History in the maiming

There’s nothing like a big shiny trophy to give closet nationalists the sporting hots. The same shabby politicos who spent their days at Patrice Lumumba University struggling through the all-in-pictures version of Das Kapital and decrying sport as the pastime of the bourgeoisie now embrace victories as proof of their nation’s manifest destiny, and their God-given duty to extend their term of office by a decade or thereabouts.

The Springboks’ mercifully early exit from the Rugby World Cup last year no doubt thwarted the hastily dusted-off anthropologists who were being lined up to tell us the Africanist truth about the sport; of its origins as a Nubian fertility ritual, how the rugby traditions of ancient Sudan were lost over time as none of their neighbours wanted to play with them, the Yoruba to the west being too busy inventing cricket while the pharaohs of the Nile were booked solid with golfing engagements.

It is disappointing that President Thabo Mbeki’s court historian failed to unearth the origins of baseball during the president’s touch-and-go visit of that blighted armpit of Caribbean squalor, Haiti: on an island that combines an exotic blend of imported voodoo and organically grown racist violence with an inexhaustible enthusiasm for hitting things with clubs, it seems certain that priestesses drenched in chicken blood have been slugging shrunken human heads into the bleachers for generations.

Indeed, in 1915, when one of Haiti’s rulers was chopped into tiny pieces by his constituents and carried through the streets, the most sought-after presidential cutlet must have been the head, with the new generalissimo eagerly awaiting the inaugural pitch at the Port-au-Prince stadium.

But perhaps one is being too harsh. It was, after all, colonisation — only 112 years in the past by 1915 — that forced the oppressed masses to turn their president into sirloin, and as usual one needs point the finger north to Europe and England.


England, the first evil empire, worse than the Philistines, the Aztecs, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Mongols and the Dutch all rolled into one, and the people responsible for plague, Hitler, fire-bombing, Jamie Oliver, human sacrifice, Merchant Ivory films and Saudi Arabia. Surely those pasty expansionists have an immense revisionist mythology built around their national sports by now, three centuries after stealing them from Africa?

That would certainly be the case if Britons knew any history. David versus Goliath? Weren’t that when Becks took on the Arsenal all by himself? Yer, 3-1, innit? The past — that obscure and sinister period before 1999 — has become a steaming heap of sports trivia. In pubs around Britain punters reflect on the Cuban Missile Crisis, those breathless hours when it seemed that Wolverhampton Wanderers were going to pay the $500 transfer fee of nippy midfielder Miguel ‘Mojo” Morales of the Havana Hurricanes, only to back out at the last minute…

Yes, it’s surprisingly unsatisfying being a revisionist historian in a society that thinks the Renaissance is a French station wagon and the Enlightenment is a weight-loss pill. The Englishman is happy to live in the moment, to treasure Jonny Wilkinson, misspelled name and all, and to dream of taking the Ashes from Australia (a country strangely populated by white English-speaking people who play cricket — doesn’t evolution do the darndest things?).

Naturally India’s heroics in Sydney this week will cause an eruption of frantic nationalism and patriotism in India, a country that needs nationalism and patriotism the way napalm needs a Zippo.

Had India won the Test series, Pakistan could have expected an immediate nuclear strike. By the weekend Indian troops would have crossed into China, and Bangladesh, that lovely brown lake, would have been unwilling host to India’s navy, all three rubber-duckies in full battle readiness with twin mounted flintlock muskets primed and ready.

Mercifully, Steve Waugh preserved global stability by batting out a draw, but nevertheless one should expect a series of revelations by New Delhi over the next few weeks: an unpublished concerto found in a Mumbai brothel proving conclusively that the alleged Austrian was in fact called Venkat Amadeus Mozart, a cobbler’s son who wrote both The Magic Hookah and The Arranged Marriage of Figaro when he was 14, at least a year younger than any Pakistani prodigy; the Indian Space Agency showing photographs taken by its Habeldas Telescope of what it claims is the goddess Kali, currently dealing death in the X-26B galaxy, 152 light years away.

The past just isn’t what it used to be.

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