The language of grief

The sports pages are a metaphor for these times

COVID-19 has affected every sphere. At the Readers’ Editor Office, we had to stop readers from attending our editorial meetings and also cancel the Open House that we had planned to celebrate 50 years of this newspaper in Bengaluru. Apart from a perceptible decline in letters and calls, there is also pronounced anxiety everywhere. People are fervently hoping that this pandemic will end soon. This hour of crisis may also be used as an hour of reflection.

Physicist Freeman Dyson, who died early this year, was fond of reminding everyone about two different kinds of scientists: birds and frogs. Some scientists are birds who fly high to survey the broad vistas and establish unexpected links between different bits of the landscape. Others are frogs who prefer to be close to the ground, focussing on minute details. These two are not opposing trajectories; they are complementary paths.

If applied to journalism, Dyson’s classification may put most Editors in the bird category, but the Readers’ Editor in the frog category. An internal news ombudsman views and evaluates the world mainly through the pages of the newspaper. COVID-19 is hurting us on all fronts. From crippling our economy to immobilising us, the ramifications of the pandemic are beyond our comprehension. It may take a month or two to quantify the loss. In this hour of unknown hardship, the sports pages seem to be a metaphor for our times.

No sports events

There is a moratorium on sporting events. Some observers say that the 2020 Olympics to be held in Tokyo in July may be postponed. Sports writers usually compete with each other to grab the precious space for their reportage. When politics polarises people, it is sports that helps to break the silos, despite attempts by hyper-nationalists to inject jingoism in sports too.

I asked the Sports Editor, K.C. Vijaya Kumar, about how his team is managing when there is no sporting event to report. “Sports pages ideally thrive on kinetic energy through live reportage of matches supplemented with action-photographs. The other added elements are a sprinkling of analysis, a few features, and the odd pinch of nostalgia as and when a significant event’s anniversary comes to the fore. But largely the sports pages are of the here and now, of who won a match, of who scored the winning goal or the championship-winning forehand or the game-changing blistering hundred. But when sport ceases as it has in these grave times of the coronavirus pandemic, the sports pages are plunged into a vacuum,” he said.

With sports having hit the pause button globally, there is a dearth of live-action content. Understandably the sports pages had to be scaled down from three to two and the Sudoku grid was moved from the world page to the sports pages. “Even the feature-driven Weekend Sport page that appears on Saturdays, with its look-ahead perspective, well-curated by Senior Deputy Editor S. Ram Mahesh and embellished by Deputy National Design Editor S. Kannan, had to be suspended for now. Besides the periscope-gaze, reporters are also looking back with awe as anniversaries are culled out and written about, while the sports desk, headed by R. Narayanan, provides support through archival images and graphics,” said Mr. Vijaya Kumar.

Creating hope where there is despair

From George Orwell’s pithy article, “The sporting spirit” to Jorge Luis Borges biting one-liner — “Soccer is popular because stupidity is popular” — we have had criticisms of sport over the last century. What these thinkers did not bargain for was the possibility of suspension of sporting activity itself. In this bleak time, it is important to recall Nelson Mandela’s observation about sports. He said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.”

Sports journalism informs us that bleak realities do not mean despair alone. They suggest possibilities and potentials, alternatives and optimism. The absence of sporting events has forced the sports team to remember and reflect on multiple aspects of sport — from aesthetics to skills — that make the world of games an integral part of our life. In a sense, it is a language of grief that generates space for empathy, social action and shared values, which in turn create space for hope and transformation.


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