A ball moves. Hit or kicked or thrown by strangers. Who run. And jump. In formation. Some spit. Expectation swells and abates then swells again as the ball goes over the net. Or into it. Or over the line. Or through the thing. The numbers change. Another one of them spits.
And now it’s affecting your mood. You’re letting it. You’re a fully-ish grown adult, yet you’re crying and wincing and creatively combining expletives. You’re even wearing the same shirt as half of the running, jumping strangers. Frankly, you look silly. But, fortunately, no one’s really looking at you, because everyone’s busy watching the strangers doing the things.
For spectators, sport is entertainment. It’s compelling to witness people excelling in their field, whose specialised skills make them the best in the world. We prefer some players or teams more than others which provides a heightened tension and excitement to our viewing. The stakes are higher when we want a certain outcome.
But – assuming we’re not a friend or relative of someone directly involved – our team winning or losing shouldn’t really make a difference beyond the momentary exultation or frustration. It doesn’t make us better or worse at our jobs. It doesn’t enhance or destroy our relationships. There’s no tangible change in us as people.
Maybe a win provides a confidence boost, stoked by the illusion that, sometimes, we can impose our will on the universe. I wanted my team to win and they did. Therefore, other things I want are also attainable. The planets are aligned and all is well. Phew.
But can we maintain our level of sporting engagement without having to carry the burden of sporting fortunes around with us constantly?
The Australian Open provides a fascinating case study – largely because it was on at the time of writing and the client I originally wrote this for demanded I arbitrarily link to it. Tennis fans are seemingly much less wedded to patriotism than in most other sports. Due to the consistent dominance of a select few, we must align ourselves with the Federers/Nadals/Williams’/Bouchards of the world.
Of course, we’ll proudly back an Aussie (with the possible exception of Bernard Tomic). But, as the tournament progresses and the draw shrinks by half and half again, we must find new favourites to follow. We choose second and third favourites, to add intrigue to the results and soften the blow when our first choice fails.
Sport unlocks a very primal passion. One we would otherwise suppress for the sake of common decency. It’s not acceptable to jump around obnoxiously “woo-ing” if something good happens at work (unless you work in sales, apparently).
But more than that, sport is a screen on which we can project our own morality. We elevate heroes and antagonists. We build narratives. We feel people deserved victory despite their failure to sate appease the game’s ultimate arbiter: the scoreboard. Likewise, we indulge in schadenfreude as our chosen pantomime villains are embarrassed and vanquished.
In this way, we invest our emotions the same as we might in a film. We want our heroes to be challenged. We want them to try. And, assuming they’re worthy, we want them to win.
We want justice to be delivered.
As kids, watching sport was aspirational. We followed our heroes and hoped to one day emulate them. Now, as our age equals and eclipses that of the latest crop of sporting idols something briefly dies within us. A flicker of regret as we finally accept our childhood hopes of glory are extinguished.
Just as quickly, our passion is reborn, raucous and devoted as ever. At peace with our mediocrity, we exist vicariously through the excellence of others. Those who run and jump and sweat and spit. And they’d better play like they mean it. Because it means something to us.