Entry 36: Staring (in the Antrim Lounge)- Whether you love it or loathe it, Sport is one of the enduring activities of humankind. 17,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic era, we find in the cave paintings at Lascaux, scenes depicting sprinting. Neolithic rock art from Libya shows archery being practised over 6,000 years ago.
Have a look at a mural from the Egyptian tomb of two royal servants, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum who lived 2,400 years ago. The mural shows a wrestling bout between two men that are like stills from an animation. Team sports also have roots in antiquity. Sports that are at least two and a half thousand years old include hurling in Ireland, shinty in Scotland, harpastum (similar to rugby in Rome, cuju (similar to association football) in China, and polo in Persia, according to Wikipedia.
The earliest reference to hurling in Australia is related in the book “Sketches of Garryowen.” On 12 July 1844, a match took place at Batman’s Hill in Melbourne as a counterpoint to a march by the Orange Order. Reportedly, the hurling match attracted a crowd of five hundred Irish immigrants, while the Orange march shivered out of existence. In the opening scenes of the 2011 film Blitz, Jason Statham uses a hurley to beat up three youths who are trying to steal a car. Statham’s character is heard to say, “This, lads, is a hurley, used in the Irish game of hurling, a cross between hockey and murder”. Which brings us to Orwell’s opinion on the matter, serious sport has nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred and jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in unnecessary violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.
In a spirited refutation of this view, Brendan Gallagher, writing in Britain’s The Telegraph in July 2004 asserts, Sportsmen make great soldiers because they are generally fit, courageous, aggressive, skilled, self-sacrificing and disciplined. What Orwell overlooked is that most sportsmen bring a generosity of spirit, dignity and integrity to everything they do, including going to war. With few exceptions, they behave better on the sporting field than the rest of mankind do in their everyday lives and over the years they have taken those qualities into the battlefield. They raise the bar, especially when the going gets tough.
Writing in the New York Times in 2006, American author David Foster Wallace’s article Federer as Religious Experience, captures perfectly the reverence inspired by supreme sports-people, a top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke…His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, , first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor.yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Nadia Comăneci, first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor. Nadia Comăneci, first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor.
Only two years earlier I had been at North Wollongong Beach with my family. At that time, I was in reasonable physical shape and was sunning myself (and, yes, preening myself) on the sand. Then a procession of ancient Greek Gods, men and women of tremendous physique and beauty hove into view dwarfing mere mortals like me. This wasn’t the product of sunstroke but a contingent of Australian Olympians passing by. Some among this elite group occupying the pinnacle of sporting prowess become even larger in the public’s consciousness and attain the status of myth, of icon.
George Best, for many, occupied this special place. His handsome presence and devil-may-care attitude allied to a preternatural ability on the football pitch made him a star of the 1960s. Problems with alcohol and the excesses of an extravagant lifestyle were to dog him for the last decades of his life, about which he quipped memorably: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered”.
Penrith Gaels used to have a small room called the Antrim Lounge where photographs and posters on a variety of sports were on view. One of these was a signed photograph of George Best with Dennis Law, his friend and team mate, taken during the mid- 60s at Old Trafford. Of a Friday arvo, after work, I would repair to this sanctuary to enjoy a pint or two with my son who had been in Belfast in 2005 when George died in London’s Cromwell hospital from complications associated with his liver transplant. One afternoon in 2006, the conversation got around to song-writing and I said that I could write a song about where we were. I pointed to the photograph on the wall and said that it would feature in the verses. Furthermore, I boasted, you’ll feature too: Bullshit, he replied: