I have watched The Test. I have binged on The Last Dance. Heck, I’ve even seen The Carter Effect. In this new world without sport, I now have nothing except nostalgia and memories to fall back on. None of us does.
For the first time, we, the ones on this side of the sport-watching fence, are envying those on the other side who don’t have to rely on events thousands of miles away—events they have absolutely no control over—for their sanity.
What is it about the absence of sport that is making this Covid-infected planet—a dangerous place where aerosols, surfaces, and physical contact could get you, but where you still have to worry about money, clothes, rules and courtesies, unlike, say, in The Walking Dead—so much harder to negotiate?
The overlap of sport and life has, of course, been both studied by science and romanticised by literature. Reams of research papers and volumes of books have attempted to define what connects the playing and watching of sport with how people lead their lives, peppering their daily routines with sweating in the mornings, cheering in the evenings, or sometimes both.
The starting point in the link, perhaps, is that sport is our first true teacher. It’s like a simulated sub-universe where we face disappointment, experience joy, learn to be graceful in victory, and hopeful in defeat. It offers lessons that prepare us for the few times in our lives when we truly experience such emotions—achieving a professional milestone, being in a debilitating accident, finding love, losing a loved one.
I always joke, for example, that nothing can break me because I am a fan of the Arsenal football club—I get broken every second weekend.
These emotions are addictive; they are what make us human. And sport allows us a weekly micro-dose of triumph and defeat, delight and despair. It’s harder to derive all the scales of the sensory octave from any other activity or distraction—music largely pleases and uplifts; films and books don’t offer a sense of loyalty and association. Two strangers, from different countries, sitting at opposite ends of a pub, can instantly know they experienced the same joys and sorrows at the exact same moments only when they see that they’re wearing t-shirts with the same team logo emblazoned on them.
In July 2014, in Rio de Janeiro, I experienced the extreme highs and abysmal lows of sporting emotion over two unforgettable days. July 12, the night before the final: the largest, most amorphous party anywhere in the world that year as Argentinians drove across the border to Brazil, slept in their cars, and sang and danced and drank, taking over the city in infectious revelry.
As an Argentina football fan, I sang every song, danced every jig, and drank everything. July 13, after Germany won in extra time: the life was sucked out of the city, the gloom audible in the silence, tangible in the faces of those who had driven across the border and slept in their cars. At one end of Copacabana, a stranger in the same blue jacket I was wearing caught my hand and started weeping. Though the loss meant much more to him than it did to me, I cried a little with him. We exchange greetings on Facebook to this day.
Fandom is defined not by raucous victory marches, but by the sweet pain of defeat. It teaches us to accept when we’re beaten, be okay with not always winning, but have the resilience to keep fighting back. We, the people who watch, play, and sometimes travel for sport, are lost without that kick.