It may simply be that I am getting grumpier as I get older, but it does seem like the standard of sports commentary—and even sports writing—is declining. One of the symptoms is an increasing reliance on well-worn clichés at the expense of original thought. When it comes to my pet peeves, right at the top of the list is comparing sport to war, and acting as if it is a matter of life and death.
Athletes who have been to war—and Australia has a long and storied list of ones who have, and plenty who never came back—have often pointed out the difference. It’s no secret that one of the reasons that cricketers Keith Miller and Sir Donald Bradman didn’t see eye to eye was that Miller thought the Don took the game far too seriously.
When Miller was asked about dealing with pressures of sport, he famously answered by saying that real pressure involved a German fighter and a certain part of his anatomy. He defied his captain’s orders to bowl bouncers to a fellow veteran in a warm-up match, and when he captained cared more about entertaining than victory. They were both great cricketers, but were wired differently—while Bradman played to win, Miller played for the joy of it.
After surviving a real war, it’s no wonder that the stakes seemed lower to Miller when it came to a game, and that each match was a celebration of life. But at every level of sport, from professionals earning millions to weekend warriors lucky to get a decent sandwich for afternoon tea, it can be easy to get caught up in the urge to win, and forget that in the end it’s just a game. It may be disappointing to lose, but the sting fades and you move on.
That doesn’t mean sport isn’t important, or doesn’t matter. It has the power to change lives, and even the world, by inspiring people and transcending cultural and national barriers. From the soccer matches played between opposing troops in World War I during truces, to cricket sometimes being the only real bridge between India and Pakistan when tensions were mounting, it can even make a start towards turning enemies into friends.
As sport becomes more commercialised, and the rewards for success become more lucrative, the focus on winning above all else grows. And this filters down to every level of sport, because we emulate the behaviour and attitudes of our role models. But perhaps we should take a moment to remember that—though it may be one of those tired clichés—it really is true that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. In the end, war is a matter of death, but sport should be a celebration of life.