The terrorists who tried to slaughter the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore yesterday had no love of sport, but as they fired their grenade launchers they knew well enough what it means to so much of the rest of the world – and how fragile is its beauty, even its existence, in these violent times.
It is a terrible knowledge in the wrong minds and in a way it was both a wonder and a mercy that its lethal incubation had taken so long. Indeed, for many familiar with the great events of the sporting calendar, who have for long accepted the paraphernalia of security as a routine part of life, what happened in Pakistan was simply Doomsday delayed.
The truth, however it has been suppressed, is that ever since the death squad of Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics 37 years ago we have feared its possibility. Back in 1972, the shock was so great that many tried almost to pretend that it hadn't happened. "The Games will go on," insisted Avery Brundage, the American plutocrat who was head of the International Olympic Committee. Athletes trained on, running past the German police sniper emplacements, and when the Games were over, brightly-coloured balloons were sent into the sky at the closing ceremony.
Though the Sri Lankan cricketers fortunately escaped death, the fatal casualties coming from a brave but plainly inadequate Pakistan security detail, the sound of those first shots and explosions said that what those balloons represented had been shot down in one dreadful fusillade. The balloons said that the sporting life would stride on beyond the carnage of the Munich massacre. And in a way it did, precariously and assailed by politics and drugs and anarchy on the football terraces, but until yesterday Doomsday had been not re-visited.
Now that it has, the landscape of sport is plainly a much darker and more menacing place. What happened in Lahore, apart from re-announcing the utterly indiscriminate force of fanaticism, was shatter the romantic belief, nervously re-built in the hours and the days, the months and the years since that bleak Munich dawn, that somehow sport could be separated from what was happening in the real world.
Certainly it was a hope that was besieged often enough. Four years after Munich there was the African boycott of the Montreal Olympics. As athletes of the remaining nations paraded round the Olympic stadium, young African athletes and boxers wept as they made their way to the airport at the bidding of their politicians. In Moscow in 1980 the Americans stayed away because of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. The Russians and the Romanians responded with their own boycott in Los Angeles in 1984. But if this was a prolonged assault on the meaning of international sport, and its dwindling hope that it could indeed remain somehow separate, the effect was maiming rather than murderous.
Yesterday murder returned to sport – and in a place where concern has been growing steadily down the years. The Australians have long considered Pakistan too dangerous to tour and the particular fury yesterday of Imran Khan, the former Test captain and now a frontline politician, was that Sri Lanka had reaped such a reward for their willingness to step into the place of India, who decided that after the recent outrages in Mumbai they could not fulfil their commitment to tour. "I am ashamed," said Khan. "The security was a disgrace."
The true horror, though, goes so far beyond untypical slackness by the fiercely drilled Pakistani police and army. It also now invalidates the argument of all those of us who urged England's cricketers to complete their commitments in India in the wake of Mumbai. After much agonising, they did indeed return to play two Test matches, but this was before the challenge was to do anything more than announce themselves as part of the real world.
Now the cricketers of the world cannot contemplate a visit to Pakistan for the foreseeable future without the real fear that they have been specifically targeted. Yesterday the cricket authorities were sceptical about the chances of staging the planned World Cup of 2011 in Pakistan. They were speaking of the need for neutral venues, perhaps Dubai, and when they did that, they were confessing to the new and terrible vulnerability of sport.
Pakistan, a passionate and brilliant cricket nation, might now be obliged to watch their favourite sport on television. Their game, one which for so long had been a single link with their fierce rivals India, a point of enduring communication even when their armies gathered at the borders, had simply been taken away from them in a few minutes of gunfire and death.
Here, today, is where sport rests so uneasily. It is one thing to be threatened by commercialism and greed, and something quite different to have its existence threatened by the fact that its ability to transcend every boundary of prejudice, to touch every corner of the world, makes it such a natural victim for those whose purpose is precisely the opposite.
Yesterday every fear in this matter came billowing to the surface. Every illusion about the invincibility of sport, its emotion, what it does to the human spirit at its moments of greatest expression, was shot down.
Where does it go from here? Like the rest of a troubled world, it has to step with extreme vigilance. It can no longer believe so confidently in its own strength. First Munich, now Lahore. That the second invasion should have come where it did is not so surprising – but no less devastating, because cricket, as Khan said yesterday, is another religion, another faith in another set of values.
Even when India and Pakistan pushed for nuclear arms with each other in mind, even when they rioted in the streets and recalled the lost blood of the past, they did indeed play cricket. They shared a belief in the beauty of a game that they had been taught was about manners and grace, patience and skill, and they were never so absorbed as when they cricketers did battle.
Now relief from such enmity, and all the old scars, is for the moment beyond redemption – and beyond the sub-continent all of sport has to look for new levels of protection. The desperate reality is that Munich did indeed happen. In Lahore, a mercifully reduced reproduction came yesterday and left blood on the pavement and fear in the hearts of those who liked to think that whatever the world would bring, it could not touch sport, not truly, not in a way that might threaten its role as the supreme diversion of the common people.
Of course sport will survive because it is not something that is created outside some of the most basic instincts of young people to compete and enjoy whatever talent they have been given, and when you have enjoyed pleasure it will never leave you. However, there is no point in denying that in its highest form, on the international stage, it has never been under such grievous threat.
Sri Lanka's cricketers did not go to Pakistan unaware that there might be dangers, and who would know better than these representatives of an island so long torn by war of the threat of terrorism. But they went, anyway, as an act of faith – and in the spirit of friendship. It is something all of sport now has to resolve to do. Just as soon, perhaps, as it regains its nerve... and recognises both its own power, and that fragile beauty.