Sport is one of life’s most appealing stairways to immortality. Stripped of its tribal context, it is all about life at its resplendent best; all about beauty; all about everything that turns our stultifyingly mundane work-a-day life into something rich with meaning and purpose, something that offers us a chance to soar to the empyrean on the shoulders of gifted young men and women who appear at once immortal and indestructible.
It is because of this that sport is the exact opposite of death; it is because of this that great athletes offer us life-enhancing experiences time and time again.
All of this, despite the fact that as a metaphor death is ever-present in sport — never far away. Sudden death; death overs; life or death game; slaughter of the innocents; massacre of the meek… it goes on and on.
Certainly, sportswriters deal with death almost as often as obituary writers; the difference is that harmless, high-adrenaline, tight-rope-walking, multi-megawatt sporting death is not death at all, but something that contributes hugely to sport’s enduring appeal and its seat-edge thrills.
Yet, there are times when something goes so horribly wrong in sport that you come to realise the sheer impotence of language itself in the face of its monstrosity. The Australian batsman Phil Hughes’s demise is a tragedy that is so uncommon in the entire palette of sporting experience that you are momentarily rendered speechless.
What can you say about a 25-year-old dying as a consequence of doing what he loved doing the most in a non-body contact sport? That it was a freak accident? That it was something that once again reminds us about the hidden dangers of the gentleman’s game? Or, was it merely a case of random cruelty of fate?
Two decades ago, sitting in a quiet corner of a fashionable, upmarket Italian restaurant in London’s West End, a great athlete — one of the finest in his sport, and among the handful of all-time-greats I’ve had the good fortune to know — told me something that seemed to capture the very essence of what I am trying to convey in this column.
“You know why I love this whole bloody business? You know why I will miss it when I retire?” he asked after a couple of glasses of expensive red wine.
He then paused. After a long silence, he said, “The greatest thrill [in playing the sport he played] is in experiencing death without really dying. There is nothing quite like it.”Riveting spectacle
Of course, sportsmen die a thousand deaths every passing season, and live to tell the tale. It is the very essence of the business of sport, something woven into its narrative; and very often the reason why sport is such a riveting spectacle.
In sport, in different ways, but surely not for different reasons, performers and spectators alike seek ‘death’ and revel in its glory, in the searing intensity of the moment.
This is precisely why, ironically, both the athlete and the viewer are most alive during ‘death’. For death means life at its most exalted level. It is a moment when thoughts freeze, jaws drop, eyes open wide — a moment of supreme wonder when the performer, the performance and the audience are in some sort of communion. It is as transcendental a moment as you might experience in a purely material universe without having to seek recourse to the mumbo-jumbo of the supernatural realm.
And this is precisely why sport has a spontaneity that might be entirely lacking in the theatrical performance of a play. You know what happens to King Lear and Macbeth before it all unravels on the stage. But sport doesn’t surrender its climactic secrets quite as easily.
This is all very well until harsh, brutal reality hits you in the head like a hard hammer blow. For right up until that moment, we have been living in a sort of fantasy world, choosing to keep death — as in end of life — conveniently at a safe distance.
In the end, truth becomes the greatest mortal enemy of the great joy we have been seeking in sport. And what a shattered, deluded lot we turn into once we come face to face with bitter truth!
Then again, ever since the legendary Greek messenger/ runner Pheidippides collapsed and died in Athens in 490 BCE after conveying the good news of the Greek victory over the marauding Persians, athletes and death have inhabited the same neighbourhood, so to say.
“I don’t want my children to become too fond of me,” said the Italian Formula One driver Albert Ascari, world champion in 1952 and 1953 and going for his third straight title in 1954.
“I may not come back some day and they’ll suffer less if I keep them a bit at arm’s length,” he said. He couldn’t have been more prescient. He lost his life on the Monza track a year later.
But Formula One, right up until the peerless Ayrton Senna’s death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, had never been a stranger to death; nor indeed extreme sports such as sky surfing, mountain boarding and speed skiing.
“Motor racing is dangerous. But what is danger?” asked the Formula One driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958.
“Climbing a mountain is dangerous. Crossing a road is dangerous. One cannot frame regulations to make everything safe,” he said philosophically. He died a few weeks later on track.Different ball-game
But then, cricket is a whole different ball-game and death might have been the last thing on Phil Hughes’s mind when he stepped out of the pavilion at Sydney on Tuesday.
Yet, it is time now to acknowledge that not even cricket is as safe a sport as we might have imagined it was 72 hours ago.