Simon Parke: A sporting chance for unity

01 August 2007

by Simon Parke

BRIDGE, or slamming door? It is sometimes hard to tell the difference.

The rain had stopped, and in the lengthening shadows of Carnoustie, a thrilling and desperate finale was played out in this year’s Open Golf Championship. The Irishman Padraig Harrington and the Spaniard Sergio Garcia faced each other in a play-off of intense competition. The crowd duly pledged their allegiance, wishing success for one, and failure for the other.

This is the trouble with sport. It works only because it divides. The energy is created by people generating as much hate for the opposition as love for their own side. To this extent, it is something of a slamming door in the business of human relationships.

Yet, at Carnoustie, sport was also a bridge. We may be cooling in our relationship with the United States government, but American golfers were made welcome. And then there was Andres Romero, the young Argentinian golfer, interviewed by Gary Lineker in Spanish — a language learned by Gary when he played football in Spain. Here was a graceful present.

Then, most tellingly of all, as the two contestants reached the last hole, the camera panned back to reveal their families. They were standing together. Harrington’s wife watched the play-off side by side with Garcia’s mother.

Sport is like that. It both divides and connects. When the Manchester United football team toured the Far East this summer, South Korea went mad. A stadium of 68,000 seats was sold out in six hours, and the crowd cheered United’s goals as loudly as they cheered their own. Bridge, or slamming door?

Iraqis gave a perfect demonstration of the unifying power of sport this week, when the national football team — made up of Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Kurds — won the Asia Cup, and thousands poured into the streets of Baghdad in joy and jubilation.

It is hard not to draw comparisons with religion, which also separates and unites. Religion, like sport, is highly competitive. Creeds define teams, like theological football shirts, and people are encouraged by their leaders to be strong in allegiance, but separate in understanding. It can be something of a slamming door on others, but, as Jesus said, if you are not for me, you’re against me.

Sometimes, however, religious leaders of different persuasions appear smiling together in a photo. Amid the hot fires of competition, they find a surprising human connection. Religion becomes something earthy and binding, and we are back with Harrington’s wife and Garcia’s mother in the play-off.

As Jesus said, if you are not against me, you are for me.

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