Tragedies to touch each of us

NOT even a climate of general violence as there is in the world today, the harrowing evidence of inhumanity that floods our television screens, can prepare us for the tragedies that have recently invaded sport.

They are beyond comprehension, shocking even people whose attention is seldom diverted by the passing parade, who never take a ringside seat at the circus. That the ultimate price should be paid in sport emphasises the larcenous nature of death.

Even for those who achieve the pinnacles of sporting achievement, acclaim is always likely to have a hollow ring, the slow torture of nostalgia accompanying an acute realisation of anti- climax. But a morbid sense of mortality before the gift has been eroded by time, before careers are cast into memory, is something else.

To receive in succession news of the tragedies that unfolded in Europe last week was to be reminded once more of the peril that exists in sport, especially for those who perform close to the edge. Theirs is an extortion of courage and will beyond any of our measure.

Sure we understand the risks taken in the boxing ring, at the wheel of a racing car and astride a jumping horse, but they are obscured by cumulative thrill and the dross of hyperbole. They sink beneath the level of consciousness by way of familiarity or deliberate suppression. The majority of fans, however many decades have been invested in their obsession, remain oblivious even to the probability of anguish and pain.

And many performers, seduced by ambition and ego, do, in the words of Dylan Thomas, learn too late that they caught the sun in flight and winged it on its way.

Recently, on radio, I heard the former Tottenham Hotspur and England centre-forward, Bobby Smith, tell of privately and secretly receiving injections to numb the pain of an injury that threatened his appearance in the 1961 FA Cup final against Leicester City. Today, he is on crutches, riddled with arthritis.

A British boxer of some renown, a former title contender, recalls being persuaded to enter the ring with a left hand made useless by an injury in training.

Affirming that he would have fought on had the injury occurred in the first round, he was told to think it was already over.

Impressions of sport do not accommodate such things. Above all they do not accommodate death and permanent disablement. Thus the terrible events that took Bradley Stone, Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, and left Declan Murphy clinging to life, are repugnant to the human condition.

Because of transcending prominence, a gift so sublime that it required no understanding, Senna's death reached out to all, uniquely shocking. Before us was the metaphor stripped down to its bare, chilling essentials, the ultimate emblem for all that can happen in sport.

Senna's career had an epic quality and there was betrayal in the 12 years that had separated motor racing from tragic visitation. Immediately, there was a suspension of belief.

I knew none of these people: that is to say I had never engaged them in private conversation. And yet I knew them well. In their awful fate I saw the fate of others.

Those of us who have grown up in and around sport must always guard against the temptation to indulge in an overkill of sentimentality. What are the perils of sport when set against the horror of widespread human suffering, the grim images that rise up from Bosnia and Rwanda?

Sport is a thing of choice, not of imperative, a world unto itself, replete with pettiness and trivial distortion. A fantasy world of popular idols, status symbols, and yet offering vicarious release from an oppressively rationalised society.

But that people are prepared to run terrible risks in it provides a real and vital understanding of the human spirit.