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Why does sport matter?

Some time has passed now and I am starting to recover from a traumatic incident. It was a sunny October afternoon, and I was sitting in a bar in Toulon when I was viciously punched in the stomach. Metaphorically, that is. Two hours previously, I had been wondering how I could make it to Paris in a few weeks for the Rugby World Cup Final. Maybe I could take the Monday off work? Maybe it would be better to fly home? It really is the hope that kills you. Ireland’s dreams of reaching a World Cup Final were disappearing slowly, and miserably over the course of 80 minutes. Instead, I have some French guy in a beret screaming Allez Les Blues (they weren’t even fucking playing) and some Kiwis in the corner cheering. Thankfully, a gentle hand arrives on my shoulder as a slightly drunk Welsh man earnestly tells me hard luck. He gets it. I felt tears whelming up and I can’t shake the feeling for hours, and the weird thing is, I don’t even like rugby that much.

 

The whole ordeal lead to me thinking: why does sport have this effect on me? Why do I care so much?

 

This isn’t my first time having this visceral, emotional experience watching sports, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Every sports fan’s life is littered with a number of devastating experiences. If someone has told you they haven’t cried at some point after a loss, they either 1) don’t really like sports, or far more likely, 2) are lying. Maybe my personal team choices have led me to having a longer list than most. AC Milan revenging Istanbul in 2007, Benny Coulter scoring in the last minute against Kildare in the 2010 All-Ireland, Gerrard’s slip in 2014, Lebron James’ defying block against the Warriors in 2016, Liverpool’s coming up short against Real Madrid in 2018 (and again in 2022).  These are only the big moments; there are mini heartbreaks every other weekend. If Liverpool lose to ‘X’ on a Saturday, my whole day/week/weekend is ruined.

 

Why does the outcome of a game played thousands of miles away by eleven men I don’t even know effect my life this much, why do we put ourselves through this?

 

Trying to explain this to someone on the outside, let’s call them a normal person, can be difficult. When looked at in a logical and reasonable state, it is quite frankly ridiculous. I spend a large chunk of my free time in a state of misery because of sport. For example, since Jurgen Klopp has become Liverpool manager he has a win percentage of 63%, which would mean over the course of the last eight years, I have had nearly 200 miserable days on account of my team not winning. I won’t even look up what Roy Hodgson’s record was. Sometimes, I succumb to the logic of the ‘normal people’. I give myself a pep talk: “I will not let a football game take over my life, my weekend will not be ruined by football”. Then Saturday rolls around and I am ready to be hurt all over again.

 

 



 

One obvious answer to why we put ourselves through these hardships, is the highs. When sport is good, there are very few mediums that give you that same dopamine rush. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve my team winning. In all honesty, I am not sure anything will reach the euphoria (and relief) of Liverpool winning the Premier League in 2020. Apologies to my future kids if you somehow end up reading this, but your birth will never compare to Jurgen Klopp crying on broadcast TV. It is a strange type of addiction, every time you feel you are done with sports, you find a reason to come crawling back. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

 

While this is one logical reason, I think my fanaticism (and many others) can be explained by the sociology concept ‘Third Place’. I first heard this idea on the Second Captains podcast when Ciaran Murphy hypothesised that the GAA provides another space outside of work and their home in order to socialise. Five-a-side on a Monday, pints for the match on the weekend, and endless WhatsApp messages. Sport provides one of the most simplistic ways to meet people and make friends. Ask anyone who is moved to a new place, one of the first things they do is look up the local GAA/football team. So many of my closest friendships nearly entirely revolve around sports.

 

I would actually go one further, I believe sport not only gives you an avenue to meet like-minded people, but it gives you a sense of belonging. It allows you to commit yourself to a group, an idea, a collective that we rarely get to do in the modern world. We have generally transitioned to a more selfish, individualistic lifestyle but sports allows an opportunity to be part of a group. I feel people (especially in Ireland anyways) used to have religion for this but this is quickly disappearing, and sports is picking up the slack. My grandparent used to go to mass every week, now I watch Liverpool. Why do we regularly see people giving up so much of their free time, going to training in torrential rain, waking up early on a Sunday for a match, travelling thousands of miles to support their team? They don’t want to disappoint the group, they want to feel a part of something and they care deeply about it. Sport allows you to give yourself up to something for selfless reasons.

 

The next time you’re feeling that inevitable sporting heartbreak, remember you’re not alone. It will pass, and you can wallow in your misery together for a while. It’s the heartbreak that makes the wins that much better. The losses slowly dwindle in your memory but the wins that you get to celebrate with your mates, those memories never fade. That’s why the losses hurt but the wins feel so good. That’s why we care so much.

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