|IT JUST AIN’T SPORT ANYMORE:
Melbourne, January 2007
Logical people figured the brutal ethnic bloodletting in the Balkans was sure to encourage the communities of the old Yugoslavia to bury the past and look to a better future. Not true, judging by the vicious brawls that exploded between Croatian and Serbian fans at the Australian Open Tennis tournament.
Amazingly the young brawlers, kicking, punching and bottle-throwing, were nearly all born in Australia and few had been to Croatia or Serbia. Yet they came to the tennis wrapped in the flags and colors of the countries of their ethnic origin. It was obvious their hate was inoculated by parents and elders whose own hatred prompted their communities to carry out the inhuman ethnic cleansings of the 1990s.
The unsavory scenes in Melbourne were yet another reminder that sport has become an outlet for ethnic, religious and nationalistic intolerances world wide. Sport is also a mirror of a society whose corporate interests harnessed athletes to the prospect of fabulous fortunes while callously using sport for their own profit-making ventures.
Today sport is big business. Fairness, morals and the joy of competing have been sacrificed to Mammon. So it seems ridiculous when you hear athletes in public thanking corporate sponsors for their support. Anyone knows no corporation would sponsor a sporting event without gaining healthy profits, at least in publicity. This groveling loyalty is transparent again when you hear a tennis player calling on the umpire and officials in a loud voice - heard all over the stadium and the television networks - for her favorite sporting drink, not once but twice; or when you see an athlete hold up their carry-on bag with the sport company’s logo again and again as she is being interviewed; or when you hear and see an American tennis star discuss in an interview how much he enjoyed making an advertisement for a well-known credit card company – whose logo is displayed all along the wall behind his chair.
If male tennis players must now exhibit their biceps and triceps (if these are suitably muscled) on sleeveless shirts, women’s tennis has become a showcase for fashion and sex appeal. Players have been turned into show-ponies, groomed, decorated and clothed to make them look sexy, provocative and fashionable in the latest gear of their sponsors. Today nipples must show through T-shirts or blouses and stay stiff throughout a match, an amazing anatomical feat. Tops are either off the shoulder or with a revealing décolleté. Skirts with slits show flashes of thigh; hair is colored and woven with ribbons matching the dress; it seems obligatory now to show midriff flesh and, of course, panties must flash each time she runs and bends for the ball.
These new fashion creations are often visibly uncomfortable for the players. They tend to slip or pull up. In Melbourne this month half the women players tugged down their skirts and blouses after every rally; A Russian player’s skirt was so starched it stood up like a tail at her back; an American was squeezed into her own skintight creation, tight as a salami, bulging front and back, while a pair of wheel-sized ear-rings tangled from her lobes. How she managed not to burst – and then win - remains a miracle.
Once upon a time, tennis players would not dare fake an injury. But today players are surprisingly injury prone, especially when their opponents are leading or having a winning run. Even more startling is how these injured players - seeking medical attention and physiotherapist massages for the legitimate three minute period - suddenly return completely cured to the fray. There is little doubt the majority of the injuries are scams to break the opponent’s concentration or gain the crowd’s compassion.
Once upon a time tennis was a gentile sport. One clapped good shots, good rallies; one kept quiet between points; one did not shout encouragement as the player tossed the ball for a serve; and one never ever cheered or clapped a bad shot or a missed shot.
Today there is little difference between a tennis match and a football match. The ‘enemy’ player is jeered, his or her missed shots are celebrated noisily; placards are held up blocking the view for those behind; big plastic hands are used to clap, enormous sombreros to block the sun - and the view for others; smartarses call out smartarse comments at delicate moments, little kids call out the player’s name as he or she goes for a shot and support groups, one known as the Fanatics, chorus their ear-deafening slogans.
The umpires have long ago given up calling for silence or asking the audience to behave more decorously. Even commentators are now asking how come injured players always come back after a three minute treatment playing better then before. Down in the arena players have learned to battle on regardless if that rowdy fellow high up in the bleachers is yelling on top of his voice: “Come on Leyton, kill him!”
Perhaps tennis, the last of the gentile sports, was destined to become a populist game when they built tennis stadiums for tens of thousands as they did in Melbourne; perhaps the non-tennis playing populace feels why respect athletes who are being paid fortunes and are living and talking advertisements; why respect sponsors who see sport only as another way to make more money for their shareholders and their executives, all this while being constantly thanked for ‘supporting the sport.’.
So why not wrap yourself in your national flag (whatever your loyalty is at that moment) buy yourself a large hat, paint a couple of stupid placards to hold up, get yourself a cheap ticket for the bleachers, a couple of cans of beer for courage and head for the tennis stadium with your mates in the hope some of the ‘other’ bunch will be there to give you the finger - or perhaps, if you lucky, a bit of fisticuffs.
One way or the other it’s a lot of fun. But it isn’t sport anymore, is it?