Warning: Here comes some negative eye candy, an avert-your-eyes pic of Christopher Hitchens. He’s guy who took off on a flight of anger against all things sport, using the just-concluded Winter Olympics as the excuse for his rant:
Perhaps the screed would have more stick had it come from someone who understood the first thing about the rush that exercise and competition can provide the body and (yes!) the soul. Surely Christopher Hitchens is aware of the compelling body of evidence linking physical activity and fitness to health and even to mental acuity, but that didn’t blunt his clumsy attack — a broadside launched against sports writing (and reading), poor sportsmanship and downright cheating, the sports themselves, and blah blah blah, in the usual, and by now wearily predictable, Hitchens style.
So let’s see: Here’s a guy for whom fitness is far, far, down on his list (although for some reason he feels the need to strip his body of evidence-concealing body hair), thundering against anything sports-related that popped into his head, and concluding with a condemnation of the “pulverizing tedium” of the Olympic events themselves. He wrote that he couldn’t escape the events, but why? Is it that hard to stay out of bars for a few weeks? I don’t believe that he actually did see much of the competition; had he put down his poison pen for a few moments, he would have witnessed some stuff that only the most curmudgeonly among us could call tedious. Here I’m thinking of the conclusion of the fifty-kilometer, cross-country ski race, where the exhausted, close-to-truly amateur competitors managed to sprint up a final hill toward the finish before collapsing in complete exhaustion; and of the gold-medal hockey games between the US and Canada, the men’s version of which was extended dramatically into OT1 on a goal with scant seconds remaining, before being won by the host team.
Of course, his article contains many truths among its efforts to explain away inconvenient counterexamples, notably the events that inspired Invictus, a case for the other side he would have been better off conceding. But Hitchens doesn’t do nuance or complexity.
What he misses, colossally, is this: There’s something vital about sports, and for those of us who struggle to rise above our own mediocrity in engaging in them, something transcendent about witnessing — yes, even cheering — those who have attained mastery over such difficult and challenging tasks. Such mastery eludes almost all of us. It’s certainly harder than writing angry, blunderbuss polemics against sports. That, in turn, is much harder than reading or writing sports, according to Hitchens. The adults, he snoots, prefer the rest of the paper.
Look, people get their emotional rushes in different ways. Some exult in their proofs against the existence of God (here are some excerpts from Hitchens’s influential book, “God is Not Great”), others in success by their favorite sports figures or teams. It doesn’t mean they apply this same “us v. them” logic to politics, or that sport assumes an unhealthy fixation for them (although that’s certainly the case for some). But no part of the opposing case is in evidence in Hitchens’s windy article.
Being a provocateur is easy, really, and clever in its way: Even by responding, one has taken the bait — been provoked enough to respond. That’s a desirable outcome in the case of arguments for or against, say, the existence of God, because it’s one or the other. A bright provocateur can get the interest, the juices, flowing. But most of life doesn’t operate according to a binary yes-no principle, and “‘The Case Against’ This or That” would be stronger if it acknowledged its own weaknesses. Otherwise, case dismissed.
- That’s “overtime,” for the proudly sports illiterate. ↩