Bad Sports

8

The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” (Duke of Wellington)

After the recent horror in Newtown, Connecticut, all the usual suspects started trotting out their usual gun apologia, in America and here.

Even the good guys though, really don’t get it. Michael Bloomberg, for example “Nobody questions the Second Amendment right to bear arms”. But why not Michael, why not? Everything else in American society can be questioned but not rampant gun ownership? And here, Joe Hockey, also meaning well said he “couldn’t see why any member of the public, apart from farmers and sporting shooters, needed guns”. Quite right, but why should there be “sporting shooters” Joe (farmers are a different question, but I think also shouldn’t be an exception)?

People, like other animals, have always played games. The simpler kinds of athletics like running and jumping, and games involving some kind of ball or similar object, have been played in all human societies. As have frivolous ones like kite-flying, or spinning tops.

But there are other, more complex games, that develop to reflect, and reinforce, particular cultural or social factors in societies, and these come and go throughout history.

Some, many, are used (like the play of lion cubs or foxes) to train the youth of the society in martial pursuits. In Ancient Greece games like Javelin and Discus throwing, and wrestling; in Rome chariot racing, and gladiatorial contests; in Mediaeval England it was jousting and archery (Henry Eighth making this explicit in his law that the young had to practice archery); later, in many societies, it was guns used for target practice, horses doing dressage. Other games relate to people turning their working day occupation into a game or sport – for example wood-chopping, sailing and rowing, hunting, horse riding, motor racing.

Over the last few thousand years societies have grown out of some sports, left others behind as archaic, no longer relevant to warfare, have changed their ethical and moral attitudes to brutality toward other human beings, towards animals.

No longer do we see, nor expect to see, people leaping over bulls, chariot racing, gladiatorial mortal combat, jousting or bear-baiting. Then there are games that do continue, often underground, but that should have (for obvious reasons) gone totally by now – cock fighting, dog fighting, bullfights, hunting (all kinds), fishing and horse racing.

And then there are some new “sports” that should never have started but, having done so, should be stopped – wood chopping, motor racing, boxing, cage fighting, rodeos, and shooting.

Why? Well because sports don’t merely reflect the values and ethics of their time and place, they help to define them, reinforce them. In the Colosseum, watching thousands of rare animals slaughtered, or deciding on the life or death of a defeated gladiator by the whim of the crowd, were not merely reflections of a brutal attitude to life in Rome, but helped to maintain that attitude. No longer seeing defenceless bears torn to death by dogs on the streets of Elizabethan London must have helped to begin the movement towards a gentler society.

And so it is with our modern bad sports. One or two of them certainly seemed like a good idea at the time – other times, other mores – but that time is no longer with us. Take wood-chopping for example. Began as a way for the 7 foot tall, well-muscled, bronzed axemen of the bush, to see who was the fastest at chopping down 500 year-old-trees. Crowds cheered at agricultural shows, as these representatives of all that was magnificent about the Australia of the past chopped away to see who could cut through their log the fastest. Heroes, home-grown heroes. But these heroes had helped to destroy forests all over Australia, had removed magnificent old growth trees, had driven once abundant species like red cedar effectively to near extinction. In 2013, with forests everywhere lost or degraded, and with climate change coming at us like a timber lorry on a narrow road, the time for seeing wood chopping as a celebration of Australia should be long behind us.

Same with motor racing. One hundred years ago, there was a brave new world of fast cars, and brave drivers pushing boundaries, advancing technology. Hurtling around the track without a care in the world except the next chequered flag. The fastest drivers of our youth (such as Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in my case) heroes in the sense that top footballers and cricketers and tennis players (ah, those were the days) were. But now? Kidding, right? How many cars in the world, a billion? Two billion? All burning petrol, spewing out CO2. We could do without high performance cars driving mindlessly round and round race tracks symbolically and actually wasting fuel for no good reason.

Similarly, with seven billion people on the planet, with wars and rumours of wars, terrorism, ethnic hatreds, violence on the streets of big cities, do we really want to keep glorifying the idea that two men (and even women these days) brutally bashing each other to the cheers and jeers of a crowd until one is so badly injured (even dead sometimes) they cannot go on, is a sport and an entertainment? And, on a planet where species are going extinct at a faster and faster rate, and where climate change and habitat loss are rapidly worsening, why the hell are we hunting and fishing the species that are left? And why are we still encouraging an ethos that animals are there for the mere purpose of entertainment, to be tortured and killed on a whim, in sports such as horse racing, rodeos, and bull fighting? It certainly reduces the level of empathy for the natural world so necessary to get us through the rest of this dangerous century, but, considering only self human interest, leads to less empathy for other humans.

Which brings me to shooting. Put all of the above together and tell me that in the world of 2013 we should be treating and glamourising guns as sporting equipment and not deadly weapons whose use should be reduced to a minimum. There is nothing sporting about shooting. We shouldn’t be treating as normal the idea of possessing and using guns which kill tens of thousands of people every year and millions of animals.

So we need some new games? How about some based on firefighting, tree planting, rescuing sea turtles and seabirds, collecting litter, replanting sand dunes, conservation farming, solar-powered vehicles, public health activities?

Good sports, eh?