I’ve never understood sport. I don’t mean the rules – although, quite honestly, whoever invented cricket must have been insane. No, I mean I’ve never understood the appeal of sport; never understood why supporters go so far out of their way to have their hopes crushed and their hearts broken. Take the World Cup for example: thirty-two teams competing and only one winner. That makes for a lot of losers, and their devastation is terrible to see. Everywhere you look after a game, you see supporters clutching their heads and crying their painted flags off. How is this fun?
“Why do you do it to yourself?” I once asked my husband after South Africa lost a rugby World Cup, and he and his friends spiralled immediately into a depression that they only came out of eight years later.
Of course, your team may win and that’s very nice. But most teams never have and probably never will, and their supporters still go and paint the flags on and cry when they lose.
No. Sport seemed to me to be a pit of despair and I didn’t understand it. Until my five-year-old fell in love with a balloon.
From the minute she handed her pocket money over and took possession of a giant horse-shaped helium balloon, I knew it was going to end in tears. Of course it was. There’s no good end for helium balloons, is there? Either they slip their moorings and float away, or they slowly deflate into some sad thing bobbing around the house, that you can’t believe you paid all that money for.
But as far as the child was concerned, it was the world’s best toy. She played with it all morning – feeding it paper-grass, stroking it and telling it how much she loved it; and of course, taking it outside, to run up and down the driveway with it flying behind her.
It came as a surprise to absolutely no one but the child herself when the balloon eventually slipped from her grasp and floated away. I’ll spare readers a description of the scene that followed but … it was bad. So you’d think that, when the bigger child handed over her cash the next week, for a similar balloon, she would’ve taken every precaution to keep it safe.
“Let me tie something heavy to it,” I offered. “Then it can’t float away.”
“No thanks,” she answered. “If it can’t float away … it’s not really a balloon.”
“Ah ha,” I thought. “Perhaps this explains sport.” No, actually, I didn’t think that at all. What I really thought was, “Why the hell does no one in this house ever listen to me?” But some time later I was musing on what she’d said, and then I thought, perhaps this explains sport. Could it be that the threat of losing a balloon (or football game) isn’t a deterrent at all? Could the threat of losing actually make it all more exciting? Could it sweeten the time spent running up and down the driveway (or painting on flags and cheering from the stands) with a big, beautiful, horse balloon (or a big, beautiful World Cup trophy) floating overhead?
I put the idea to my husband, who was settling in on the couch, beer in hand, for a rugby game: “Would you enjoy watching as much if your team always won?”
But strangely, he didn’t feel like philosophising just then. I’ll have to wait until the game is over and he’s stopped crying, and ask again.