Paul Rouse: The importance of sport will now come into sharp focus

Paul Rouse: The importance of sport will now come into sharp focus
Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside via Getty Images

There is no end to the array of statistics that set out the importance of sport to modern society.

These statistics — compiled by states and sporting organisations and research institutes and businesses — document virtually every aspect of the modern sporting world.

From the percentage of the global population who play and watch sport to the centrality of sporting events and sports merchandising to the economy, the evidence of how our world is soaked in sport is undeniable.

Basically, while it is, of course, possible to live in the modern world and to ignore sport, it is not easy to do so and it certainly requires a huge effort.

But nothing will make so plain the meaning of sport to our lives than the wholesale ending of sporting activity in the state until at least March 29. The sense is that it may very well be much longer than that — and that is only right if that is what is required.

In the digital blizzard of emails, WhatsApp messages and other electronic carrier pigeons that were exchanged in the hours after the lockdown was announced, it became apparent that things which are fundamental to the lives of so many people had disappeared (albeit temporarily).

The first way in which the impact of the loss of sporting activity will be made apparent is in the loss of the physical act of play.

The happiness of a lot of homes rests on the rhythm of playing and training and playing and training.

This is true for adults, and especially true for children.

Living in a house with a boy who thinks that even card games are physical contact sports underlines the outlet for physical exertion that has been lost.

Channeling play into a framework of competition is the essence of modern sport.

And the loss of that framework will render clear just how valuable a function it serves as a part of so many lives.

The most obvious expression of the importance of this physical act of play can be found in a basic examination of the landscapes of urban and rural Ireland.

The scale and diversity of sports grounds in Ireland is extraordinary. There are swimming baths and bowling alleys, billiard halls and gymnasiums, skating rinks and skittle alleys, hunting lodges and cricket pavilions, running tracks and basketball courts.

And of course, there are the playing fields for major team sports that are found in every parish on the island.

The idea that they will not be properly used in the coming weeks is stunning in its expression of the rapid change brought by the virus.

But play is only part of the story of the centrality of sport, the second aspect is the social life that is wrapped around that play.

At the core of this is the idea of ‘the day out’.

Communal gatherings around sporting events are a vital part of our world. The role of the sports club in modern society is readily apparent.

In such clubs, people love and fight and do all the things that people do whenever they come together, for good or for ill.

Clubs being shut for training and matches means much more than just the loss of physical release, it also means the loss of a social outlet that sits at the core of many lives.

About 120 years ago, a Glentoran soccer player who attempted to explain why he had disappeared for four weeks to play soccer in Glasgow when he should have been playing in Belfast, said simply:

I did not go away. I got drunk and found myself in Glasgow.

The social aspect of sport is not normally quite as dramatic as that — but short of ending up in Glasgow for a month, there is still a lot of fun that will the lost in this lockdown.

The third aspect to be considered are the other ways in which we experience sport. The television revolution of the past 50 years has seen sport become a central feature of modern broadcasting.

Where once sporting events on television were occasional treats sparsely sprinkled across the schedule, they are now central to mainstream programming, as well as having a growing number of channels dedicated to their coverage.

Combined with the rapidly expanding sports applications available on various devices from computers to smartphones, as well as the increased coverage on radio and in newspapers, there is no gainsaying the omnipresence of sport in the media.

This is the ultimate example of the triumph of sport: there is now no event, regardless of how small and insignificant it might appear to others, that cannot be made accessible across the world using the Internet.

Stripped of this content in the coming weeks, it will be fascinating to watch what fills the void.

None of this would work without the emotional connections and impulses that spring from sporting events and activities.

Even the most ordinary or apparently insignificant of matches or races can provoke extravagant reactions — positive and negative.

That in the cold, clear light of hindsight these emotional reactions are obviously disproportionate underscores the manner in which sport captures our imagination. It drives good sense out the door and leads sane and rational people to lose the run of themselves.

This ability of sporting moments to capture us is essential to the lives of many of us. And paradoxically, its power lies also in the fact that it is also almost always something that is actually inessential. That is to say, we play sport because we love it and it’s something that brings joy — not because it is something we are made to do.

This will obviously cost some people their livelihoods and this is shocking. It is impossible to see what the alternative was, however.

The question is, how will people who love sport react to these new circumstances. In the past, in different circumstances, when sport was banned, people found ways to ignore that ban.

The great modern Irish example is cockfighting, which was banned in the 19th century but found this ban routinely flouted.

For example, Thomas Whelan was fined one guinea for organising a cockfight at Camla, Co. Monaghan in August 1913.

Head Constable Foster told Magistrates he had arrived at a garden in Camla, owned by Lord Rossmore, which was surrounded by a high stone wall and to which the doors had been barricaded.

Constable Foster proceeded to climb a tree and observed 400 or 500 people in a ring in which two birds were fighting. He told the court that he could hear the two birds clashing. Working with other constables, he succeeded in breaking through the door using a pole, at which point the crowd scattered in all directions.

That was an entirely different scenario, however. To continue to play and train here would be beyond reckless.

But sport has always found a way to fit into the circumstances of a society.

Perhaps the thing here is to reconsider what we mean by sport. There was a time when the word ‘sport’ was almost entirely centred on the world of hunting. Now, there are definitions of sport that include board games. For example, since 1930 Ireland has hosted the European Ludo championships six times and the World Championships twice. And it’s not easy to play Ludo.

Getting a horse into a house to hunt is probably not realistic, but introducing the tackle to Ludo might make it more entertaining.

And there’s always pitch and toss…

- Paul Rouse is a professor of history at University College Dublin.

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