Channel 9 has the Games, and since we watch its news telecasts, we are in for a couple of weeks of melodrama, nationalistic strutting, tears and trivia. I’m too old to enjoy ‘Aussie , Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi!’ (where did that come from?), and I do not believe at all that our worth as a nation is measured by the number of medals we win. And I dislike the way the noun ‘medal’ has been turned into a verb. I guess that I’m a grumpy old man.
What’s worse is that I actually like sport.I have played rugby union and (briefly) rugby league, tennis, cricket and squash. I was a long-distance runner at school, and I swam in swimming carnivals, without any distinction. I think it is good for us, and if these days I’m reduced to walking, well, I enjoy it.
Even more, I think that organised sport has an important role in a civilised society. William James, the American philosopher, wanted what he called a ‘moral equivalent to war’, because he felt that we were all too easily led into wars, killing and destruction. I thought this was one of those good ideas, and indeed it probably served as the moral basis of the Peace Corps, established by President Kennedy in 1962. Actually, James had in mind a form of national service in which young people entered a ‘war on nature’, by which he meant clearing the jungles, and making waste land productive. That urge has lost its attractiveness in the modern world, where unbridled nature, preferably without any human beings in it at all, seems to have peculiar appeal.
So when I see a brawl on an AFL or rugby league field I feel that this is the right place for it, and that it may be cathartic for those watching. I don’t much like boxing, and didn’t when I was in the ring myself, but I would have to agree that it could serve the same purpose. And it ought to follow that I would suggest that the Olympic Games is the moral equivalent of a world war. I can’t escape that extension.
I guess what I most dislike about the Games is its false excitement, the billions of dollars spent on it (though even here the money is trivial compared to a real war), the commercialisation of it, and the endlessly trivial exploration of what a swimmer felt, or a spectator thought. I don’t want to be there, and would see the Games as a great opportunity to go somewhere else. That is grumpy, I agree.
The reasons that we are good at sport have nothing whatever to do with our moral virtue. They come mostly from a favourable climate and well-distributed wealth that allowed leisure. We were good at tennis because land was cheap, and people built backyard tennis courts. As a kid I played on them, and on the courts of the Methodist Church that I unwillingly attended. Once our postwar interest in building home units increased, the backyard tennis courts disappeared, and so did our vaunted superiority in tennis.
As for swimming, climate and proximity to water was the main reason we excelled in that sport.. But the East Germans showed that you could be good at swimming if you simply built covered, heated swimming polls to Olympic standards. Land-locked and tiny Switzerland has produced the best yacht and crew in the world, and also probably the most graceful tennis player ever. China is going to dominate the medal-tally in future Olympic Games, if not this one: it just has more people by far than any other country other than India.
Let us face it: we are not naturally gifted in sport. We simply had some natural advantages that over time are being eroded. Of course, we do have an obsession with it, and it is that obsession that eventually gets to me. For my part, the success overseas of Australian orchestras, artists, actors, dancers and singers is much more enjoyable — and satisfying — than whether or not Mark Webber or Casey Stoner had a ‘podium finish’. And the creative pursuits last a lifetime. What does a swimmer do when he or she turns 25?
There: I’m a classic Grumpy Old Man — and probably an elitist too.