A very bad week for Australian sport

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New South Wales rugby league State of Origin player, James Tamou, answers a question at a media briefing in Sydney on Monday, June 4, 2012. The second match of the three game series will be played on Wednesday, June 13 in Sydney. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

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This has not been a great week for sport. Not a great week for those who play sport, not a great week for those who love sport.

At least, it doesn’t feel great, but given the havoc that seems to be constantly wreaked on others by sportsmen, maybe it’s no more than we needed, and no more than we deserved. We can’t just ignore these things.

I wish we could. I want sport to be like it used to be, and I know how foolish that is, because for one thing, you can’t reverse the march of time and the advance of progress, you can’t wish yourself into the past; and for another, sport probably never was like it used to be.

Oh sure, back when sportsmen weren’t rich and idle and hyped to the heavens in social pages and stalked by paparazzi, they may not have been quite so prone to pathological narcissism, cosmic arrogance or hideous abuse of their fellow human beings, but we all know they were no angels.

Things happened on tours, on end of season trips, on post-match all-nighters, and those things stayed right where they were and didn’t get revealed. And that wasn’t necessarily a good thing: codes of silence aren’t of benefit to society.

But God I wish it could be like it used to be.

I wish I didn’t know anything about what sportspeople did off the field. I wish all I knew was what they did with their bats and balls and hands and boots.

Sport is art.

Watching Roger Federer at his peak was like drinking in a masterpiece, each stroke of his racquet painting another line of vivid colour on the Wimbledon canvas.

A century by Brian Lara was a symphony, his bat flashing like a baton, conducting the ball around the field as he desired, playing the bowlers like a violin, directing the fielders as he wished like an orchestra, writing the music he felt in his wrists.

David Campese used to engage in a bewitching ballet, dancing through defences, making his opposition act as mere props in his dizzying exhibition.

And to see Andrew Johns take apart an opposition on his own, running, kicking, passing, standing in tackles and stepping inside despairing air-grasps, was to see a sculptor taking the raw block of stone of a rugby league game and neatly and decisively carving away everything that wasn’t a monument to his own genius.

And you can swap in any one of a hundred other names to that lot, artists all. Martina Hingis, Darren Lockyer, Billy Slater, Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, Stephen Larkham, Dan Carter, Shane Warne, Gary Ablett, Michael Voss, James Hird… I could spend hours just making out a list and savouring the memories each one has given me.

Sport is a fierce, brutal, violent art, but it is art, and it is beautiful.

And I’m not sure there’s a single revelation about what sports stars do in their spare time that has made their art any more beautiful, that has illuminated the gorgeousness of their endeavours in the slightest.

When I was marvelling at Andrew Johns’ ability to perform every skill known to rugby league better than the best, I wasn’t hoping to learn that he was spending his evenings drinking himself into a stupor and filling up on drugs, any more than I wanted to know his brother bonded with his teammates over the vicious use of easily-impressed young women like sex toys.

I wanted to watch Shane Warne spin webs around batsmen and rip balls at impossible angles back from outside leg stump, I didn’t want to know how he looked in Playboy underpants or discover his textual seduction techniques.

I want to see footballers thunder into each other with recklessly poetic disregard for their own safety, not hear all about how they wield their fearsome physiques as weapons to destroy the safety of others. I want to be impressed by courage and skill and the daring audacity to risk devastating defeat in the pursuit of spectacular victory.

I want to hate the opposition for what they did to my team during the finals, not for what they did to their girlfriends later that night.

I want it to be the way it used to be, but innocence is a non-renewable resource: once it’s been used up, it’s gone, and we’ve got to find alternative ways to fuel our love of the game.

And if blissful ignorance of the ugliness behind the art is no longer possible, the only option left is to make that ugliness beautiful itself.

I am just a fan, and my opinions are of less consequence than my own sporting prowess.

But I’m begging you, my heroes, my artists, give me a chance again to wonder at your works without having to hang my head at the price the world is paying to let you perform them.

Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms.
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