Adrian Chiles: Sport may not be tragic, but we like to pretend it is

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The Independent Online

A letter to her Her Majesty's Daily Telegraph about Paula Radcliffe last week: "Sir - What I found incredible was that the BBC deemed this 'tragedy' more newsworthy than the catastrophe unfolding in Sudan."

A letter to her Her Majesty's Daily Telegraph about Paula Radcliffe last week: "Sir - What I found incredible was that the BBC deemed this 'tragedy' more newsworthy than the catastrophe unfolding in Sudan."

The writer, not unusually for a Telegraph reader, was missing the point. No sports editor, or even the most committed Paula Radcliffe fan, or even Paula herself, would have equated her troubles with famine in Africa. Of course not.

But, on the other hand, of course they did. Because, as sports fans, the sick feeling of despair we felt on seeing her, if we're honest, wasn't a million miles from what we feel when we watch something horrible on the news, be it famine, pestilence or whatever.

Does that make us callous or just stupid? Well, neither. It's just that we have a highly-sophisticated ability to suspend disbelief. We're clever and brave enough to allow sport to sweep us up and transport us to a parallel world where joy and despair feel just as good and bad as they do in the real world we leave behind.

Those unable to make this leap of faith, those who just don't "get" sport, are to be pitied. Pitied for what they're missing out on. And pitied for their stupidity. How we endure the bleating of these fools: "It's all so pointless; I don't understand why you care; it's just thick men running about," etc, etc.

This is no better then me going to the cinema and waiting for the audience to gasp, laugh or weep. At which point I would spring to my feet and shout: "You fools! It's only make-believe! You don't think this is real do you? You must be simple! They're actors. It's all pretend. Morons!" And then I'd stalk out kissing the badge on my West Brom 1968 Jeff Astle cup-winning replica shirt, gesturing obscenely and snorting my contempt.

Stratford-upon-Avon, 2001. Branagh performs a fabulous Hamlet. Up I'd spring again "Eh, Ken. Who are you kidding? This lot seem to think you're the Prince of Denmark. Well done - you've taken them in. But not me mate. And yes, that uncle of yours did kill your dad. He's just pretending he didn't. In fact it doesn't matter anyway 'cos it's all pretend. And Ophelia, do stop blubbing. You're not really Ophelia and he's not really going mad. It's just Kenny having you on."

The suspension of disbelief you need to achieve to lose yourself in a painting, novel, film or play is exactly what you need to be passionate about sport.

And apart from kidding yourself that it's all really important, you usually need to kid yourself that the team or person you're following isn't just there to make up the numbers. If, deep down, hope wasn't clouding out experience, the only football clubs with any support at all would be Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. If those of us who supported anyone else were entirely rational beings we'd never bother going at all because we could be pretty sure it was going to bring us much more pain and disappointment than pleasure.

Given that we need this capacity for self-delusion to show up and watch the stuff in the first place, it's hardly surprising that our critical faculties desert us when we're there. Where else does the evidence of what you know and see in front of you become so entirely irrelevant? Listen to any football phone-in and you'll hear completely different interpretations of the same incident.

But the apotheosis of this is to be found in the urgent ramblings of the obviously deranged men who actually manage football teams. In post-match interviews they are at their most troubled. Examples of this are legion, but my favourite this season so far is Steve Bruce's reading of the incident where Robbie Savage sunk the sharpest bit of his elbow into Kezman's skull: "There was no malice whatsoever". When Savage got his ban, in Bruce's view, it was all our fault in the press. "It seems to be it's trial by television and media nowadays."

And when a crowd is drawn into this kind of madness the effect can be truly sinister - the howls of protest from the Greek crowd before the men's 200 metres final being about the best recent example. Could they not see how grotesque a spectacle that was? Of course not, they were sports fans like you and me.

Young children are much better at separating reality from make believe. My daughter was playing a game which involved laboriously building and lighting a pretend bonfire made out of pretend wood. "Careful," I said, "don't burn yourself."

"Daddy", she explained patiently, "it's only a game. It's only a pretend bonfire. I can't possibly burn myself."

Precisely. So next time you hear your team, your sport, your passion being derided, just explain as gently as you can to the poor misguided soul: "Look, I know it's not important really. It's just pretend."