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The dangerous implications of confusing war with sports

The relationship between sports and war runs deep, but there is nothing pretty or sporting about war

Written by Sushant Singh |
Updated: March 24, 2019 6:30:06 am
Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, cricket, India A FIELD DAY: India’s skipper Virat Kohli and teammate MS Dhoni greet each other during the 3rd ODI cricket match against Australia, in Ranchi, earlier this month (PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra)

TEN YEARS after Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo (1815) by the British allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington, the Iron Duke was watching a cricket match at his alma mater, Eton College. There, he was overheard as saying: “The battle of Waterloo was won here.” The man who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo did not literally mean that men who were schooled at Eton, one of the oldest and most famous English boarding schools, had won the battle. He meant that the real reason for Britain’s military success was the superior character of its young men built by playing outdoor games like cricket in schools.

The Iron Duke was only encapsulating what most modern militaries believe in: sport is a good preparation for war. For the British, it was seen as an organised way of teaching English boys discipline, camaraderie, hierarchy, skills, importance of winning, codes of honour and fair play and the leadership qualities that helped them build and run the British Empire. That is the reason most militaries emphasise team sport and make them a part of a soldier’s training.

We play sports to win trophies, which essentially means “a spoil or prize of war”. In ancient Greece, it referred to spoils or arms taken in battle and set up on the field and dedicated to a God. Trophy, from the Greek tropaion, meaning “monument of an enemy’s defeat” is a phrase which would roll down easily from the tongue of a modern sport commentator. After all, Ravi Shastri’s favourite and cliched metaphor was a tracer bullet.

But the relationship between sports and war runs deeper. Sports is a condensed version of war — only it matters less. George Orwell, who made the point, has this rather telling thing to say about sports: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up in hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard for all rules and a sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

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“There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism — that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige,” the author wrote in a damning treatise titled The Sporting Spirit (1945), which was written after a visit by the USSR football team to the UK.

But Orwell, perhaps, mistook the most vocal and aggressive sports follower, who is seeking a group identity, to be the only type of fan. Former England cricketer-turned-author Ed Smith has identified various types of fans: those who love the expectation more than the match; some who revel in spectacle and sense of theatre; others more detached imagining themselves as the manager or captain; more common, he says, is a fan who watches the match like a reader gripped by the narrative of a novel, simply wondering what happens next. But if you were to do a survey, all these categories of fans would hold forth on the aesthetics of sport, its beauty and appreciate the artistry of a player, as you would do of any master in a creative field.

The self-image of the spectators of any sport can, however, be misleading. In a popular BBC podcast prior to the London Olympics, Dominic Hobson made a provocative counterpoint about sport and spectators: “Sport does not build character. At best, it betrays it. At worst, it corrupts it.” And “it is not just the players who are corrupted. So are the spectators,” he argues.

This is something I experienced first-hand while serving as a young army officer on the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan in the early years of the millennium. These were the years before the 2003 ceasefire and no one needed an excuse to fire a burst from the Light Machine Gun (LMG) towards the enemy. In a cricket match between India and Pakistan, every four by Sachin Tendulkar would earn a celebratory LMG burst from one of the Indian posts, which would be replied in equal measure from the other side of LoC for every Wasim Akram wicket.

We may have done it for fun — although opening fire should never be trivialised — but the pressure on the cricketers from India and Pakistan when they met at the 1999 World Cup while the two countries were fighting in Kargil was certainly not fun for the cricketers. Sport had really become a proxy for war, and the billion-plus spectators in the subcontinent wanted their team to win at any cost. It was not uncommon to hear that it doesn’t matter whether India wins the World Cup or not, it should not lose to Pakistan at any cost. For the record, India won the match, although Pakistan reached the finals of the tournament.

The “winner takes it all” and “win at any cost” nature is something which is true of both sport and war. There are no runners-up in war, no silver medals for coming second. Winning is appreciated more on the sports pages of a newspaper than any aesthetics associated with the team or the player. American tennis player Brad Gilbert, who was once ranked No. 4 in the world, was reportedly described by his university coach as someone “can’t serve, can’t return but wins”. When Gilbert beat the great John McEnroe in the 1986 Masters Cup, McEnroe was so aghast that he didn’t pick up a racket again for six months. “Gilbert, you don’t deserve to be on the same court with me,” McEnroe hissed during the match, according to Gilbert. “You are the worst. The (expletive) worst!”

Not surprisingly, Gilbert’s first book was titled Winning Ugly (1993). If some sportspersons like Gilbert can play an artistic sport like tennis in an “ugly” way, what about sports which directly emerged from warfare? How does one find aesthetics and beauty in a sport like wrestling or boxing — surely some do but there are a few who also find warfare beautiful — or understand archery or shooting or fencing, without remembering their origins in ancient war? That is a philosophical question about sport itself, which somehow lets spectators and supporters, to quote Orwell, take “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence”. This dehumanisation is as much a part of the modern sporting experience as the bloodlust of the crowds that filled the Colosseum in ancient Rome.

The relationship between sport, spectators and soldiers has come into the spotlight in recent days, when Indian cricketers wore camouflage caps for a match against Australia. The roles are getting blurred by the day. The statistics — of own casualties, enemy combatants killed or wounded, tanks or aircraft captured or lost, number of Prisoners of War taken — have almost come to mirror those thrown up by sport. But while treating sport as war has only psychological consequences, treating war as another sport can have very dangerous implications.

If sport prepares soldiers for war, it should not also lull spectators into treating war as another form of sport. That would prettify war, further lowering the abhorrence to organised violence in public esteem, and in a neighbourhood with nuclear weapons, the political consequences of such a view are unimaginable. Sports can have winners and losers, you may win pretty or ugly. But there is nothing pretty about war, and as former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain famously said, “In war whichever side may call itself victor, there are no winners. But all are losers.”

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Everyone Bites the Dust’

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