Sporting Life

In a time of terror, sport plays a unifying role

Sport must terrify terrorists, for it is the grand, uniting religion of secularists. All of us who believe in fields and feats reject the suicide bomber because we deal in life and hope and promise. Our devotions are different, for we are focused on creation not destruction. Well, only of Chelsea's defence.

We pledge allegiance to the dazzling act and to stubbled gods. Zinedine Zidane's volley in the Champions League final in 2002 catapulted me from my couch. You, too? And did you even for a second consider his faith that night or just his fabulous feet?

Terrorists seek to divide, to create suspicion, to spark bigotry, to foster fear. Sport, at its best, evokes pleasure, it binds, it connects, it can make borders vanish and nationality somewhat irrelevant. During a football World Cup, Singaporeans might wear Brazilian yellow. At a bar of Liverpool supporters, the only colour that matters is red.

Athletes symbolise an acceptance of the other and they often stand for a collaboration between cultures, not a chasm. An Australian is now teaching the English rugby. A Brazilian once played football for Japan. It is all beyond ISIS' comprehension, one presumes.

Sport isn't going to win the Nobel peace prize, not with its racism and sexism, its cheating nations and bragging fools, its corrupt officials and obnoxious louts. No one should overestimate the power of sport, yet neither should we overlook what it does for us. Sport is far from perfect but we aspire at least to a noble ideal.

No doubt we carve ourselves into tribes and can speak a childish language of "us and them" but no one comes home in a body bag. Of course, drunks can ruin a day with their vileness but a stranger can make a day by offering a sandwich and speculation on Federer's beard.

In the past two weeks, a Kiwi rugby fan and I have been exchanging e-mails and finding common ground on athletes and humility. Sport is our common language and we learn to get along. And when we curse a rival player it's not because he is Hindu or Christian or Muslim or Jewish but simply because he's playing for Manchester United.

Terrorists speak of brotherhood but it is sport whose definition of the word is superior. On that night of the Paris attacks when the German football team were told not to return to their hotel, the French team said they would stay with them. As long as necessary.

As a young man I cheered the Indian cricket team and I cannot recollect a time when their religion was discussed with my friends. Inclusiveness wasn't some ideal that was being chased, it was just there. Outside, the world was fractious; inside the dressing room, diversity ricocheted off the walls: multiple languages were spoken, customs followed, food eaten.

Athletes may whine, cheat, strut, but in the main they don't care what passport a team-mate owns, what music he cares for, which gluten-free diet he follows. They pray to separate gods in the dressing room but play for a common cause on a field. The only divide here is between victory and defeat.

Athletes symbolise an acceptance of the other and they often stand for a collaboration between cultures, not a chasm. An Australian is now teaching the English rugby. A Brazilian once played football for Japan. It is all beyond ISIS' comprehension, one presumes.

Terrorism oppresses but sport can liberate. It offers people a chance, it lifts young folk from poverty, it challenges religious groups who say women should not wear shorts. It breaks down barriers sometimes without even meaning to. A Muslim has been recently starring for the Australian cricket team and if once the foreignness of Usman Khawaja's name might have dominated conversation, now it is primarily his fine work with the bat. People shrug, they move on.

Over the years terrorists have shot at the Sri Lankan cricket team, bombed the Boston Marathon, machine-gunned the Togo football team bus and taken hostages at the Olympics. Now, even more so, sport must be careful, for the filled stadium is the perfect target. Here, routinely, is found the largest collection of humankind at its happiest. To scare us from sport would be the ugliest of victories.

In this fight against terror, sport seems irrelevant but let us take some tiny comfort from it. Because out in the stands, without thinking about it, we veto the narrow code of the terrorist. On the weekends, before us, lies the whole of humanity and we applaud a diversity of heroes. At least for those few hours we celebrate the beauty of difference.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2015, with the headline 'In a time of terror, sport plays a unifying role '. Print Edition | Subscribe