The Roar: ‘Sport is not just a vital distraction, it’s a crucial comfort’

The roar from the crowd echoed triumphantly through the stadium. The mood was one of nervous excitement. Thirty minutes in and Germany were yet to break the deadlock; the partisan French crowd fancied their luck against the reigning World Champs.

A large bang precipitates the roar. “Regard! Si jolie!”a few fireworks to lighten the mood, perhaps. Something to spur on the French football team that cold November night.

Only they weren’t fireworks. And we all know what happens next. The news trickles through, on phones, on social media, a police helicopter frantically whirring above. 129 dead.

“Allons enfants de la Patrie.” At first it’s just a murmur, “Arise, children of the Fatherland.” The volume rises. “Le jour de gloire est arrivé!” rings the crowd, defiantly. “The day of glory has arrived.” Soon the stadium is alive.

La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, beautiful at the best of times, so heart-wrenchingly poignant now. The crowd, fearful, confused, stay put, awaiting instructions. So too do the two football teams of highly paid, highly connected, and with every opportunity to leave, footballers. They too remain. Thousands of individuals, acting as one.

The power of sport. Often evoked, rarely meaningful. On occasion, however, the old cliché rings true. On a day, a weekend, that sent panic through the Western world, that world searched for solace. Something to take their minds away from the terrible, unexpected proceedings that night in Paris. Thousands of miles away, two cricket teams were gearing up to provide just that.

“The cricket is not just a vital distraction, Russell, it’s a crucial comfort,” wrote Robert McLiam Wilson, holed up, fearful, in Paris, but following The Guardian‘s live blog of the day’s play between Australia and New Zealand.

“Everyone is afraid,” Wilson continued. “You reach for any solace. I watched Aussie cricket the night after the Charlie Hebdo attack and found it incredibly consoling. It was something about the Australian sunlight, it’s promiscuous optimism. And the sheer, pointless beauty of cricket.”

“The sheer, pointless beauty of cricket.” For what is cricket but a pointless pursuit of leather across a field? But a form of hollow entertainment? A vacuous celebration of the rawer characteristics of human nature. For what is sport?

Sport has a power. A power to take minds away from the harsh reality. Long associated with positive endorphins, sport too has the power to evoke a passion and a fire that can bring hundreds, thousands, of contrasting individuals together for a blissful moment – a few minutes, hours, sometimes a day.

As David Warner stroked, drove and thumped his way past 250, the power of that feat brought the crowd to its feet, as he – and they – basked in this moment of triumph. Arms aloft, with helmet and bat raised towards the heavens, Warner celebrated in a style that he has done for almost a year.

For Warner, it was a personal tribute, to a good friend, lost, freakishly – unexpectedly – in the heat of sporting battle. A tribute to Philip Hughes; sport – a vehicle to channel that grief. For McLiam Wilson and others, it was a moment to take minds off the tragedy unfolding in Paris. Sport has that power – to unite, to remember, or to forget – an individual, a nation, an event. Last Saturday that power worked its magic.

There are times in the field of play when we make ourselves believe that nothing else matters, that what happens on the pitch really is a matter of life and death. Yet sport, unless for a moment of error, or a freak accident, will never be anything more than ‘mock combat’. More ‘mock’ than ‘combat’.

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!” War, though often mimicked, is not sport. In Gallipoli, during the First World War, the battle between the Turks and Anzacs proved fierce and the death toll high. Yet the relationship throughout remained civil. Token gifts, photographs, cigarettes – all exchanged during the heat of battle.

In sport, the same occurs, but the order is reversed – hostilities, sledging, manipulation arise during play. The friendly exchange is at the end, after the heat, after the fight; the beer in the changing rooms. That is the reality of sport. Death is the reality of war.

Sport does, however, have a place in war. As an antidote, a release, a moment of light relief. From the darkest depths often come the strongest shows of unity; nothing better encompasses this than the simplicity of sport. As the English and French football teams lined up against each other on Tuesday, affected emotionally, some personally, by last week’s bombings, a spine-tingling show of unity unfolded. The two teams, backed by a healthy Wembley crowd – predominantly English – roared, sung, and stumbled upon the words once again of that evocative anthem, La Marseillaise. “Aux armes, citoyens!” rang the anthem once more. “To arms, citizens!

On Christmas Day 1914, amid the bloody trenches of Northern France and in a war earlier promised to “be over by Christmas”, soldiers of the opposing British and German armies organised an impromptu kickabout. “The Christmas Truce of 1914” was an opportunity to forget the fighting, the bloodshed, the death toll – to channel it instead into a competitive, yet harmless game of football. For one brief moment, the two sides united in this innocent pursuit.

Think too, of the magic of Sir Don Bradman. Batting his way – and that of his nation – to triumph while around him the world was falling apart, stuck in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Remember as well the champion race horse, Phar Lap. He caught the public’s imagination in that era, enabling punters, briefly, to forget the travails around them. The Afghanistan cricket team, in an improbable rise documented in the book and film, Out of the Ashes, have united many in a nation troubled for years by the oppressive Taliban regime. The tales of victorious Paralympians, training pointedly and obsessively following mutilation by the London 7/7 bombings – they too capture the power of sport.

Sport, of course, is not all things to all men. Just 20 minutes before the devastating Paris news broke, the International Association of Athletics Federations, IAAF, announced its decision to suspend Russia from all international competitions, following revelations of widespread doping and corruption.

A timely reminder of the dark side of this power – the ugliness, the hubris of sport.

Reminders of Premier League footballers’ salaries evoke similar cries of dismay. So too do ugly encounters of players and referees, expletives flying in between. Sport is entertainment, it is profit and it has the power to exploit. Yet there is also much more; the beauty, the power – channelled correctly – transcend the more materialistic aspects. For sport is about the game – no more, no less.

It’s easy, working in the industry, to forget the role of sport. This is not the work of a doctor, nor an aid worker, nor a public service professional. The cynicism is often there, always within reaching distance.

Sport won’t change the world. It will not directly save a life. But it helps. A release, an endorphin, a vehicle for unity. The power of sport, the old cliché. Don’t ever forget it.

Isabelle Westbury is a freelance broadcast and print journalist with a focus on politics and sport, especially cricket. She has written for a number of publications including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and ESPN Cricinfo. She is also a broadcast journalist for the BBC, calling on both men’s and women’s domestic and international cricket matches. She studied at Oxford University, and is now Middlesex CCC women’s cricket captain. She barracks for Essendon, mainly due to the legal intrigue the club provides. Isabelle tweets from @izzywestbury and can also be found on her website – isabellewestbury.com

• A version of this article was originally published in The Roar on 20 November 2015. To access the original, please click here.

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