What is it about sport that can turn normally rational human beings into fanatical, sometimes maniacal followers of a particular team, individual or code? I'm sure that psychologists and behavioural scientists have attempted to answer this question over the years, but for me the answer has always been very simple. Sport evokes in me the quintessential gladiatorial contest between two individuals or two teams. I realize that there are significant differences between the psychological processes required for individual sports versus team sports but when you take away all the surrounding fluff and puffery of modern sport, it really is just a primeval battle between two individuals or teams. Instead of lethal weapons they use balls, bats, rackets, and gloves etc, but at the heart of it, is it any different to the Gladiators or the Christians versus the Lions?
Coming from New Zealand where sport is such an ingrained part of our psyche that some have termed it to be almost our state religion, I grew up watching, or in the early days listening to, the great All Black teams of the 60's and 70's. If Sport is the state religion of New Zealand, then Rugby is certainly its predominant sect and the Rugby World Cup (RWC), the holy-grail.
As a nation we appear to cling to our sports heroes as a way of expressing our identity in the world. As a small nation, at the bottom of the South Pacific, we have always felt isolated, even neglected. With such a mighty sports nation as Australia next door, New Zealander's have often felt inferior to our big brother neighbours. In many ways I guess New Zealanders view Australia in much the same way as Canadians view the United States...the rich relatives, or city cousins...that type of mentality. One way we can feel empowered as a people is through sport, and throughout history, collectively, New Zealand sportsmen have punched above their weight. In successive Olympic Games, for example, New Zealand's medal haul, if viewed on a per capita basis, always stands tall. For this reason Kiwis take a special pride and ownership of anyone who excels on the international stage, at any sport.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me about Kiwis is that if a New Zealander suddenly achieves international stardom in even an obscure sport, suddenly we all become instant experts in that sport. I vividly remember in 1986 when a NZ yachting team decided to challenge for The America's Cup in Freemantle, Australia. Suddenly overnight we all became yachting experts and the daily talk around the offices was all about; tacking, port lay lines, spinnakers and the plastic fantastic yacht. Prior to the America's Cup challenge the closest most of us had been to a yacht was watching them sail on Waitemata Harbour, yet suddenly we knew all there was to know about yachts and racing tactics. It doesn't matter what sport it is, if New Zealand has a World Champion in that sport we adopt him or her and the sport, with an intense passion.
Similarly, we claim instant ownership of our sports heroes. They are our heroes, they are competing for us and by God, they had better be damn proud of it! Most New Zealand sportsmen and women buy into this collective ownership. It's instilled into them from a very early age. We play for each other and for the country. We have to be intensely proud of the "black jersey" because it represents our collective hopes and dreams and reflects all those who have worn it before. Woe and betide any sportsman who comes along and bucks these sentiments.
I well remember the lambasting that Danyon Loader received after returning from the 1996 Olympic Game in Atlanta, with two swimming gold medals around his neck. Danyon was not your typical extrovert kiwi sportsperson. He was a quiet, driven young man who clearly competed to fulfil his owns goals and ambitions. Most sportsmen are indeed like that, they wouldn't succeed internationally if they weren't, but unlike most Kiwi sportspeople, Danyon never brought into the media hype given to our sporting heroes. He'd done what he set out to do and he just wanted to get on with his life. To many New Zealanders Danyon came across as arrogant, cold and yes even ungrateful for all the support and good wishes we had given him. Of course he was none of those...I suspect he was so focused on his goals that simple things like media training were neglected. I felt so sorry, at the time, that someone who had given us so much pleasure in Atlanta was treated so shabbily by the media and the public in general.
In another example of how we define our sportspeople and what we expect of them in return, I remember at one Olympics or perhaps it was Commonwealth Games, the official uniform of the athletes was changed from the traditional black, that we all see as defining our sportspeople, to partially white to try to combat the intense heat at the venue. I remember one of our athletes being asked whether it would be different not competing in our traditional black singlet. His answer was something along the lines of: "What does it matter, it's just a singlet". That answer so totally offended many traditional sports followers in New Zealand that for a while this particular athlete went from being hailed as one of our true heroes, to an "just another arrogant bastard who doesn't love his country". It was a shameful response to an honest answer, but typical of the fervour and total ownership we New Zealanders bestow on our sports heroes.
