Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Patriotism and Moral Conundrums

Ben Roberts

For the resident of a lucky country such as Australia the world of sport is vast and plentiful. The sporting fan need not look far to partake in or enjoy the spectacle of many games. As I suppose it is with life, there is an inability for one sport to completely fulfil a sports lover such as myself; none provides perfection.

My first love has always been and will continue to be cricket. Like a former Prime Minister there is a sense of tragedy when examining the obscene amount of cricketing knowledge lodged in the reaches of my brain. Being born and bred in Melbourne it is only natural that I have the strongest of affinity with Australian Rules as my footballing code of choice. Should I witness the Richmond Football Club winning a premiership in my lifetime, the years of heartache will be worthwhile and my sporting life complete.

Cycling is a bug that once caught is hard to shake. What attracts me to it is the freedom that you have to enjoy its simple pleasures with or without deference to others. Enjoying or partaking in the spectacle is equally a great lifestyle. It cannot be ignored that the most popular sport in this world is that of Football and it demands attention. Years a marginalised and fringe sport in Australia, the explosion of up-to-the-minute media communications has made it a breeze to follow this game at its highest levels.

Surely four major sporting codes would be enough for one to feel complete in their experience of things, but unfortunately (in a prime exhibit of western consumerism) I am still wanting more. Despite years of ignorance I must add two further sports to my list.

I am not greatly taken by it at club or provincial level, though will happily watch a package of highlights, but a Rugby Union international is for mine as passionate expression of sporting patriotism as any. Having been blessed twice to visit the Pacific nation of Tonga, I can tell you first hand the fervour for the sport from this small country (with a big heart), even without watching a match. True to their love of the sport, humorously in Tonga the sport played in the off-season is Rugby League!

There are zero dead international matches. Unlike football where there is such a thing as a 'friendly', giving rise to lesser expectations of spectator, participant and non-participants, Rugby internationals are test matches and demand attention of its stakeholders. Cricket shades Rugby as source of the phrase, but unlike Rugby, it waters down international competition with a proliferation of meaningless limited over matches. Rugby's coat-tail fixtures, the 'Sevens' game, are held as part of a tournament and despite not being considered test matches, they do contain meaning also.

Annually Rugby provides great festivals of the sport. In the Northern Hemisphere the Six Nations tournament draws out passion that built empires, and harnesses it in a more edifying context. In the Southern Hemisphere the Tri-nations tournament draws out the passion of the former British colonies as they seek to raise themselves to worldwide attention. Hopefully the future holds for the addition of Argentina to more fully represent the southern half of the globe.

It isn't just the teams that compete in the competitions, it's that they have homes that are evocative to hear mentioned. They do play elsewhere at times but save their best for the biggest of stages. England at Twickenham; Scotland, Murrayfield; Wales, The Millennium Stadium; Italy, Stadio Flamino; Ireland, Lansdowne Road; and France, Stade de France. In the south it is similar – Argentina at Vélez Sársfield; South Africa, Ellis Park; New Zealand, Eden Park or Lancaster Stadium. Australia used to grace more traditional homes, the Sydney Cricket Ground and Ballymore, however has been more severe in its rationalisation of stadiums across all sports, maybe to the detriment of its on-field performance.

Of course every four years the Rugby world competes for the World Cup. While Rugby's reach is by no means as extensive as the round-ball game, certainly this tournament is more representative of a competitive world than cricket. Despite this being a watershed moment for me in admission I do recall rising at 2am in 1999 to witness John Eales lead the Australians to victory over France in Cardiff. This was a moment of true international sporting triumph, unlikely to be repeated in Football (and certainly not Australian Football), and far in advance of cricket.

What the reason is behind Rugby's ability to retain such passion at the international level is unclear. Perhaps it is because for the first 100 years it staved off professionalism. There can be no doubt that along the way there were those players who indirectly and mischievously benefited financially, but for the most part it required the players on the field to compete only for the pride of a nation. Rugby has many challenges, not the least of which is having a wealthier younger cousin, but I must give in to the lure of appreciating this grand game at the highest level.

Moving to my next new love and everything about this sport says that logically I should not support it. But to think logically about this sport is to misunderstand completely; there is no logic involved, just passion. The sport is Formula One motor racing.

The level of danger posed to driver and others cannot be fully justified, and I am sure I would steer a child away from it as a career; yet you cannot help but be transfixed watching on video the great drivers like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost or even Michael Schumacher control these ridiculously powerful lumps of metal at high speed. The cost per capita of participant would easily be the most of any sport, and the drain on my home state's economy of hosting a race is ridiculous and has better purpose; but what is created in these phenomenal pieces of engineering is immense.

Finally, and maybe most telling, is that in accepting of humanity's effects on the natural environment of this world you immediately see the motor car as being a prime culprit. Yet this exciting sport is driven (pun intended) by unsustainable inputs.

Maybe it is the enormous respect for the drivers who push their bodies to the limit, and their courage to extremes in getting into the cockpit. It could be the great respect for the feats of engineering that I know I am not wired to ever understand fully. I have no idea how this season the Kinetic Energy Recovery System works, or could theorise about the potential effect, but I know basically what it aims to achieve and this season look forward to the result.

It is a sport more enamoured with glamour and does not assimilate with this age of health & safety and sustainable living . A glass half full may call it a sport of a simpler time, and a simpler world. Half empty, one of ignorance. Bernie Ecclestone will not care of my own conscious struggles so long as he makes a dollar from me somewhere along the line, but I feel torn. As much as the world of cycling produces immense speed and technological innovation there is something ironically primal about being amazed by a Formula One car.

Where will this end, will it end? Who's to say; come Christmas I may have collected another two or three sports to my portfolio, even more. I worry about what paths this could lead me down, just the other day I began to experiment while sweeping the floor that may be an inkling that a love of Curling is on the horizon. I prefer Rugby Union over Rugby League because I perceive more intricacies in the game (and enjoy complicating my life), but what happens on that tired lonely evening when I want something easy? The scary part is that I believe potentially the only end is a Richmond premiership.

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