The tragedy of Dunblane brought about finally the realisation that sport does not matter much in the wider scheme of things
Thursday 04 September 1997
In the enormous reverberation of last weekend's tragic event, it should not be forgotten that other awful opportunities to put sport into proper perspective have either been ignored or soon forgotten.
As I recall it now, there was no suggestion that British sporting activities should be respectfully suspended following the Dunblane murders or when a mountain of coal waste came down to take the lives of more than a hundred children in the Welsh village of Aberfan.
Both events made me weep but the more recent tragedy of Dunblane - and I guess the passing of time has something to do with this - brought about finally the realisation that sport does not matter very much in the wider scheme of things. The terrible news from Dunblane reached me in Las Vegas shortly before a contest for the world heavyweight championship. Given half a chance, I would have abandoned an assignment that no longer had my full attention.
Something similar came to mind when it was decided to continue with the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico only eight months after an earthquake devastated large sections of Mexico City, claiming more than 30,000 victims. Back from assessing the damage to installations, a BBC producer, now retired, told of bodies being torn from the wreckage so that work could begin on the restoration of a television complex. "It made me sick," he said. "To stage the World Cup there is utterly immoral."
There have been many occasions over the years, increasingly so these days, when I have grown irritated and fed up with sport, even though it is a bit presumptuous to be irritated with issues that do not seem to bother many people.
The best advice I was given as a starter in this trade was to take the job seriously - but not myself. I have tried to abide by this, if not always to the satisfaction of previous employers.
Sometimes, this led to quite nasty verbal encounters. Once, in an aggressive tone, and immediately after the match, I was asked to explain how England's football team had managed to lose in Switzerland. The question, in essence stereotypical, was: "How did they manage to lose against a bunch of waiters and clockmakers?"
"You tell me," I replied.
"No, you tell me," came the answer. "You are supposed to be the expert."
A Canadian with whom I was once associated used to say that "ex" is something in the past and "spurt" is a spray that never made it, but that is another story.
What I'm going on about here is something that Hugh McIlvanney summed up perfectly when he described sport as a "magnificent irrelevance". Unfortunately, that truth is all too often ignored in the language of commentary and reporting. Apart from calamities that result in death or serious disability, nothing in sport should be referred to as tragic.
Gareth Southgate's appearance in a television commercial based on his crucial penalty miss in the semi- finals of Euro 96 was objected to by a sports columnist on the grounds that he was capitalising on a national tragedy. This was quite ridiculous.
Success in sport can lift countries and communities but care should be taken to ensure that it is not invested with too much importance. This is made no easier by the studious manner in which some self- anointed people continue to regard sport as evidence of retarded development.
I have never come across a defeat in sport that has justified more than fleeting anguish. In the context of life itself it ought not to matter over much to a spectator, whatever the depth of his or her affiliations.
It did not take the death of Diana, Princess of Wales to remind me that there is a limit to sport's relevance. If I did not know it before, I knew it when more than 40 protesting students were murdered in Mexico City shortly before soaring doves of peace were released there to announce the 1968 Olympic Games.
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