Sport a telly, celebrate extra time

The sport fan’s cornucopia of delights is at hand. The French Open begins today, as the League season, on a knife’s edge, hosts its final day. The Champions League final is on May 28. Wimbledon gets underway on June 27. And India travel to England for the cricket in July.

Television will beam all this live to my living room – and to yours. What is it about watching sport? The critic and poet Ian Hamilton once said, ‘I don’t play football any more, but you should see me watch it.’ Isn’t it the same for so many millions of us? There is the urgency, immediacy, unpredictability and sense of narrative that sport brings. It offers us a reliable, safe haven. Watching sport infuses our humdrum lives with drama and event glamour. It compels us to live in the moment, oblivious to everything else. Sport means nothing in the wider sense of my daily life. Yet, in the hours that I am immersed in watching it, nothing matters more. No, nothing else matters at all.

I can speak for myself. Watching sport was one of the key things that helped me cope with the pandemic. Once live sport returned after a brief hiatus, I could, at the flick of a remote, summon those familiar images, the familiar thrill, that familiar otherworld.

As the real world shapeshifted around me, and I tried to come to terms with an altered reality and my own transformed relationship with it, sport provided me with a still centre, an unchanging pleasure. Something I could hold on to and cherish, return to over and over again, something that, because of the purity of the response it elicited and the complete absorption it brought, helped to keep disquieting, disorienting things at bay.

Being a fan, being a spectator, seemed life-affirming. It seemed like banging pots and pans of defiance in the face of the contagion that was wreaking havoc with our lives.

Watching sport on TV in those unsettling times also engendered a sense of community, of belonging to a tribe of people who found joy in the same pursuit as I did. Creating a community of the likeminded is one of sport’s biggest, most enduring gifts. But never has it been more reassuring, more pleasing, as during the alien – and alienating – experience of living through the pandemic.

There was succour in the knowledge that people I knew and loved, in different cities in India, or in different time zones of the world, were occupied by precisely the same thing at precisely that same moment as I was. Never has it been a keener pleasure to exchange messages with friends and family – whom I had not seen for a long time and did not know when I would see them next – during an Arsenal game or a French Open final.

Of course, watching on TV sport played in front of empty stadiums took some getting used to. It was a novel experience. But it offered its own rewards. The sounds from within the stadium were amplified: the whump of boot hitting a football; the thwack and twang of tennis racket against the ball; the inimitable sound of a cricket ball making contact with the sweet spot of a bat; the shouts, shrieks from the players, the exhortations or admonishments of a coach on the touchline. One felt closer to the action, almost a part of it. The crowds returned soon enough. Euro 2020 was played in 2021 in front of packed stadiums.

The sport industrial complex is a resilient, heroic beast. By carrying on, almost as usual – or, at least, more usual than many other things in our lives – it defied the pandemic, laughed in its face. Covid has altered every aspect of our lives. It has transformed how we work, commute, travel, live, entertain ourselves, socialise with people, speak and write. But it has not been able to sully or change one bit the joy we derive from watching sport on TV.

The writer is author of Thirteen Kinds of Love


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