We won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1986, and rightly so. We were the best team in the world; we had been for many decades and besides which, it was held in New Zealand, so it was only fitting that the All Blacks won. For the next 25 years, every four years the nation went through the agonies of not being able to recreate that historic first victory. Every time it was World Cup year the entire nation would send our team off to compete sure and certain in the knowledge that they would return home with the William Webb Ellis Trophy safely tucked in their bags. When it failed to eventuate the whole country would descend into a period of intense mourning and bitter recriminations.
Perhaps nobody knew this better than the coach of the 1999 All Blacks, John Hart. Following the All Blacks annihilation by France in the semi-finals of that tournament, poor John Hart returned to New Zealand to be pilloried and crucified in the media, on talkback radio and around the water coolers at every workplace in the country. To listen to the criticism you would have thought that John was the devil incarnate. How could he have possibly lost with what was clearly the best team in the tournament? Such is the power of Rugby and the RWC on the collective desires, dreams and aspirations of every-day New Zealander's.
Although not as powerful a pull on our collective psyches as Rugby, our main summer sport, Cricket, has always polarized New Zealander's opinions. Cricket, to those who have never seen or heard of it is often viewed as perhaps a little quaint and a little odd; very English. It is all of that and so much more. For me personally Cricket is the ultimate team sport. I love it with a passion that defies even logic. One of my favourite sayings has always been - "If they don't play Cricket in Heaven, then I'm not going". Of course some very mean people might suggest that I have as much chance of going there anyway as I do of climbing Mount Everest.
Never mind, Cricket in all its, intricacies and nuances has always struck me as a metaphor for life. I mean, in what other sport can you play your heart out for five long days and not get a result? That's one of the sheer beauties of cricket to me. Within those five days are many fascinating contests between bowlers, batters, fielders and opposing captains. It is a game where the short-run is unimportant; you are always playing for the long-run result. A bad couple of hours in the field can be turned totally around in the space of a few minutes. You must never lose hope when the opposition is on top because tomorrow or later on today, can and will be different. To all the nay-sayers who would say Cricket is the most boring game on the planet, I have just one word -poppycock!
With respect to spectating, Cricket is the finest game in the world to watch. To sit on a grassy bank at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, on a glorious summer's day, with just a gentle breeze wafting down Adelaide Road, from Island Bay, is without a doubt the most relaxing, soul enriching experience to be had on this earth. That you can share this wonderful time with your best mates and a few cold beers only enriches the experience. I've spent many hours on that particular bank in my younger days and I still reflect on those days watching The New Zealand Cricket team take on India, Australia, England, the West Indies and many others, as some of my happiest and fondest memories.
Unlike the All Blacks, there are no great public expectations on the Black Caps (New Zealand's Cricket team) to win. We know we only have a "battler's" chance against the world's cricket heavyweights, and that’s what makes the odd victory so rewarding and so exciting. We are not the greatest team in the world, we don't have the same depth as Australia or India, but we do have one thing they don't...good old -fashioned Kiwi determination and pride.
Every once in a while though a team comes together that defies the odds on a regular basis and becomes truly successful. Anyone of my generation can remember with immense fondness and pride those heady days of the late 1970's and early 80's when we truly had a team capable of beating anyone in the world. Names like Hadlee, Turner, Edgar, Wright, Cairns, Coney, Crowe, Chatfield and Steven Boock are still spoken of with intense pride and reverence by true cricketing aficionados. Ah, those truly were the days when we could wake up on the morning of a test match and be confident we were going to, if not win, give a damn good account of ourselves.
If anything keeps the die-hard sports fan, in any sport or code, constant and true to his passion it is the memories of those days when our team was unbeatable, on top of the world and doing it just for us. That's what being a true sports fan is all about - Waiting through the years of disappointment, the horrific losses, the scandals and the pain for that special moment when your hero or heroes again stand on top of the dais, stand on top of the world. As a true sports fan, that's what keeps me motivated.