Narendar Pani

Why the cry for sporting action amidst Covid

Narendar Pani | Updated on July 29, 2020

Beset by fear of the virus and its economic costs, urbanised societies, especially in the West, see sport as a welcome diversion

In a world struggling to come to terms with the pandemic, there have been diverse reactions to the question of when sporting events should restart. In less urban societies like India, the answer would be a no-brainer: after the pandemic is well and truly over. There would appear to be no point in risking lives for a mere sporting event.

Yet, when we move to the more urbanised societies of the West, including those that have suffered severe loss of life in the pandemic, there is a much greater eagerness, even urgency, to get back to large sporting events. England, which had one of the highest deaths per million population from the pandemic, is at the forefront of the effort to allow fans back in for football matches.

This difference may have its cultural elements, but it is also the result of the role of sport in major urban centres. In order to fully understand this role, there is a need to recognise sport as a ritual. Philosopher Fritz Stall saw ritual as being rules without meaning. He was primarily interested in Vedic rituals, but the condition of rules without meaning would be met by sports as well.

There is little meaning to be attributed to counting the number of times a batsman runs between two ends of a 22-yard pitch. At the same time, literally millions of rupees have been spent on ensuring the rule that some part of the bat has to cross a one-inch line for a batsman to escape being run out.

The need for rituals can be traced to dealing with the uncertainties of life. The rules of a ritual can be followed in the hope that it would provide the desired outcome or prevent an undesirable one. For the individual, these rituals can be associated personal beliefs, ranging from a sequence in which to carry out everyday activities to more demanding superstitions and religious practices.

For groups there can be the participation in shared rituals, even if the participation is no more than being a spectator.

The ritual of sport goes a step further than merely responding to uncertainties of life. It creates its own uncertainties which have a clearly defined end, often in terms of the time the sport is to last. The hope of winning within a fixed set of rules, and the uncertainty that one may not, provides the suspense that diverts attention from the more serious causes of suspense. This diversion goes well beyond players to spectators.

Spectators can identify with individual players, they can celebrate that identity in the stadium, and abandon it as soon as they leave. Team sports, especially when they are associated with specific cities or groups within a city, provide an additional basis for fans to form groups. They can share their sorrow and happiness with the events in the game with the certainty that it would end at the prescribed time or outcome. For that period of time, the controlled suspense of the sport takes the minds of spectators away from the uncontrolled uncertainties of everyday life. Indeed, in the context of sport as a set of social rituals, the spectators may be more important than the players.

Larger groups

The effects of the controlled suspense of sport is enhanced in an urban setting, which allow for larger groups to share celebrations and disappointments. The emergence of large groups identifying with a team does not always end with the match.

This is particularly true when the team identities represent larger social groupings. If these social groups are in conflict, the sport stops being a diversion from real life tensions, and adds to them. This possibility contributed to Gandhiji’s campaign against cricket matches between teams representing different communities. Nelson Mandela, too, made a sustained effort to break the all-White character of the Springbok rugby team to make it representative of all of South Africa.

The need for sport as an alternative form of controlled suspense could not be greater today. The Covid-19 pandemic has generated an existential suspense across the world. When the suspense of whether an individual and her loved ones will be infected or not, and then whether they will survive or not, gets overwhelming, the controlled suspense of sport is a welcome diversion.

The support for the England-West Indies Test series in other countries is evidence of this diversion. And the demand to allow spectators in the stadium comes from the desire to increase the magnitude of this diversion.

As the pandemic increases the fear of the disease and its economic costs, the need for sport as a diversion will only grow. It is one of the tragic ironies of urban life that the need to address the psychological pressures of the pandemic brings with it the risk of the disease spreading further.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on July 29, 2020

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