If you bend a powerful steel spring and abruptly let it go, what do you get? A Muhammad Ali left jab. It flickered out, like the tongue of a snake, six of them in a single second. True? Probably not but I heard it somewhere as a boy. Anyway, who cares, sometimes in sport the legend is more fun than fact.
I first met the fighter in a Kolkata flat in Alipore. My friend’s dad had a projector and old fight film and on a whitewashed brick wall he and Joe Frazier were locked in some violent, soundless dance. Now there’s a “live” camera everywhere, in huddles, in some changing rooms, a microphone on Olympic diving boards so you can hear the diver’s steps, and TVs bursting with sports channels. As kids we craved more “live” sport, now it’s like an avalanche.
I was thinking of this while in Dehradun earlier this month. I was settled in front of my mother’s TV, scribbling notes on my dad’s old letterheads, staying awake through the last 30 holes of the Masters on Sunday, which is when the text arrived from a pal.
“Phew, really hope you are watching.”
Now Rinku Singh has hit five sixes.
Somewhere on another channel there is always someone doing something else. Usually fantastic. Summer McIntosh is breaking world records. Stephen Curry is sinking the world. Shohei Ohtani is pitching. Gervonta Davis is saying “Abso-f******-lutely” when asked if he’s the face of boxing. Sifan Hassan is stopping mid-race and still winning the first marathon she enters.
It’s impossible to keep up. Can you?
Do you feel out of touch? Inexpert? Or just blissfully fatigued?
Have you ever watched Bryce Harper play, Kaori Sakamoto spin or Sam Kerr score? I have only seen one.
Do you have time to reread old Gary Smith columns, Amit Kamath on chess or Clayton Murzello’s lovely tributes to local legends?
We don’t rise to watch an art show at midnight or attend the opera at 3am. Almost nothing else happens “live” on TV at these times except sports, beamed to its bleary-eyed troops from multiple geographies. Erma Bombeck, the humorist who wrote a syndicated column titled At Wit’s End long ago, insisted that “if a man watches 16 consecutive quarters of (American) football, he can be declared legally dead”. Now we are all zombies.
There are no seasons now, just everything, everywhere, all at once. First rounds of badminton. Qualifiers of some Grand Slams. The balloon World Cup finals. Someone resetting someone else’s jaw in a cage. The online portal Statista notes that in 2017 there were 134,000 hours of sporting programming available in the US. It’s extraordinary that we have time left for any other life.
One night, while flirting with the Indian Premier League, I noticed there was football on in the Netherlands, England, Spain and Italy while clay people were jousting on Tennis TV on my iPad. But too much sport isn’t just the unfolding competition, it’s the books, the documentaries (so many lame, like tennis’ Break Point and golf’s Full Swing), the post-match interviews on YouTube (Daniil Medvedev riffing on fair play) and the historic clips on Instagram. Last seen was Mike Tyson, emotional, half-snarling, “I’m a f****** student of war, I know all the warriors, from Charlemagne, Achilles... I was an annihilator, that’s all I was born for, now those days are gone, it’s empty, I’m nothing...”
It’s dazzling and dizzying because there’s always something new, like the world champion indoor skydiver I met last month and the gifted kitefoiler the month before, and now I am learning their lingo and surfing through videos on techniques I can barely fathom. Sport is greedy, hyperbolic, mostly absent of conscience, but it’s also always a trip because skill never gets tiring, its shine doesn’t fade, the cruelty still cuts, the romance still beckons. We have seen fast before and yet Carlos Alcaraz feels like he has pinched Hermes’ winged sandals.
“How?” we keep asking, and even athletes don’t have the answers. So we keep watching. “Do you consider yourself to be a genius in tennis?” an interviewer asks Becker in the documentary Boom! Boom! The World Vs Boris Becker and he replies, “Sometimes I do.” When he’s two sets down, he explains, “I don’t know where I can get the strength from to keep my head and stay cool and then still make the point. That’s often a mystery to me too.”
Too much sport can grate, of course, for there’s so little time to enjoy anticipation or later sit in reflective silence, for we are casually flicking channels like we swipe our phone screens. Modern sport sees no value in memory, only in what’s next as the past becomes a blur. Another city, another game, another “blockbuster”, another “must-win” match, another set of fatigued commentators trying to turn the everyday into the meaningful. Even Rohit Sharma can’t remember what they had decided for the toss on a particular day.
There’s no mythology any more, no tales flecked with exaggeration at every retelling, like Björn Borg, whose resting heart rate—35?—seems to get lower every decade. Facts are essential but legends give heroes a different dimension. Now we know everything about them, so much of it we would rather not.
Still, it seems churlish to complain, for in a way we are caught in the midst of a Louvre of moving images (camerapeople are the least applauded people in sport). Anyway, sportswriters muttering about too much sport is akin to librarians putting a ceiling on books. I told my mother one day of all the riches now available to us but I swear she, 90, politely smirked. We once saw a bit of sport too, she said, like the India-Great Britain Olympic hockey final in 1948.
It wasn’t on TV, I ventured.
“I know,” she replied patiently. “I was there.”
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.
Also read: Everywhere sport goes, words follow