Why we need our sporting heroes

HIS writing draws on a wealth of philosophical, historical and literary knowledge AND he's kissed the actress Daryl Hannah. Simon Barnes is certainly a man to be envied.

HIS writing draws on a wealth of philosophical, historical and literary knowledge AND he's kissed the actress Daryl Hannah. Simon Barnes is certainly a man to be envied. A man equipped to tackle a subject like The Meaning of Sport without fear in his heart.

That's the task he sets himself in his latest book: a beguiling read that reveals not only many of the various faces of sport but much about the author himself.

We journey through the sporting calendar in his company as he goes about his business as a slightly reluctant chief sports writer for a national newspaper: from Wimbledon to Lord's, and from the Olympic Games to the World Cup.

It's this time abroad that sheds most light on both the rollercoaster nature of sport and the effect the job has on the man. Someone who feels the absence of his wife, his sons (aged 11 and five) and horses when obliged to stray too long from his rural Suffolk home near Halesworth, Simon tries to make his “cells” - hotel-cum-work rooms - as bearable as possible.

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Take his trip to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. His “cell” is softened with the addition of a few books, a small immersion heater, mug and a box of Rooibos teabags. There is also a £17 Walkman with little speakers through which to play classical music. Later, the Walkman is superseded by an iPod.

It's worth pointing out, in passing, that his Athens accommodation is a room in a working maternity hospital, complete with a panic button in the shower - lest he suddenly go into labour - and handles for levering himself off the loo.

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Journalism is such a glamorous occupation . . .

Still, the veteran of five Olympics is happy that he can see swifts from the window.

We pack our passports for the Ryder Cup in Michigan. Simon can't see the appeal of golf (or boxing for that matter, which he hates). Why waste time playing or watching it when you can be reading Ulysees or watching birds?

Obliged to cover one of the world's biggest golf tournaments, he protects his sanity by spending a Saturday away from the “hideously unreal green of the greens , and from the people shouting 'you the man' . . .” He goes birdwatching in the company of three retired ladies. Leaning against the rails of a pier sticking out into Lake Michigan, they stand under the birds' flight path. In two hours, 20,000 hawks fly over.

He's clear about his mission in writing about sport: “We have to take the stuff of everyday life and find the epic that lies within. Every sports writer is James Joyce, seeking each day to write a brief and unforgettable Ulysses.”

The Big Days crank up the machine: Kelly “nearly-but-not-quite” Holmes, for example, winning first the 800m - cue look of disbelief that turns to ecstasy - and then the 1,500m, with an expression of smiling certainty.

“This is a simple heroic tale, a simple piece of mythology. I saw the tale new-minted, and it is as old as humankind. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin. Such tales have been told ever since humans began to tell each other stories. And that is what sport is: a living, breathing mythology.

“Sport creates archetypal situations of triumph and tragedy, and it does so bloodlessly, for at bottom all is play. Nobody dies: Agamemnon is unmurdered, Oedipus unblended, Troy unsacked and Penelope's suitors unslain. And yet the strong myths are created in front of us, and we respond to them with passion and delight.”

You can understand why the pony-tailed writer is seen as something of an eccentric in the circles of sports journalism and why there's not much of a meeting of minds with The Sun's boxing correspondent . . .

Simon argues: “The truth about sports writing, and by extension, the truth about sport, is not to be found in the caricatured masculinity of many of the athletes of either sex. The truth is much wider than that. To be fully human, a view of anything, even sport, must be soft as well as hard, female as well as male, weak as well as strong. There is fear and weakness in Mike Tyson: there is unyielding strength in the tears of Ellen MacArthur.”

We first meet him in Portugal, preparing for a key England game - aren't they all? - in the 2004 European football championship. Lisbon is full of men with little hair and very considerable bellies, wearing England football shirts. “On the whole, they are men I would cross the M25 to avoid. And yet my chosen life constantly brings me up against them. They care far more than I do about the results of tonight's match.”

Simon concedes the match is important. “Well, not that important compared to world peace, or a cure for cancer, or the ending of the ecological holocaust. But important because a lot of people care about the result. Perhaps sport matters because it doesn't matter . . .”

For a writer, the tale is the important thing: “Not the excellence but the drama, the background, the beauty, the sudden shift in momentum, the break in the pattern; and, with these things, the nature of participants, and the extent to which they have meaning for those who will be doing the reading.”

On every page of his book there's a well-honed observation; an important truth about sport and the role it plays in our lives.

