The secret of sport comes in revealing the child within

Image of Simon Kuper

“Why do people love sport so much?” a woman I know burst out in exasperation recently. It is a question I have often asked myself in eight years of writing this column. Now – in my last sports column before I move on to write a general column elsewhere in the FT – I can reveal the answer.

There is no mystery about why people play sport. It is fun. It releases endorphins that make you happy. It keeps you thin. It can even keep you alive. But why watch other people play sport – and worse, why argue afterwards about how they played? Why is the Super Bowl the most watched American television programme? Why was the recent, tedious World Cup final the most watched programme in history?

You could adduce many reasons. Arthur Hopcraft, in his 1968 classic, The Football Man, said that sporting genius was the one kind of genius the common man could comprehend. It takes a certain education to appreciate Joyce, but almost anyone can enjoy Lionel Messi. Supporting a team can also unite you with others. When the Red Sox win the World Series and half of Boston goes crazy, people are sharing something with their neighbours and passers-by.

That’s a rare pleasure. But to say that some follow sport because others do is a circular argument. Why, this woman was asking, do we follow it in the first place?

What I have learnt these eight years – and it isn’t much – is that being a sports fan allows you to return to childhood. Like most ideas, this is best summed up by a Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty are lying under a tree talking. He is telling her what security is: you’re a kid, you’ve been somewhere with your parents, and now it’s night and they’re driving you home. “They’re doing all the worrying,” he tells her. “You can sleep in the backseat, and you don’t have to worry about anything.”

“That’s real neat!” exclaims Patty. But there’s a catch, warns Charlie Brown. “Suddenly, you’re grown up and it can never be that way again. It’s over – and you don’t get to sleep in the backseat any more.” “Hold my hand, Chuck!!” says Patty.

For many adults, their one escape from worry is being a sports fan. Watching sport, you can become eight years old again. You have returned to the backseat. You cannot control who wins. And at bottom, you know it doesn’t matter. The emotions are largely play. You curse the TV if your team loses, but then life resumes. When England fail in the World Cup people don’t jump off tower blocks. They just go to work.

Watching sport connects you with your eight-year-old self in another way, too. When you grow up, almost everything around you changes. People age, move to different cities, divorce and die. Only sports teams barely change. The Red Sox and Liverpool were around when we were kids, and will be there when we are old. They give continuity.

It is no wonder fans often think like eight-year-olds. Many treat athletes as two-dimensional figures: “hero”, “Judas”, “cheat”. Tiger Woods was a demigod. But I was in Toronto when he got into trouble and I remember opening a serious Canadian newspaper that spent pages trying to fathom the mystery: how was it possible that a handsome young billionaire had slept around?

Sports fans seldom get to peek behind the curtain to see the real people on stage. Over years of interviewing great athletes, I’ve made a discovery: they are just like us, only better at sport. They are good at their work, but they do see it as work rather than some magical mystery tour. That is why the word they use to describe themselves is “pro”. And all they do is give us a brief release from care. I hope that is a good enough reason to have spent eight years writing about something that does not otherwise matter.

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