“’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”.
For Tennyson, who wrote this in his poem In Memoriam, longing and loving is what makes us truly human. There have been different kinds of longing this summer. Longing for England to win the World Cup again and bring it home. Longing for our heroes to triumph in tennis and cricket.
The longing for the love Tennyson was writing about included romance, the plighting of our troth to another, the fragile fear of finding and placing faith in another person’s heart; but extended much further, even to the longing of a caged bird for its freedom.
And sport teaches us about longing and loving too. This has been a summer with some wonderful sport. Russia and Wimbledon of course; but also France with the exquisite flock of cycles flowing like a muscular river of hope through its dusty hills, valleys and villages.
Sport teaches us a lot about being human. It presents us with the struggles of life in a small microcosm of 90 minutes or in the best of cricket, stretched out to 5 days. The struggle of our whole lives are compressed into a match or a tournament.
Sport gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a struggle that will certainly leave us gutted if we lose, but not at least wrecked and wounded for years or decades as some other disappointments do; and it fills us with joy, jubilation and ecstasy in the moment, if we win.
Everything may come down to depending on one toss of the ball; one moment of concentration; one confrontation with the fear of losing in order to win everything. Fear paralyses just as much in sport as it does in life, and steals what might be most precious and what we might most need.
Like all exquisite struggle, the moneymen and moneywomen often try to corrupt and tame sport, to dilute it more prosaically into diversion and entertainment, a temporary distraction.
Instinctively we know it needs to be more than that. It’s about souls as well as about seconds of diversion. And maybe like life, that the choice we get presented with in sport too. Do we settle for being simply entertained and diverted, or do we dare look for something more noble?
I may not understand football, but I do know what Bill Shankly meant when he said “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Because he wasn’t talking just about football. He was talking about the titanic struggles in sport, heroism and cowardice, courage and sacrifice, art, skill and beauty, which for him football epitomised.
It’s more important than life and death because it’s also about the soul. It’s about longing for everything that matters: honour, love, overcoming defeat and fear, strength, courage, skill, wit, perseverance. And the only way to achieve these things is to enter the game and risk losing them, not just once, but time and time again.
Gender politics, just like the money men, can’t resist corrupting sport to its own ends. This time in the name of equality.
Despite the fact that it’s illegal to pay a woman less than a man for the same work, the media is filled with the distorted lament that there is a gender pay gap in sport as in elsewhere.
It is true that women finalists get paid less than the men. But they play less tennis and attract fewer paying people. Men play the best of 5 sets. Women don’t have the stamina and strength to play and still entertain, more than three. The power and stamina of the men draws more people to watch and so produces more money, than the women. The womens’ finals attracts half the numbers that the mens’ final does. So, in the name of ‘equality’ women, playing only three sets, want to be paid more per set, than the men, producing a smaller audience. That’s not even equality.
But there is no equality in tennis. Poor John McEnroe got roasted when he said that Serena Williams, who may be the best woman tennis player ever, would rank only about 700th in the world if she played the men. Cue outrage, venom and hatred. Feminists everywhere demanded he withdraw the remark and apologise. But of course, it was true. Even Serena herself admitted in 2013,
“For me, men’s tennis and women’s tennis are completely, almost, two separate sports. If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes. No, it’s true. It’s a completely different sport. The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it’s just a different game.”
Sport tells us more about life than either money or politics does. Outside numbers, there is no such thing as equality. If there was, there would be no sport; no winning or losing, only a perpetual draw.
And it’s the same with love. There may be mutuality in love but no equality. We are surrounded by political dogmatists who want to turn every context into a draw in the name of an artificial equality. If they succeed, they will kill sport. But beyond sport, they pose the danger of trying to turn life into a safe space. And if they manage that, they will threaten loving as well as losing. As with sport, so with life. Keep it real. Say no, not only to drugs, say no to equality.