Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Paddy's Sports View 31st July 2002

When your team has just been knocked out of the World Cup it is easy to empathise with the words of the great Bill Shankley "Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that." But when the emotions have cooled, and reason returns, most of us can philosophically reflect that it is only a game. Sadly, and sometimes tragically, the passion that sport arouses can create gross over-reaction to the outcome of events. The cricket followers who in their disappointment burn down stands. The football supporters who can only deal with bad results by going on the rampage and destroying property. The disappointed cricket fans in India or Pakistan who take their own lives because the national team has lost.

Sporting support should be passionate, but it should also be fair and take place in a context which recognises that, at the end of the day, all sport is ephemeral and trivial. If we agree that sport is ultimately unimportant (albeit that it can be the modern opium of the masses) then this can lead to the creation of a moral framework within which it takes place. Formula One (F1) motorsport is an interesting case in point. When the commercial imperative dominates then you get the amorality that we saw from Ferrari at the Austrian Grand Prix. And you also get the unsavoury bowing to pressure of the British and other governments when the F1 dictatorship threatens to take away their national Grand Prix unless they allow tobacco advertising and sponsorship. On the other hand the huge increase in money in F1 has made it an infinitely safer sport, and the organisers are to be congratulated for ensuing that F1 does not kill drivers or spectators as regularly as it did in the days when I was first a fan.

F1 is a sport that has used its financial strength to ensure that safety is the number one priority. All motorsport is dangerous, but so are many other sports where speeds are high and participants are exposed. Skiing and other winter sports are not free of risk, and contact sports such as rugby can have freak accidents in which players are injured or killed. As with F1 every precaution must be taken in all sports to protect participants and spectators and ensure that risks are minimised. This usually happens today, and whilst no sport can be completely risk-free, with one glaring exception, sports are generally played in a context that recognises that it is “only a game”. The exception to this is, of course, boxing.
All sports reward those who are stronger, faster, and more skilful than their opponents. When Sachin Tendulkar scores a century he has won the battle with the bowling attack. When the Brazilian football team triumph over the opposition it is talent, team work and mental strength that produces the result. I would be the first to accept that a great boxer like Mohammed Ali was also a supremely talented athlete – one of the greatest of all time. But Ali’s “sport” is unique because what boxing is about is causing brain damage to your opponent. To win a boxing bout the best way is to knock your opponent out cold - and knocking somebody out will damage the brain. Sometimes the brain will recover- more often not. Repeated attacks on the brain over a boxing career cause permanent damage – as we see today with Ali. And all too often there is death in the ring. When the Japanese boxer Akira Taiga died during a fight in October 1997 he was the 27th Japanese professional boxer to die from wounds inflicted in the ring since 1952. Around the professional boxing world death and injury is the norm, and has been since the sport began. Hardly surprising because that is the object of the game. To physically harm your opponent in such a way that he collapses or gives in – or dies.
In the Emirates, and across most of the Middle East, there is no real boxing tradition. Let us hope that nobody tries to create one. The plan to stage a boxing world title fight in Dubai between Roy Jones and Vasily Jirov should be resisted and the evils of this so-called “sport” should be brought to the attention of the authorities. There is room for many sports in Dubai, but professional boxing is a barbarism where life and death are in the balance in every bout. Dubai doesn’t need it.