01 Oct 1994

Paul writes for Rolling Stone

Paul writes for Rolling Stone


By Paul Kelly, written for Rolling Stone (October 1994)


"Sport is one of the few important things that don't matter." – John Kingsmill.


It starts with the ball. The players may change, wax and wane, but the ball remains. See it just clearing the pack in a game of Australian Rules, hitting the ground and lurching towards goal. Sixty thousand people hold their breath as they follow its sick, confused path. Or see it, rounder now, in the air half a second after the basketballer has released it from outside the circle. The bell has rung and the ball is arcing in slow motion towards the net. It hits the rim and bounces straight up before coming down again. Mere matter wrapped around nothing, it is now beyond the players, transfixing the crowd and holding, within its airy darkness, the fate of the game. There are sports without balls – skiing, ice skating, boxing, swimming, track and field etc – but, with the exception of long-distance running, these sports hold no interest for me either to watch or play. If I run a hundred yards, I'm bored before I get half way but give me a ball to chase, swat, kick, catch or hurl and I'll run all day. Running hurts after a while but when you're chasing a ball you feel no pain.


The ball is a thing of enchantment – a caster of spells. It can mesmerise an entire stadium, cure what aches and turn ponderous age into enthusiastic youth. A solid circle invested with a circle's magic, it can be a lethal weapon when Ambrose bowls to McDermott or a plaything in the hands of a child.


I suspect that when a child first encounters a ball she thinks it's alive. It moves across the floor with a life of its own. When you knock a toy or drop a book, it falls and stops. You kick a ball and it runs away from you.


With its unique properties, the ball seems to straddle the great division between living and non-living things. Not alive but not exactly lifeless either, the ball is in a category of its own. A separate world in the shape of a world. Supernatural. To aficionados, the great sportspeople are masters of the occult. They are our priests, our adepts. We call Shane Warne, Peter Daicos and Magic Johnson sorcerers.


The child makes her first tentative efforts to come to grips with the ball's weirdness. She discovers it is not always controllable. It come through the air to her and spills out of her hands. Slowly, over time, she starts to gain some control. Some of us never leave that dance.


A saxophonist friend of mine, a Charlie Parker fan, once asked me how I could stand to watch football week after week. "Football's like jazz," I said. "Highly skilled people work as a team, improvising within certain parameters without knowing what's going to happen next. Sometimes moves of great beauty emerge from an apparent bungle. It's the kind of beauty Hemingway called grace under pressure."


To talk of sport only in terms of melody, dance, enchantment or as an exercise in aesthetics is to fall short of the story. The reason why more people go to the football than to the ballet is to see somebody win and somebody lose. Beauty ever walks with cruelty.


With the noble exception of cricket, all games demand a result. When the bell rings, the siren sounds or the whistle blows, all things are reckoned.


The score is what keeps us interested in a boring, ugly game. Even if one side is trouncing the other, How much can they win by? we ask. How many goals can Ablett kick? Keeping the score helps us survive the banality of sport which, despite the hype of sports commentators, is often dull, desultory and repetitive. The scoreboard, deaf to argument, appeals to our sense of order and hierarchy. In games, we judge and are judged. A young cricketer full of runs in shield cricket makes a couple of low scores at the higher level and is damned by math. A footballer hesitates for a split second in his run at the ball and thirty thousand people suspect his character.


As spectators, we yearn to witness tragedy as much as triumph. We are thrilled by the careless workings of chance – the sudden, shocking, twisted knee that ends a career, the doubtful LBW decision that causes a player to be dropped and lose confidence or the spilled catch that gives him a let-off on the way to a century. Destiny is often determined by an inch or a second. We were there, we say, at the telling moment.


We do not seek sport for our health. It makes us feel mean when our team is losing, then worse when we realise that we are powerless to act on our emotions and that someone we don't like – some spoilt, egotistical man-child wearing a number – holds the key to our happiness. Sport chews up the young and the healthy and spits them out wracked, wrecked, arthritic and old before their time.


Two scenes: A man is watching television in a foreign city. He flicks across the channels and comes across a game played by two teams unknown to him. He doesn't understand the rules of the game but stays with it for a while. Ten minutes later he's barracking for one team against the other.


Scene Two. A small country town. A ten-year-old boy sits on the porch of a house by the highway. He can see cars coming from a long distance in both directions but never more than two or three at any time. Because he's lonely he makes up a game. He tries to predict at what point on the highway two cars will cross. He awards himself points out of three depending on how close he gets. When the cars cross directly in front of him, he gives himself bonus points. He does this for most of the afternoon. He keeps score.