In a word . . . Sport – Irish Times

This week I cheat. Most of the column is by Justice Donal O’Donnell of the Supreme Court. It is part of his June 2015 judgment in the case of O’Connell vs the Turf Club. It is incidental.

All modern sports, Justice O’Donnell said, “are related to games played from time immemorial, whether of throwing or kicking a ball of different dimensions, striking it with a stick, running the fastest, or in this case, attempting to see who can ensure that an animal runs the fastest. It is the essence however of any game that it requires some rules. Otherwise it will not be possible to measure sporting excellence or demonstrate sporting skill.

“It is also the case that many of those rules are somewhat arbitrary, but sanctified by tradition. Why a team of 11, 13, 15 (or as was once the case in Gaelic sports, 17) players? Why a game of 70, 80 or 90 minutes? Why should some games end at the expiry of the time and others only when the ball goes dead?

“Why is a pass forward by player in rugby an occasion for loss of possession and accompanying groans, but one of the glories of American football? Why, as some have had reason to ruefully observe, is a second serve permitted in tennis but not in golf? There is no good answer to any of these questions.”

But, he said: “To some extent at least, the idiosyncrasies of the rules become part of the tradition valued by the game’s participants and spectators.” He continued: “Traditions are important in general because they preserve what is valued beyond any single generation, and can be of particular importance in the field of sport.”

Games, he said, “capture the imagination not only because they showcase the athleticism of the human body and of animals but also because they distil so much of the human condition: courage; fortitude and grace under pressure; cowardice; mean-spiritedness and cynicism; the emergence of youthful talent; the slow decline of age resisted by determination; skill and experience; the value of discipline; the excitement of unpredictable flamboyance; the collective strength of a team and the joy of irrepressible individualism; the fine line between triumph and tragedy; and the significant role of luck.”

Isn’t that just wonderful?

Sport from Middle English. Anglo-French disport, Old French desport for “pastime, recreation”.

inaword@irishtimes.com

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