By Sagar S Apr. 09, 2018
We are quick to jump for our Twitter accounts whenever an athlete wins at an international event. The pride is great and necessary. But beyond the celebration of individual achievement, shouldn’t it inspire us toward deeper engagement with sports?
Last night, during a highlight reel of the fifth day of the Commonwealth Games, a friend and I sat rooted to the couch eating cheap nachos. We had just emerged from a two-hour session of something called Virtua Tennis, and were rewarding our rigorous workout of serious button-mashing with four very cold beers. From the depths of our seats, we watched an Indian man lift the weight of a scooter over his head in a swift motion – and as if completing his movement, we each placed a lit cigarette in our mouths. A poetic moment, punctuated only by the grunts of a man who had just achieved a feat of superhuman strength, and the crunch of fried cheese things.
Ten minutes into our athlete still somehow avoiding a hernia, both of us looked at our phones. We were bombarded with notifications announcing (with the help of several flag emojis, lest we forget what it looks like) that it was a proud day for India’s bleeding children, or something equally exaggerated. A few hours earlier, back home, an uncle had delivered a similar spiel, informing our family that the 17 medals (at the time) India had won at the Commonwealth Games meant future generations of our country will prosper.
But as my friend and I sat in front of the TV that night, listening to ourselves breathing, and feeling a vague sense of pride for some reason, I wondered if it was fair for any of us to take credit for this Indian Hulk who had spent as much time lifting 173 kilos as it had for us to pick a character in our video game.
Most sports fans seem to have no reservations doing this, often using the victory of their respective teams as ammo to shoot down fans of other teams. In Mumbai, most of this banter came in the form of schoolboys taking great pride in the achievements of English or Spanish footballers, despite supporting whatever club their mothers bought them jerseys for. The kids from my school would spend days arguing about the Manchester United-Liverpool match coming up on the weekend and would follow it up on Monday with a personal tirade against the losing side. Often during these rants, the European football teams would be referred to with the collective “we,” leading to situations where one kid would tell another, “Did you see how we dominated possession?” or “We could have scored more!”
But the reality was that our school had banned all balls from the building after one guy broke a fan, so “we” were actually the ones playing football with a Bisleri bottle during the 15-minute break.
"The chanters are the same guys who went on to leave their sporting careers for promising paunches, but still make time to paint their faces with arsenic-based colour compounds every time India plays a match in Mumbai."
Back when we were still vague on the idea of English football it was the India-Pakistan cricket matches that would evoke pride at home. It was the one time of the year where it was acceptable to low-key insult a neighbouring country and the impressionable kids of my housing colony accepted this trend blindly. The porky boy from the building next door, who idolised Shoaib Akhtar for his bowling pace, would usually bear the brunt of it – “Ek-do-ek-do Shoaib Akhtar ko phek do, teen-chaar-teen-chaar joote maaro baar baar.” I couldn’t translate that even if I tried, but suffice to say it involves beating poor Akhtar with shoes. The chanters are the same guys who went on to leave their sporting careers for promising paunches, but still make time to paint their faces with arsenic-based colour compounds every time India plays a match in Mumbai.
Sport fans tend to equate individual achievements with an entire country’s achievements, and there’s no greater proof than the recent Cameron Bancroft ball-tampering situation. Indian online commentators were quick to point out that the whole scandal had “brought shame to Australia”, but I’m pretty sure that the Steve-O from Brisbane didn’t call in sick because he was too embarrassed to face his colleagues. A few years ago when another Australian player, Matthew Hayden was winning trophies for the Chennai Super Kings, the same fans would use that as a reason to feel very proud about the fact that they were born in Chennai and that their city’s team just happened to sign this great cricketer.
Which brings us to a question famously posed by comedian Jerry Seinfeld: What are sports fans actually cheering for? Clearly they have no loyalty for individual players involved, he noted, they must just be cheering for the colour of the clothes.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t show pride in our sportspeople. Maybe it’s worth considering that that pride should take the form of actual inspiration – to go out and actually try your hand at, or support the sport in question.
Maybe Manika Batra’s tricolour nails make your heart twice the size. Excellent, let’s use that enthusiasm to support table tennis. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being the guy who can lift a truck. Sure try your hand at some weight lifting. Maybe Heena Sidhu’s string of medals makes you want to shoot someone… Ok let’s hold that thought. Only then can we really stake a claim to be a “sporting nation” – as opposed to one that merely celebrates individual success.
Sagar has lived in Mumbai for most of his life. You can often find him complaining about potholes and local trains when he isn't out having a mediocre time.