much secondary to the sport. Novels about college life are deliberately narrow-focused and small-time – and sport is a perfect vehicle with which to illustrate the satire. For nothing has quite so much meaning in the moment, and quite so little resonance after it.

In Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe stumbles into the profession as an escape: his wife has left him, and his eldest son has succumbed to cancer. And yet Frank finds meaning in sport. “If sportswriting teaches you anything” he says, “And there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret”. The joy of sport, for Frank and for many of the rest of us, is that it is regret coddled: loss wrapped in a comfort blanket of ultimate meaninglessness. But when things – real things – start to bite and matter, sport is useless. It’s a diversion down a blocked trapdoor: a fantastical road to nowhere.

No matter how serious humanity’s predicament, sport will continue to exist. But its value will surely diminish as our existence, not the day-to-day fate of our team, becomes a short-term concern. And it will have to adapt. Could a society struggling to grow enough food for its population afford the surplus necessary to maintain athletes as we know them now – a race of essential superhumans? What of their health as they run in air of ever-decreasing quality? Amid increasing urbanisation and desertification, will green playing fields disappear, to be replaced by games played on concrete and tarmac beneath and above structures not dissimilar to the tower blocks of High Rise? If real battles break out over the globe over land and resources, where does that leave sport – the ultimate expression of petty nationalistic tendencies?

Maybe there is room for sport in the dystopian novel after all – where the sport provides the fantasy and the Ballardian vision the reality of a drowning world. Perhaps that fantasy of bat and ball and pedal stroked will continue to nourish, long after the light has disappeared.


Teddy Cutler

About Teddy Cutler

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

Teddy is a sportswriter exploring where the worlds of literature and sport intersect. His writing highlights sport as metaphor: as an expression of cultures, and, on a human level, as a technicolour image of our own lives. He supports Aston Villa Football Club, which has taught him that sport's losers invariably have more interesting stories to tell.

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