Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

We're high on emotion but is this how to be sporting?

US heartbreak at losing the Ryder Cup was palpable. But the stakes are always high when you invest sport with a sense of national dignity, says Malachi O'Doherty

The heartbroken American golfers (and fans), whose visible distress will be one of the enduring images from the Ryder Cup, have not been reading their Kipling.

Kipling had listed the attributes by which his son would become a man, including: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same ..."

The poet of British chauvinism placed stoical qualities at the heart of his definition of maturity.

The real man would not have wept for a team.

Indeed, the triumphs and disasters that Kipling was thinking of were probably more serious than sporting outcomes on the field of play.

The real stoic would have kept his (not her) composure as markets rose and fell, as armies at battle prevailed, or drew back bloodied.

This idea of the superior poise of the wholly unruffled, however stark the hazard, was celebrated by Tennyson in his praise of the Charge of the Light Brigade: "Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die."

The strength to suffer any affliction, or enjoy deepest satisfaction without either ever showing on your face, was valued as the defining gift of a civilised being.

It is hard to imagine such a recent time in which the stiff upper lip, the ability to appear entirely unruffled, was the mark of dignity. Now, we not only express our feelings extravagantly, we convulse over sporting contests, like the Ryder Cup, more fulsomely than our forebears would have done at the funeral of a child.

And if sportsmen and women can be absolved of a few punches of the air and whoops of joy, their tears and distress are outclassed in visible emotion by their fans and supporters who've contributed nothing to the achievement but their cheers.

It matters - it matters so much - that Donegal beat Mayo in the All-Ireland final; that Europe has retained the Ryder Cup.

But Europe didn't, did it?

Europe is a continent. Continents don't play golf. America wasn't beaten; American golfers were.

And yet it feels to many that national dignity is at stake in a sporting competition. And if that is daft, then at least it is better than the many other ways in the past in which nations have pitted themselves against each other.

But people take their sense of belonging to a country and invest it in the hopes of the national team.

Listen to men talking about football and you hear it most clearly. They'll say things like, "How do you think we will do on Saturday?"

It's as if they imagine that they will be out on the field themselves, kicking the ball, when the truth is they will be slumped in a sofa with a beer in hand, yelling at the TV.

They would have no more chance of running the length of the field, most of them, than they would of scoring.

And yet, in a more modest way, many of us feel that the boy genius golfer Rory McIlroy is not just out there putting for himself, but for us all. And we feel pride when he wins again and a little disappointment when he doesn't.

People who can't pay their mortgages were saddened that he recently failed to pocket $10 million and had to settle for a couple of million, instead.

Part of this emotional engagement, no doubt, is healthy. We live in more candid times and accept that it is better to express feelings than repress them.

But when psychology first prompted us to be true to the stirrings within and let them all out, the men and women inviting us to emote were probably thinking we might want to unveil our distress at the deaths of those we love, at the memory of horrific events in childhood.

Did they foresee that the trickle of a little white ball across a green and the moment of victory, or defeat, for a millionaire golfer when it misses the hole, or drops into it, would wrench at the hearts of so many and that all of life's hope and meaning might stand or fall on an outcome that must have a lot of chance in it?

And there are occasions in sport when all your hopes are concurrent with the other side just having all the best players. Tough.

It had seemed that way for Andy Murray until he won his first Grand Slam after beating Roger Federer to Olympic gold.

Murray appears to have been forced by the stacking of the odds against him to dig deeper. What else do you do if you live at the same time as giants like Federer and Nadal?

You struggle to get the tiniest marginal improvement in your game that makes all the difference.

Whether Wiggins on his bike, or Rory on the golf course, or Usain Bolt blasting along the track, the difference between winning and losing now is so infinitesimally small that it hardly marks one person as superhumanly better than all others.

Now success or failure may be measured by fractions of seconds, by balls moving so fast that the human eye can't tell if they are in or out.

And for the entire happiness of fans to rely on success measured so finely seems pointless; you really do have to be amazing, too, to come second.

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