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Nick Butler: Sport is Less a Stable Anchor, More a Means of Escape

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Denver Broncos tight end Virgil Green (85) raises his fist in protest as teammate Max Garcia, left, takes a knee during the national anthem prior to an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills this season. Photo: Adrian Kraus/AP

It has become increasingly fashionable for sporting leaders to talk about their trade with a form of missionary zeal and sense of higher purpose. “Sport is an anchor of stability in our fragile world,” says International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in virtually every speech he makes.

“We all see that the world is more fragile and volatile than ever as the risks on every continent get bigger and bigger,” he invariably adds. “Then we see the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games which, at the moment, are the only event in the world still managing to get all the world together under one roof.”

I seem to spend most of the time writing about the various ways by which the sports world fails to do this. Either due to some internal problem puncturing this holier than thou attitude, such as a doping or corruption scandal, or because a sporting event turns out not to be impervious to political distractions.

The last week has provided many such instances.

Take American football players continuing their war of words with United States President Donald Trump as they use their spotlight to protest against perceived racial injustice. Take Barcelona being forced to play behind closed doors as the club and some of its leading players became embroiled in Catalan independence clamour. Or take the way the build-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang is still being overshadowed by regional instability surrounding North Korea.

In England, the biggest sports story last week involved a star cricketer, Ben Stokes, being arrested for alleged actual bodily harm in Bristol after a mid-series night out. He now faces being ruled out of the upcoming Ashes series with Australia after leaked video footage allegedly showed him throwing a flurry of punches.

Whatever happened to the old adage about turning to the sports section of a newspaper to read about a man’s accomplishments rather than the failures documented elsewhere?

But sport does still have a special ability to bring people together and provide a sense of escapism.

I was reminded of this during a visit to Paris over the weekend to see a university friend now living there. On the Saturday night, our entire group ended up leaving a house party over a dispute which arose after our hosts discovered that one among our number had voted in favor of Brexit in last year’s referendum. A sad and somewhat bizarre reflection of a political division still ripping British society in two.

The next day politics was thankfully on the backburner as I enjoyed two totally new sporting experiences. We first went to Chantilly for a day of horse racing, culminating in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Then we spent part of the evening watching “NFL Sunday” in an American-themed bar. A natural way, of course, to spend an evening in Paris.

I had somehow transpired to grow up close to Cheltenham racecourse without ever attending a racing meet before, but really enjoyed the first taste. I won my first ever bet, in a glorious fluke, before steadfastly squandering my winnings and more over the rest of the day. It was an interesting mix of racing enthusiasts and people enjoying a day out, but I was hooked by the different ways by which you could select a horse to back.

One friend insisted on inspecting their composure in the paddock beforehand and would make a choice based on which seemed calmest. I found myself easily swayed by drunk people who seemed to know what they were talking about. In journalism, this is the best way to find things out, but it proved less successful here.

The main race was spectacular. Everybody was convinced that the Frankie Dettori-ridden favorite, Enable, was going to win, to the extent that I rashly decided to back another just to be different. This was shown to be foolish as Enable produced a devastating kick at the top of the home straight to burst clear and win by miles. The race tactics were smart but even I could tell that Enable’s success was mostly about physicality and simply being better than the rest of field.

The Mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti, IOC president Thomas Bach and the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo on stage in Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: AP / Keystone: Jean-Christophe Bott

And, in homage to Bach’s concept of sport bringing different countries together, the British horse was ridden by an Italian jockey and owned by a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family. It won a race in France which is sponsored by the Qataris.

Everybody was getting on well, increasingly well as the Dutch beer flowed, and at one point I even overheard somebody saying: “we don’t talk about politics at the races”.

Watching the NFL was rather similar. We were the annoying people who turned up and started asking ignorant questions about the intricacies of the game at a crucial period deep in the fourth quarter. We thought we had managed to convince some New England Patriots fans that we also supported their team, before ruining it by joining in with the chorus of Sweet Caroline when the Carolina Panthers sealed victory with a final-second field goal.

I decided to pluck up courage and ask some what they thought about the protests. “I watch football out of love for my team,” one person repeatedly answered, in rather cryptic fashion. I nodded as I thought he was being philosophical, although, on reflection, he was probably just trying to get rid of me…

I do not quite know what to make of the protests during national anthems. Sport, clearly, is a platform to shine a spotlight on other issues and history is rife with other such examples. Athletes, particularly in this social media driven age, also have a rare spotlight to make statements and deliver messages, although they are not always completely reflective of wider public opinion.

I found myself distracted from an article about the protests by another story concerning Scott Baldwin, the Welsh rugby international who was ruled out of a match in South Africa last week after being bitten by a lion he had attempted to “pet” inside an enclosure at a safari park.

Stupid sportspeople can still hold our attention better than politicized ones.

Bach is right, though, in a way. Sport is an anchor for stability after another horrifying night of violence in Las Vegas, albeit a rusty one striving to halt a boat under siege in stormy waters.

It is by no means a perfect industry and it does not really solve wider problems or heal divisions.

But it at least provides a distraction and a moment of fun and respite.

By Nick Butler

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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