Morning View: Rugby Triumph Showed How Sport Can Lift the Collective Spirit

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), October 22, 2001 | Go to article overview

Morning View: Rugby Triumph Showed How Sport Can Lift the Collective Spirit


IRELAND'S thrilling victory over England in Saturday's rugby international provided a huge number of sports fans on this island with moments of rich entertainment and satisfaction - and an interval of relief from the persistent and pernicious atmosphere of anxiety and division in other spheres.

At the edge of awareness was the realisation that the very staging of the match was proof that the foot-and-mouth crisis, which had caused its postponement, was now, almost certainly, behind us.

England, of course, were still champions at the end, with some English commentators invoking lack of match practice as excuse for the triumph of the Irish underdogs. But Ireland too could chew on its own 'if-only': the slip-up against Scotland cost them the prize.

The 'if-onlys' and 'what-abouts' are, as in dramas of other kinds, the great staple of sports-fan gossip, allowing endless fantasy speculation, vicarious exhilaration, and wild hopes for future exploits by the sporting celebrities themselves.

For millions of people, life is marked out in weekend-to-weekend, season-to-season schedules of thrilling contests under agreed rules. Sometimes the players break the rules and pay the penalties; sometimes fans go over the edge and mob violence is momentarily let loose. But, by and large, sport serves as a great safety valve for the pent-up energy of other frustrations, both individual and collective.

With rugby, everyone is happy, without prejudice to other issues and principles, to suspend all questions of territorial and ethnic division. In doing so, no one abandons other fiercely-held aspects of identity.

But the moments of collective focus are not irrelevant: they allow friendships to grow, and they allow us to see others as fellow human beings in a way that we might not, if we viewed them through the prisms of ethnic or nationalistic or denominational identity.

Sport, therefore, can act as a powerfully civilising influence on individual and collective relationships: to that extent, it is as impossible to keep sport and politics apart as it is to separate religion and politics. …

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