“This is strange,” says my wife on one of our physically distant walks through Regent’s Park. I nod. The park is quiet but for squawking green parakeets (yes, London has them) and the wind murmuring through the trees, while in the distance we hear police commanding sunbathers to “exercise or go home”. Who could have predicted life in a lockdown? “No, not that,” she says, impatiently. “It’s unusual that you’re not huffing about the football scores.”
In March all professional football in the UK was postponed and since then time has been called on everything from the Olympics to Aussie rules and from golf to go-karting. Almost all global sport, in fact, amateur and above. And although I am prone to moan when results don’t go my way, the absence of a sporting season has made me truly miss the soap opera-like spectacle of ups and downs and the camaraderie of sharing in those highs and lows.
Sport can be frustrating to both watch and play. In fact, I’d say it’s simpler to help run a magazine and round-the-clock radio station than it is to organise a five-a-side kickabout or book a basketball court (and arrange timely payment of court fees from certain participants). But between doing this, keeping an eye on the nba and supporting Tottenham Hotspur, I’m both a glutton for punishment and a willing reveller in the poetry and perfection of sport at mirroring life’s joys and sorrows.
And I’m not alone: the world’s most watched televised events inevitably include the Olympics, the Cricket World Cup, major boxing bouts and the football World Cup; all command an estimated global audience of more than two billion. Sport is a global language that can captivate and enchant viewers and participants, even if they don’t speak the same tongue as the players or other fans.
A few years ago, while walking in Kyoto, my wife and I spotted an elderly Japanese man pelting downhill on a bicycle. He stopped with a skid in front of us to ask if we were English (no, I wasn’t wearing a Union Jack bucket hat). We nodded and he breathlessly said, “Shinji Okazaki, Leicester City; Maya Yoshida, Southampton”, citing two Japanese players who were then playing in the English Premier League. With a thumbs-up he pedalled on. His English wasn’t good but we knew that he was proud of his countrymen, he tracked their fortunes and that of their clubs and he was emotionally invested in them.
Why are we so obsessed with sport? Aside from helping us to keep fit, stay in touch with friends and make new ones, watching and playing sport brings life lessons of great importance (and yes, irritation too, depending on the result). Working successfully as a team, losing gracefully, winning humbly, never giving up in the face of adversity – all of these things are harder to glean from a games console or social media. These experiences can forge communities and they support, challenge and celebrate both the individual and the group. Needless to say, the colour of your jersey can cause divisions but this is a fact of life in itself: not everybody is on your team or will be rooting for you.
Now, free from my sporting schedule (and after a brief flirtation with watching the Belarusian football league as it struggled on in spite of medical advice), I’m replaying a handful of glorious highlights, none of them my own. There are the incredible nba performances from Michael Jordan, Niki Lauda’s six-week comeback from death’s door in Formula One or Usain Bolt’s world record at the Beijing Olympics. Success is inspiring to watch.
But there’s another lesson too. It’s often the case that things aren’t fair, fortunes shift and that you or your team need a bit of luck. There can be drawn-out low periods when results won’t go your way. But you still believe, you show up, applaud, make as much noise as possible. You play or offer support to the best of your
ability, trusting that things will turn around if you never give up. How you act when you hit a snag shows what you are made of. And that brings us to today. Now is the time to support each other however we can. That could be in business, within a family or by simply gathering on a Thursday evening to bang a pot or pan to cheer on key workers.
Back in Regent’s Park the police have completed their rounds and the park is looking more like itself (minus the sunbathers). The spring scent of cut grass lingers in the air and I find myself forgetting the lockdown and waiting for that buzz in my pocket and for my day to be made – or ruined – by the football results. While sport is postponed I will take its lessons about winning and losing and devote my support to those around me who need it. Sport might be cancelled for now but getting out of this current crisis will be a team effort.
Monocle comment: Sure we’ve missed the fixtures but more so the act of getting together to compete, support and exert ourselves. Be it a rally on a nearby court or lawn bowls with the seniors, here’s to the return of a little healthy competition.
About the author: Reynolds is Monocle’s managing editor. His strange shape meant that he was confined to basketball at school but after taking up football in his twenties, he captained Monocle’s successful 2019 campaign against sister company Winkreative.