Thursday, 12 July 2012

Applying literary theory to sporting contests

Why do people watch sport? Not a question you would think was in any way relevant to this blog, unless you believed that great sporting contests share many of the features of great literature.

So to return to the question. For some, of course, the reasons are self-explanatory and nothing to do with literature. There are the active sports(wo)men who study contests to improve their own game or to relate more closely to their role models. Then there are those who define themselves so strongly in terms of their fandom that they would never miss a match in which their team is involved. But what about the rest? What about the millions who routinely tune in to watch sporting contests simply as an alternative to another rerun of The Great Escape on a Saturday afternoon? What do they see in sporting contests that keeps them watching?

It was my sister who first put me onto the notion that sporting contests have much of the same structure and inherent narrative drive as great literature. Not necessarily the same sort of literature for each sport of course. Premier League football matches for me are like soap operas- episodes are scheduled regularly and, though each episode stands more or less alone there is a clear sense too of a narrative with longer timespans. Matches are peopled with a large cast whose key members are instantly familiar and whose onscreen and private lives it is sometimes difficult to untangle. The most exciting episodes end with a cliffhanger but there are frequently long periods which superficially resemble ordinary life (i.e. Sunday kickabouts) but are actually too carefully scripted for that.

Cricket matches are a different sort of literature altogether. More like rambling Victorian novels they seem initially immensely dry and tedious but then draw you in to their intricate web of tension and uncertainty. They are conveniently divided into four volumes, all involving the same characters and each leading into the next, though it is possible to engage with a single volume on its own. Sometimes the narrative is almost unbearably claustrophobic as line and length bowlers seek to pin the batsmen back and the poised, judgemental slip cordon looks on with ill-disguised glee. Occasionally a batsman seeks to break free, challenging the constricting bounds of social acceptability with a four or even a six, but we know that in the end conformity will win through and (s)he will be out. They will allow their defences to be broken down by the relentless accuracy of the jibes directed at them or they may be caught in the very act of social transgression itself and made to slump dejectedly to the poorhouse or debtors' prison that awaits beyond the boundary.

The Tour de France is perhaps closer to a Tarkovsky film, impenetrable to the uninitiated but redolent of pain, desperation and fear. Days follow a relentless, repetitive cycle whereby a small group launch themselves off the front of the peloton, ride themselves into exhaustion through the pitiless beauty of the alpine roads, temporarily burying their differences and working together in desperate, and nearly always doomed, attempt to stay away. In the peloton itself riders take turn at the front, burying themselves (it is a cycling term) to drag the hordes behind them. We see into their faces and can read nothing. Why do they do this? How do they keep going in the face of the pain that is destroying them? We do not know. We cannot know. Yet the road stretches on, relentlessly.

Yet it is tennis that is perhaps the purest example of sporting contest as work of literature. There is a protagonist and an antagonist held together in a fundamental conflict. Action progresses through a series of small conflict-resolution cycles, all set in the framework of the central conflict and building towards a final resolution. The best matches even follow the classic Shakespearean five-act dramatic structure (it's why women's tennis really should be in five sets too). 

Of course the question of who is the protagonist and who the antagonist is often a moot one, but focusing on it makes very clear just how similar a tennis match is to a Shakespearean tragedy. You see I don't think it depends on who you support, but rather on what you believe the stakes to be.

Take the recent Murray/Federer match for instance (not a proper five-acter I know, but you can't have everything). Clearly you could see Murray as the protagonist. A tragic story of a nation pinning their collective hopes on a flawed but brilliant hero. Can the truculent Scot conquer his demons and lift the pall of humiliation and despair that has blighted the nation for 76 years? Er, no.

On the other hand you could see Federer as the protagonist. This is the old chief, beaten almost into submission by the young, fit but ultimately soulless pretenders who have sought for so long to topple him from his rightful throne. For long and long he was down. Defeated and destroyed. Made to look old and out of touch and beyond redemption. Yet he has arisen again. Can he drive the barbarians from the gate one last time? Can his guile and his artistry, honed over the long bitter years of his reign, banish the energy drinks and the motivational coaches from his kingdom? Hell yes.

So there you go. I was hooked anyway. Or I would have been if I hadn't been trying to finish my novel at the time.

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