The title of this post is also the title of a chapter in J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’, which I am about to conscientiously type up for you. It so happens that I am reading this book and this chapter during the 2010 Soccer World Cup spectacle and the first section of this chapter offers pause for some interesting reflection:
In athletics, in foot races, it used to be the case that, when the judge at the finishing line could not tell who had won, he would declare a dead heat. The judge here stood for the common man – the common man with the keenest eye. When, in an athletic contest, the keenest common eye can discern no difference, then, we used to say, there is indeed no difference.
Similarly, in a game like cricket, the understanding used to be that when the umpire said that something had happened – the ball had touched the bat, for example – then for the purposes of the game it had indeed happened. Such understandings were in accord with the somewhat fictive character accorded to sporting contests: sport is not really life; what “really” happens in sport does not really matter; what matters instead is what we agree has happened.
Today, however, the outcomes of contests are decided by devices keener than the keenest human eye: electronic cameras divide each second into a hundred instants and save each instant in its frozen image.
The handover of the power of decisions to machines shows how far the nature of athletic contests, whose model used to be children’s play – the contestants played at being foes – and whose modus operandi used to be consensus, has been reconceived. What used to be play has now become work, and decisions about who wins and who loses have become potentially too important – that is to say, too costly – to be left to the fallible human eye.
The lead in this anti-social, anti-human turn was taken by horseracing, which despite being known as the sport of kings always had a questionable standing in the gallery of sports, both because the contestants were not human beings and because races were so nakedly a vehicle for betting. Simply put, deciding the result of a horserace was left to the camera because so much money rode on the result.
The abandonment of the old, “natural” ways of adjudicating in sport in favour of new, mechanical ways paralleled a larger-scale historical development: from sporting competition as a recreation for healthy young males (and to a lesser extent females), which members of the public with time to spare could, if they felt so inclined, watch for free, to sport as an entertainment staged for masses of paying spectators by businessmen employing professional contestants.
To the generation brought up under the new dispensation, laments over what has been lost are as uninteresting as laments for the demise of the wood-frame tennis racquet. Should the Jeremiahs therefore shut up? The obvious answer is Yes. Is there any sense in which the answer might be No?
In sport, even in modern sport, we look forward to equal contests. A contest whose outcome is a foregone conclusion does not engage us, save perhaps when the weaker contestant performs bravely enough to win our sympathetic admiration. For to face up bravely to a stronger rival is of course one of the lessons that sport, as a cultural institution, was invented to teach.
The confrontation between a nostalgic, backward-looking view of sport and the view that predominates today may have an analogous cultural value. That is to say, the argument that the past was better than the present cannot be won, but at least it can be bravely put.
From J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’.