POOR Brazil. How that humiliating World Cup semi final defeat hurt the great football-loving nation, and how it revealed the importance of footballing success for them.
And Roger Federer, how his defeat by Novak Djokovic wounded him, although he had already won Wimbledon several times before.
At the very top level sporting success is crucial, and even coming second won’t comfort the loser. Rudyard Kipling’s poem If is quoted over the changing rooms of the Wimbledon players, and how apt a challenge it is to these great athletes: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same.
Can the loser of an epic match cope with the experience, and can the winner manage not to make this success the only thing that matters in life? It is, after all, ‘just a game’.
Bill Shankly, a former manager of Liverpool Football Club in its glory days, was reported to say that Liverpool winning was not a matter of life and death…it was far more important.
Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem Vitae Lampada 1897 is about a schoolboy cricketer coming in to bat last with ‘ten to win’ in a ‘blinding light’ on ‘a bumping pitch’ – urged to ‘play up and play the game’ in courage and resilience. The boy grew up to be a soldier in a bloody battle, and recalled his cricketing experience to urge himself to bravery in the battle against all the odds.
Sport is ‘just a game’, and yet it also can be formative for character-building and bonding with the team. Kipling’s verses urge honesty and yet risk taking, with the realities of starting again when it all goes wrong.
At its best, sport contains human decency and respect to opponents, and honest playing of the game, not cheating. It is a great pity to us older players of cricket that ‘walking’ by a batsman who knows he did snick the ball but the umpire does not, is now a rarity.
Sport is a game, but games matter and nations do care about their particular specialist sport, hence Brazil’s deep disappointment. Sport seems to be something given in human DNA as well as cultural development: we love to compete, to run, climb, jump, hit a ball, kick a ball.
The Greek Olympics go back nearly three millennia. Sport can be distorted horribly, as in the gladiatorial ‘games’ of mass killing in the Roman Colosseum in front of crowds baying for blood: a dehumanizing experience. But at its best sport can even point us to the gifts of creation, speed, grace, balletic beauty, perfect timing – as can music and art.
It is part of God’s creation and the non rational, ‘fun’, side of life, at the top end it is utterly riveting and a reminder of human skill, courage and decency, all given to us by God for our enjoyment and challenge. We might even say it reflects something of the joy in God.