Among that circle of people in Canada whom I would call my friends, I have always known that I am regarded as rather peculiar because of my fondness for sport. I tell them, I’m sorry, I know that what you say --- that sport is the opiate of the masses, an important component of the bread and circuses by which the ruling elite, the governing wealth-owners, keep the populace diverted --- is quite true. But the fact is I have been interested in sport ever since I was a kid, and until I stopped buying newspapers a few years ago, the sports pages were always the first I read.
Pathetic, I know, but it is an ingrained habit, and I feel I have good reason for it. I grew up in a country, New Zealand, in which it was customary for all children --- or almost all --- to play games, and play them on the amazingly extensive playing grounds provided for the purpose. The two primary --- known here as elementary --- schools I attended had playing grounds big enough for two football fields. And when I went to high school we not only had a field large enough for three or four football grounds in the winter, and for several cricket pitches and a running track in the summer, in addition to an outdoor fives court, but every Wednesday afternoon was set aside not for classroom learning, but for playing games, in addition to our regular classes in the gym as part of the learning curriculum. I took to playing rugby, cricket, tennis, running and jumping even before I hit high school, and once there my dearest wish every morning was to get to school as early as possible so I could get be sure of getting in up to an hour playing fives against all-comers before the 9 am whistle blew for assembly.
This was the sport of which I grew to be so fond. And I was still in my early teens when my weekends were occupied with cricket matches played against local teams in a junior league, and Rugby against similarly matched outsiders of appropriate size. In both of these we played against the local Borstal, with its preponderance of young Maori inmates who scared the bejesus out of us with their pre-game hakas --- a useful element in our education about the realities of our society.
In my spare time I spent many hours at the local tennis courts, where our presence was accepted without any suggestion we must pay, and we were even allowed to sneak on to the local golf course so long as we did not interrupt the games of the adults --- once again, without any whiff of money entering the matter. In fact, I still find I odd, the very idea that one has to pay for exercise.
I turned out to be pretty good at most of these games, and I can honestly admit that until I was about nineteen or so these sports were what occupied most of my mind most of the time. I felt like I had read almost every book written on cricket, which has a very rich literature, let me assure you, and I could recite the scores of titanic Test matches between Australia and England for years back. I remember on one occasion being taken by my Dad to see an All Blacks Rugby match, and murmuring to him, I would die to be an All Black.” (The All Blacks, for those who do not know, are the representative Rugby team of New Zealand, a team which, among all the world’s games, still has the highest percentage of winning games of any team in the world.) As a kid I had pictures on my bedroom wall of every All Black team from 1905 up to 1937.
This, of course was not sport as it is known now. Even at international level, the teams were all amateur in those days: the All Blacks would undertake a six month tour of Britain and France, and the players would get a few dollars a day as an allowance. Their jobs would be held open for them by sympathetic employers. I remember the greatest cricket batsman of all time, Don Bradman, of Australia, telling of how he would go into his office to do a couple of hours’ work before getting to the cricket ground in time for the 11 pm start of a Test match on whose outcome the entire nation might be hanging.
In our own small city of 26,000, my older brothers played on club teams with guys who had been chosen for the All Blacks: they were not only national figures, but our local heroes, who went to the Saturday night dances with my brothers and their girl friends.
I had to give up playing all these games when I quit high school after four years, and got a job in the local newspaper, where I had to be available to collect the results of the myriad of games played across the city every Saturday. I wrote about sports, too. Of course in our day we never thought of interviewing the players. They were never on that kind of pedestal: after all, they were just guys from around the road who played the games for love of them.
I left that country when I was 22. I went back after 25 years with four children, some of whom settled down into the sporting life described above. I didn't stay long, a mere eighteen months, having discovered that not only had I changed, but so had the country, and we were no longer a perfect fit. But since then I have the strong impression that the eighteen months they spent in New Zealand were among he happiest my children have ever known. They revelled in the relaxed atmosphere of the schools, which still seemed dedicated to developing them both in their intellects and in their bodies.
And when one of my sons accompanied me back on a holiday 30 years later, and we stayed briefly with my brother in a small country town in the North Island, we had occasion to see the sports system, the all-inclusive sports system which makes room for everyone who wants to play a game, still operating at full bore throughout the country. In my day there was no such thing as “not making the team”: they would make as many teams as were needed. My brother’s daughter was a pre-teen, but she was a member of a netball team that took part in a regular Saturday morning event in which teams from many schools were engaged, an event in which the two races, Maori and pakehas were mixed as if there were no difference between them, and in which those adults directing the event and managing it were also racially mixed just as were the players.
This is why I have always loved sports. Even today, when the sport that comes to us through our electronic connections is totally controlled by money, and is in so many ways despicable, nevertheless, in spite of everything, the contests between the players themselves are usually genuine, and worth watching. (Dull would he be of soul, as Wordsworth might have remarked, who could not be stirred by the spectacle of Roger Federer in full flight winning his eighth Wimbledon title last month.)
What has sparked this piece is that I have just sat all day watching first, a Rugby game played in South Africa, and secondly, an international athletics meet held in London, England. Both have been richly rewarding, in my opinion (though I am ready to concede the argument that they may operate as opiates in my life.) The first was the final match in a long tournament known as the Super 15 in which top teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan compete. The New Zealand teams usually fall afoul of the 1700 metres elevation of Johannesberg, especially in the high-pressure of a big final. But on this occasion they held tough, and won narrowly. Rugby was the last major sport to go professional, but they have managed to retain some nice touches, especially one by which the losing team of an international lines up to applaud the victors as they pass between them off the field. The winning New Zealand coach at the last World Cup kept reminding his team and their supporters that, after all, it was only a game, they were playing a game, and that was not an important matter in the affairs of the world.
In London it was the last race of Usain Bolt, one of the most extraordinary athletes ever to have graced any sport. Until his arrival on the scene, the world of big-time sprinting was dominated by a pack of snarling, bad-mannered and unsportsmanlike American runners, who were totally disarmed by this smiling jokester, talking away to them before the race, joking and striking silly poses, and then finally demolishing them all by running faster --- very much faster --- than anyone has ever run in the history of running.
In this his last race, there was an enormous amount of hype, which Bolt good-humoredly played along with: he said he would retire undefeated, unvanquished. but in the event, he managed, for the first time in his career of important races, only third. It didn’t seem to diminish his spirit in any way: he hugged and celebrated the winners, and laughed and joked his way around the track as he said farewell to the sport and the crowds who like me, have adored him.
Like most opiates, I guess, this one can make you feel awfully good at times.