Sport as opium of the masses

YouTube video – Ash comes back from 5-1 down

On Sunday night, as Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev drew level at two games each in the first set, we decided that tennis as a spectator sport was intrinsically boring to watch.

We adjourned to the dining room table to resume the great summer scrabble tournament. Earlier that day while vacuuming, I had found an F lurking beside a leg of the dining room chair. Now it was back inside the green cloth bag, I felt my luck was about to turn.

As the game progressed, faced with a dismal collection of letters and a cramped board, I tentatively offered RAFA. She Who Usually Wins at Scrabble snorted: “Good try, Bob”. I ended up winning that game (which took 1 hour and 11 minutes with no tie-break). ZOO and OM on a triple word score did the trick. In between moves one of us would slip into the lounge to see how the men’s final match was progressing – whack (grunt), whack, whack, whack (grunt) whack.

Scrabble over, we went back into the lounge and switched to Muster Dog, an ABC reality series fast overtaking all but the tennis in the ratings. Yes, we could have watched it later and persisted with the tennis. But really, how many hours can you spend watching two blokes, neither of them Australian, whack a ball back and forth across a net?

I realise this is cognitive dissonance and counter to the prevailing Australian obsession with sports of all persuasion. But as February looms – the brief hiatus between summer and winter sports begins.

The end of the Australian Open is a sign we are all about to be dragged back to an albeit-postponed new school year and all that entails. The ever-spiralling Omicron case numbers might finally penetrate our sports-soaked brains. The total number of cases in Australia since February 2020 is 2.29 million. As of February 2 there were 345,027 active cases. In those two years 3,987 people died, most recently musician and promoter Glenn Wheatley.

But gee, Rafa’s got a great forehand slice, eh!

Across the decades, various academics and writers have  twisted the famous Marxism that sport is the ‘opium of the people’. Marx actually said that of religion, back in 1843. Marx, being opposed to all things important to the ‘system’, said religion was like a drug, causing people to experience an illusory form of happiness. says the original intent of Marx’s thinking has been paraphrased and twisted over the years. The term ‘opiate of the masses’ has been hijacked by people trying to make a case about professional sport (in cahoots with television), replacing religion in an increasingly secular society.

What Marx actually said 179 years ago was this:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Marx’s opinion was that religion dulled people’s minds and preventing them from improving their lives. Many pundits have since argued that spectator sports, politics or even television itself also distract us from confronting the real issues in life.

For example, Western Kentucky University political scientist Eric Bain-Selbo argued that sport (in this instance college football), was the opium of the people.

“Sport functions to preserve the status quo, to maintain the position of the “haves” vis-à-vis the “have nots”. To do this, sport must act as a kind of “opiate” for the “have nots”, so that they will accept the inequities and injustices of the social system.” 

I did the basic research for this while half watching Nadal sweat his way through the fourth and fifth game of the third set. As the game seemed about to go to five sets, I cleaned up the kitchen, turned on the dish washer and went to bed to read three more chapters in a devilishly well-written book by William Boyd. Armadillo is about an idiosyncratic chap who has found his niche in life practising the dark arts of a loss adjuster. Then I checked my emails, scrolled through Facebook to find that few of my friends were watching the final (as opposed to Saturday night when 4.25 million people saw Ash Barty win the Australian Women’s championship). Ah, but that was different, eh? She’s one of ours.

The above demonstrates how much one can get done in five hours and 24 minutes, which is how long it took Rafa to wear down the Russian and win his 21st grand slam.

You have to give it to the old pro, who, like Ash Barty, came from well behind to take an impressive victory. The match was watched by 1.58 million television viewers, although there are no statistics available on how many of them gave up and went to bed.

On Saturday night, a record 4.25 million people tuned in to Channel Nine to watch Ash Barty defeat Danielle Collins in two sets.

Later, after the official presentation and a victory lap, Barty made her way to the Channel Nine studios where an excited James Bracey waited. In the interim, Bracey waxed enthusiastic about the win, sharing the euphoria with co-commentators and former tennis stars, Casey Dellacqua and Alicia Molik.

“You dream of this as a broadcaster. Our whole Wide World of Sports team has been willing this on,” Bracey said, having earlier acknowledged how badly the country needed a (psychological) lift.

Near the end of the interview (YouTube video above), a crew member pushed a mixed basket of boutique beers on to the presenters’ table. This shameless product placement left Ash with nowhere to go but choose one (by name). It is commercial TV after all.

I note there is now an edited version of this video reducing it to a beer ad, which has produced a stream of comments castigating Nine for taking advantage.

If you saw the original interview, you could not fail to be impressed with Ash’s genuine, modest nature. When Bracey asked her about her trove of tennis trophies, she revealed she does not keep them at home but instead shares them around to family members. Nice.

I happened to text my sister in New Zealand at some point in the Barty/Collins match to ask if she was watching. I’d forgotten about the three-hour time difference. Next morning it transpired she’d been otherwise occupied, celebrating the first birthday of her tamahine mootua (great-grand daughter). My sister and her family are mad about cricket though, so I sent her an abridged version of Ash Barty’s achievements in cricket, golf and tennis.  Meanwhile, we now have to sweat our way through February, 28 days of humidity, storms, possible cyclones, probable heat waves (Feb 1 was a stinker), floods (see SA), and continuing supply chain issues. As for sport, there’s always the six nations rugby tournament or the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Shame about the Matildas (women’s soccer team). Then there’s the first rugby league game of the year, to be played (Covid-willing), on Saturday February 12.  The Indigenous All Stars meet the New Zealand Maoris in a televised event which promises to be a spectacle, if only for the pre-match entertainment. The Maori team will demonstrate a haka, while the Indigenous team will hopefully reprise the ‘war cry’ that Bangarra Dance Company founder Stephen Page and indigenous leaders produced for last year’s contest.

No scrabble game that night.

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