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09 Jun 2003 00:00
There are two greetings used by members of Her Majesty’s sporting press when they greet each other on a foreign field at the start of an event.
One is: “This is the worst run ever!” This remark has fallen into disuse since the Olympics of 1996, which set new standards of incompetent administration.
It can still, however, be trotted out when some official fails to accord British journalists proper respect.
The second is: “These people are so parochial.” This comes after the first indication that the local media are going to go hysterical if their lot win.
This has not changed, because the world has not changed. Every sporting culture is parochial. Britain is no different. We are meant to care whether a girl from Kettering beats one from Kow-loon. And I do. I just don’t know why.
This brings us to the paradox of the United States, the most parochial country of all. This is a big week: the basketball finals began; the Stanley Cup to decide the ice hockey championship is in progress; baseball is in full cry.
All three sports are struggling to keep up with American football, the national sporting behemoth. Only recently it emerged that the TV ratings for basketball and ice hockey are down badly, in the case of hockey by 40%. This has something to do with a year in which dull teams from anonymous places are in both finals.
There are tennis and golf but no one cares which boring sister wins and the Tiger boom is fading. Americans are so dominant in both sports that national pride is rarely perceived to be at stake.
This seems to be a clue to the central fact about sport here: Americans do not get international competition in the way that other nations do. At the heart of British sporting consciousness is the fascination with contests against other countries. Sport of this kind has become a substitute for warfare.
If the US takes part in something, Americans expect to win. Otherwise they are not interested. If they had played cricket against Iraq for 150 years, I dare say they would understand the place better. Maybe we should reverse the theory and say that for Americans war is a substitute for international sport. Just a thought.
In the meantime there is a Test match starting this week and not a word about it in The Washington Post. These people are so parochial. —
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