Saturday, March 18, 2006

Paul Thomas: Sport still uplifts nation

Are New Zealanders unduly preoccupied with sport? The reason I ask is that lately there seems to have been a flurry of opinion pieces in our newspapers and magazines in which the writer declares his or her loathing of sport, especially rugby, as if sounding a call to arms.

And of course visiting journalists who can't be bothered testing outdated stereotypes continue to portray us as a nation of morose, if not suicidal, dullards for whom - yawn - rugby is a religion.

Far be it from me to question how others choose to fill their space, but I detect an element of striving for effect and an absence of spontaneous outrage here.

The image that springs to mind is that of bickering neighbours trying to keep a territorial feud alive long after the local council has imposed a fair and equitable solution.

Consciously or not these writers place themselves in a line of direct descent from the tiny, beset groups of intellectuals, culture vultures and Bohemians hunkered down with their flagons of Huapai dry red in the cultural wasteland that was post-war New Zealand.

Those people had cause for complaint. The country obsessed about rugby in winter and kept an eye on the cricket over summer, and to declare an indifference to sport was to invite the question, "What are you?" Those who asked it usually supplied the answer, which was a commie or a poofter or both.

But contemporary New Zealand bears little resemblance to that monochrome society.

To take one example, back then there was understandable resentment that monopolistic state television devoted much of its summer scheduling to cricket. Now, very little sport is on free-to-air television, and I'm told that Sky offers a subscription package that excludes the sports channels.

And while there may be quality control issues, one can't complain about the range or accessibility of cultural activity and expression. Indeed, our cultural participation rate must be among the highest in the world.

In other words, it's not hard to avoid that which offends you, a point frequently made during the censorship debates of the 1960s and 70s.

Having said that, these anti-sport pieces do remind us that, for all its popularity with the masses, sport hasn't been embraced by what could be loosely termed our intelligentsia: academics, opinion-shapers, style gurus, media personalities, the arts community and all those boys and girls who are just too cool to be true.

This, I suspect, is partly the legacy of those Bohemians and partly the result of New Zealand rugby's long and shameful liaison with South Africa in the apartheid era.

In 1960, 150,000 New Zealanders signed the "No Maoris, No Tour" petition before the All Blacks went to South Africa, so the rugby community couldn't say it wasn't warned. But rugby and its political supporters had to learn the hard way, in the form of civil strife and a divided nation.

Yet despite rugby's mulish refusal to face up to the reality of apartheid, exposing itself to the charge of racism, the paradox is that the game has been and continues to be one of our most successful examples of multi-culturalism in practice.

Few people pinned their colours to the South African mast as emphatically as Colin Meads. Now that he has achieved iconic status and has a gruffly avuncular presence in the TV ad breaks, it is hard to imagine him saying this after protesters forced the abandonment of the Springboks-Waikato match in 1981. "I wish those guys had to wear a sign on their chest saying 'protester'. I'd like to kill two or three of the bastards."

Even though he lost his bearings, Meads was undoubtedly right when he argued that rugby people like him typically had a lot more to do with Maori than the mainly white, mainly middle-class protesters.

The same applies today. Our leading rugby teams, including the All Blacks, are models of multiculturalism. One wonders how many of the white, middle-class intelligentsia who disdain rugby and extol the virtues of multiculturalism have as many Maori and Polynesian mates as the average Pakeha rugby player.

And, in passing, one also wonders how many white, middle-class liberals have diverted their boys towards soccer to prevent them coming into contact - in the physical sense - with their more robust Polynesian contemporaries.

Perhaps it's all part of growing up, and in due course our intelligentsia will appreciate the fundamental democracy of sport and its capacity to draw communities together and uplift the nation.

The American writer Don DeLillo, a lifelong New York Yankees fan, devotes the first 50 pages of his monumental novel Underworld to a spellbinding set-piece weaved around a famous baseball game in 1951.

When it's over and the euphoric crowd is dispersing, a commentator stands in the outfield trying to put the drama and magic of an epic ball game into some sort of context. "Russ thinks this is another kind of history. He thinks they will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with protective power. Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way."

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