15 Jul 2021

Bidwell: High performance sport is losing its shine

4:00 pm on 15 July 2021
England fans cheer on their team outside Wembley Stadium ahead of the UEFA EURO 2020 final football match between England and Italy

English fans conduct during and after the Euro 2020 final overshadowed their team's achievement Photo: AFP

The end of school holidays can't come soon enough.

It's not that I want my son out of the house, more that I can't wait to see him playing rugby on Saturdays again.

Not just him, but the lads in his boys' school team and the girls and boys that make up the club sides in our local competition. When summer comes, I'll be just as enthused about watching on from the boundary at cricket games.

I love sport, always have. Playing, watching, coaching, administering. I've built much of my life around it.

But I find my connection to professional sport becoming weaker and weaker. More than that, I often find I'm revolted by it.

When I think of the just-completed Euro 2020 football championships, it won't be Italy's win on penalties against England or some of the fine performances that came along the way. It will be English fans storming Wembley before the final, the rioting that took place afterwards and the racial vilification of members of England's team.

I'd like to get enthused about the British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa, but struggle to get past the fact that I can't believe the series is on.

Playing games in empty stadiums is one thing, but South Africa is actually in turmoil. Never mind the Covid outbreaks in the Springboks' camp, there's been genuine civil unrest there since the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

You wonder how bad things could get before the tour's called off and then you remember the wretched Olympics.

I'm not an Olympic enthusiast, as I've said many times. You cannot take results at face value and when there's doubt over the legitimacy of performances, then there's no point watching.

But the severity Covid situation in Japan just makes a nonsense of the whole event, but on we go. As with the Lions' tour, there's sponsors and broadcasters who've stumped up a lot of cash to be associated with this stuff, so nothing will stand in its way.

Is it just me who's troubled by these things? Am I a sook? Should I be more positive? Will the end justify the means? Are you not bothered by cheats who are proclaimed as heroes?

I watch and enjoy a lot of golf, particularly the majors. The Open at Royal St George's this week might just be the highlight of my (televised) sporting year.

But, on a week-to-week basis, rugby league is the game I follow closest.

I blame former New Zealand Rugby League board member the late Bernie Wood, who fed me VHS tapes of games in Sydney long before the sport became a staple on our TVs.

Again, though, hardly a month goes by without a player in court for this or teams suspending players for that.

No-one likes to feel a fool, but league lovers are left to look daft on a regular basis because players continue to make bad and selfish and harmful decisions on the booze.

We're comparatively lucky here, with our rugby players. They obviously fire a few shots, but are sufficiently discreet about it - or have media show discretion on their behalf - for us not to be beset by negative headlines.

In fact, it's all the positive coverage that turns me off.

A man isn't just a fine player or coach, but an even better person. This isn't just a game to fulfil broadcast obligations, but a massive match with enormous permutations.

Is there anything more overblown than the announcement of an All Blacks squad, for instance? I mean, honestly?

Chances are you like to walk or run. Maybe you go to the gym or play tennis or golf or bowls or whatever. Touch, football, netball, skiing; everyone does and loves a bit of something.

It's not just pleasurable to do, but unifying. We make friends and feel good about ourselves whether we're out there playing or just watching our children from the sidelines.

Most of all, we keep it in perspective. Whether we're good, bad or indifferent, it's a bit of fun.

Sadly, it feels like so many people who play and run and present sport at the professional level have lost all perspective. That they'll compromise almost all their values in the name of commerce.

It doesn't matter how many rank and file fans they alienate along the way, so long as sponsors and broadcasters stay on board.

I don't often solicit feedback, but I'd love to know how people feel about high-performance sport these days and how strong their connection is to it. Is it the game you remember and first fell in love with? Or do you feel increasingly dislocated from the sport itself and those involved in it?

I'll never fall out of love with sport; I'll always play and coach and watch. But increasingly that watching is done at community level, where the smiles on people's faces are more important than the outcomes.

I'm playing golf on Saturday. I won't win and chances are I won't even play well. But I will enjoy my walk and the company of my friends.

I'll laugh heartily at the tales told afterwards and look forward to doing it all again the following week.

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