Sport is not supposed to be real life, he points out, but does depend on our ability to believe in it. “You must believe that sport is important, while knowing all along that it is nothing of the kind.” He knows fictional characters aren't real, but he has been almost unbearably moved by them. “That's poetic faith: disbelief suspended, willingly.” He doesn't believe it matters one way or another if Wayne Rooney scores or not, but he can be deeply moved by it - “The willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes sporting faith.”

Simon hails from Streatham in south London, where he had a “media-pinko upbringing” and where, he says, his parents disliked suburban values on aesthetic grounds.

He, his two sisters and mother would spend a week in the summer with his grandparents in Birmingham, and his grandfather would take him to watch cricket at Edgbaston. It was a quasi-religious experience involving meaningful rituals - such as the making of perfectly-parcelled sandwiches for lunch.

Sport, then, established an early grip on his psyche. It would later become his salvation when early days in journalism grew almost unbearable.

Simon started on the Surrey Mirror in 1972 - getting a job on the weekly paper because writing was the only thing he could do, he claims. But he fell foul of a new chief reporter, and a macho newsroom culture, and was written off. He found himself sent on lots of night jobs, including covering Merton Borough Council Allotments sub-committee. Even its members were surprised by the paper's interest. Simon resolved to take the first escape route that appeared: which happened to be a vacancy on the sports desk in Redhill.

He'd found his niche. In the future would come awards for his writing.

“You can find everything you want in sport . . .” he says. “You can find fools, you can find heroes, you can find villains: and you can even find saints and martyrs . . .”

Sport is a concentrated mix of emotion. “All sports represent the collision of wills: people or teams who want the same thing and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it. The more it matters to the athletes, the more vivid the experience is for the spectator, and for the writer.”

The Meaning of Sport is published by Short Books at £16.99. ISBN 1904977456

Simon Barnes on the many faces of sport:

A game of passion: “One thing that sex and sport have in common is that stupid people like them both. One important difference is that clever people can enjoy sex - and can say that they enjoy sex - without forfeiting their right to be considered clever. However, a clever person who claims to enjoy sport will be considered less clever as a result.”

Olympic glory: The art of being an Olympian is “the seizing of the time”. There is no second chance.

“If you fail at the Olympic Games you have nothing. Nothing for four years. And that is what gives the Games that extraordinary intensity. Winning is not just about being perfect. It is about being perfect now.”

The metaphysical: “Sport is a metaphor. Football and rugby are cod battles: tennis is a cod duel. Running races are about predator and prey. Cricket is a complex metaphor about life and death. Horseracing is a paradigm of evolution: only the fastest get to breed, get to become ancestors. That is the point of sport: it is pretend. Its metaphorical nature is what gives it meaning.”

Pre Sky Sports: “I am inclined to think that hunting (as in caveman days) was a response to a primordial thing in human nature. It was the promptings of the sporting spirit. Hunting was nothing less than the anticipation of sport as we know it today. The urge for sport goes deep; and it is an urge, not to hunt, but to create tales of adventure and glorious failure and still-more-glorious victory. It is the tales, not the meat, that make us human.”

Global outlook: “Sport has far more effect on the way we see and understand other nations than trade or cultural exchange or tourism . . . Most British people are unaware the Portugese Prime minister's name is Pedro Santana Lopes - well, it was when I was writing these words . . . But a very large number could tell you that Christiano Ronaldo plays on the right wing for Portugal and Manchester United. That's why the Soviet Empire poured so much energy and money into sport, why China still does . . . Without this need for national identity, the Olympic Games would not exist . . . Nationalism and sport is like ham and eggs . . .”

The Logan's Run factor: “Sport is real life on fast forward: lives, empires and dynasties flash across our knowing and are gone, to be replaced by more, at a dizzying rate. Real life can't provide us with myths in quite the same way, because real life takes so long to be lived. But sport takes place at a breakneck pace: the great performers are with us, and then before we know it, they are gone. There is nostalgia even in the first flickerings of youthful promise. In every thrilling beginning, we can already see the sad and celebrated end.”

The pain of a fan: People believed England had no chance in the World Cup, yet they also felt an England failure would be the most shattering surprise. “For most people, sport is an area of life in which you are let off rational thought . . . Sport is instead an emotional free-for-all, in which chaos and contradiction can be given full rein.”

And finally: Sport is everything: sport is nothing . . . Above all, sport is to be found in the testing: in the last strides of the 400 metres when the body's oxygen debt seems unrepayable; in the innings you play when your side is 49 for five; in the way you strike the free-kick in time added on . . . The truth is always and only in the action.”

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