Sport defies the US game plan

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The Independent Online
My eye was caught by a headline in the International Herald Tribune the other day, saying: "British Miss Point of NBA Circus". I had no idea what this meant. So, of course, I read the story. That is why one reads foreign papers like the Tribune - to learn. Apparently, several top basketball teams had arrived in London, sponsored by McDonald's, to stage a tournament. But not enough people had turned out to watch. So the Tribune had run a story saying that we British missed the point of basketball.

In fact, as the writer, Ian Thomsen, pointed out, basketball is already big on the Continent, so it is only the British, of the Europeans, who cannot see the point. The British seem to believe, says Thomsen, that "basketball is essentially too easy, with goals dealt back and forth like cards from a deck. On the other side of the ocean, World Cup or not, Americans scoff at the idea of soccer games with no scoring at all. But the British majority, who believe staunchly in the less-is-more of soccer, will probably grow used to fast breaks and alley-oops just like they have got used to Big Macs, car phones, 'call-waiting' and multi-channel cable television."

It is not often you find a sportswriter using a column to score points off other cultures, and I felt almost inclined to defend the British here, until I realised that what Thomsen was doing was not attacking the British, but defending the Americans. The Americans have been desperate for many years to have one of their sports accepted abroad. They are conscious that there are games in the world like football, cycling and rugby which mean a lot to a lot of people except in America. They are aware that many games popular in the United States, such as golf and tennis, do not have American origins. They are conscious that the few games which are indigenous to America have never found favour outside. So when the British do not turn up to watch basketball, it irks them.

It irks them that the Americans have never managed to invent a game which has gone on to sweep around the world. American football ... baseball ... basketball ... cheer-leading ... ice hockey ... all of these have achieved a foothold outside the US, but have never really flourished away from the home belt. So, the Americans scratch their heads and look on amazed as the rest of the world persists in loving football, with its low scoring rate and sometimes no scoring rate.

They cannot see how any game which does not produce a lot of points, nor goals, nor runs, nor something, can possibly be any good. They cannot comprehend how cricket can be played for five days and still end in a draw.

Of course, the Americans are not alone in having games which are hard to export. From time to time, Channel 4 has enterprisingly brought us strange games from other countries - such as Australian rules football, Gaelic football, Japanese sumo wrestling and that funny form of tag from India, the name of which I can never remember.

Indeed, Channel 4 could be said to have invented a new game call "Guess the Rules", in which the competitor switches on the set to watch a foreign game and has to work out the rules of the game, the scoring system and even the country of origin. There are other games that I do not remember ever having seen on television, even in these global days, such as Thai kick-boxing and the Burmese game called chinlon but, as I do not have access to a non-stop sports channel, I may be behind the times here ...

Judging from Thomsen's list of things I am supposed to be used to, I certainly am behind the times. I have not got used to Big Macs. I hate Big Macs. I have not got used to car phones and multi-channel cable television.

And I am not even sure what "call-waiting" is. If, as I suspect, it is the unbearably smug woman, like a sort of female version of Michael Howard, who answers your telephone call with the message along the lines of "The person you have dialled knows you are calling but is talking to someone far more interesting, so you will have to wait a while, won't you?", then no, I have not got used to call-waiting and I personally would like to come round and grab call-waiting round the neck and strangle the living daylights out of call-waiting ...

I am sorry. I have fallen prey to the temptation to score points off the Yanks. But at least it shows I'm wrong. There is one sport that originated in the US, to spread throughout the world and become played everywhere: America-bashing. It is an easy game, too high-scoring to be really significant, but it is still a lot of fun.