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Sport in 2014 - left in the gutter or looking at the stars?

Simon BarnesDecember 19, 2014
Robin van Persie's header against Spain at the 2014 World Cup was indescribably wonderful © Getty Images

​Looking at sport with any kind of perspective is like flying over a chunk of rainforest. You have no option but to look down on devastation. Instead of forest, you see huge plantations and you can't see the point of trying to look after what's left.

​But then you find yourself inside the wonderful, bewildering complexity of the forest that remains and you feel quite the opposite. You feel like a person privileged to live in a world of wonders.

You can spend a lot of time complaining about the self-aggrandisement and self-importance of sport

When you look down from on high over the measureless vistas of sport at the end of a year and try to work out the value and meaning of what has been going on, it can be hard to see anything except human greed and folly, power mania, parochialism, self-interest and stupidity.

But when you get down into the depths of sporting action you find yourself back in a land of wonders: great deeds, mighty achievements, heroic failures, victory, defeat, triumph, disaster, despair, elation and joy.

So when you think about football over the past 12 months, it seems that you have a choice. You can look at the shamelessness of Sepp Blatter and the shattering awfulness of FIFA and conclude that the sport will never be right. What hope can there be for a sport run by an organisation apparently so corrupt that it no longer notices that corruption is a bad thing, or that the rest of the world may have reservations about it?

Or you can look at Robin van Persie's header against Spain in the World Cup. One is indescribably awful, the other indescribably wonderful - and they're both as much a part of football as the netting in the goals. As Oscar Wilde said, we're all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

English people of certain age will remember a time when Germany and England saw each other as natural rivals, doomed to be forever contesting the highest honours in the game. Germany won their fourth World Cup last summer, beating the hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals; England went out at the group stage without winning a match.

In the United Kingdom, there has been racism to remind us of the gutter. But there has also been the story of Manchester United's decline and (apparent) resurgence, along with the tale of Chelsea's growing certainty: more inspiring things to contemplate. And a clue to the future: they had to stop selling tickets to the women's international between England and Germany at Wembley in November because too many people wanted to go.

The sporting year began with the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi in Russia and once again you are faced with the rainforest scenario. You can look at the legalised bigotry of Russia with their anti-gay laws and recall that the Olympic movement pretended they weren't really a problem. You can also consider the insane spending and corruption which took the costs of the Games from US$12 billion to US$51 billion.

Lewis Hamilton won the Formula One world championship - but two teams went into administration in the same week as each other © Getty Images

Or you could revel in Lizzy Yarnold of Britain, and her victory in the most terrifying discipline that these slithery-slidey games has to offer, the skeleton bob. Or you could delight in Yuzuru Hanyu's sublimely lissom performance in the figure skating, in which he set a world record score in the short programme. It's your choice: gutter or stars?

And good things can sometimes come from bad. The International Olympic Committee, already committed to rejection of discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, is to introduce a clause against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and that's a pretty powerful thing to take on.

You can spend a lot of time complaining about the self-aggrandisement and self-importance of sport, but then you could find a counter-argument in Glasgow during the Commonwealth Games last summer. Here was a city en fete, with day after day of great action and good vibes. All you have to do to enjoy the Commonwealth Games is remember that they are not the Olympics and aren't supposed to be.

The Commonwealth Games contains athletics - a damn good meet as it happens - and that can be a problem for many people. Again it's your call: do you concentrate on the drugs and the recent allegations of institutionalised doping in Russia? Or do you revel in the achievement of, say, Britain's Jo Pavey, who won the 10,000 metres for Britain at the European Championships at the ripe old, record-breaking age of 40 - 11 months after giving birth to her second child; or the Kenyan runner Dennis Kimetto, who brought the two-hour barrier in the marathon appreciably closer. It's less than three minutes away now.

English cricket is still in rehab. It's trying to build a new life after giving up on Kevin Pietersen and trying to get the last traces of him out of its system. This is a selection issue that was perhaps foolishly turned into a morality play by the sacking - rather than the dropping - of the man in question. It's been an almighty rumpus, but one put into an appropriative perspective by the end of the year.

This came with the death of Phillip Hughes, who was killed after being struck by a bouncer. Deaths in sport have a terrible vividness, a sense of cosmic inappropriateness. It would be nice to think that this shocking event might heal some of the harms in the sport, but foolish to expect it.

Humans will always find a way of mucking up something great. In sport, the modern way of mucking-up usually comes from the classic clash of interests: money and power and prestige on one side and sporting action and the pursuit of excellence on the other. There is a tendency to get them all hopelessly muddled.

Every year sport will give you enough to despair at the human condition on any day in the calendar

You could find that best demonstrated in Formula One, in which Lewis Hamilton gave us the best boy-racer victory for years - and during the season two Formula One teams went into administration in the same week. Is Formula One just a business? Is all sport just a business? Or is it about the pursuit of something higher than profit?

So you look in one direction and you see some ghastly sporting administrator grovelling for power and squirming away from the righteous indignation of the world and you despair - and then you look in another and you see, say, Charlotte Dujardin, the first person ever to hold every available title in dressage. She and the great Valegro set world records in successive nights at Olympia towards the end of 2014.

Every year sport will give you enough to despair at the human condition on any day in the calendar: and sport will also bring you hope on the darkest night. Sport can make you aware of all the devastation and pointless destruction, lack of respect, reverence and responsibility. It can also bring you sharp vistas of life so vivid that you know you will never forget them.

Even if it leads you to despair, you know that there are good people out there in sport competing righteously, bravely and brilliantly.

Never forget that we're all in the gutter - and that you can look at the stars any time you choose.

Jo Pavey became the oldest-ever female European champion by winning the 10,000 metres in Zurich © Getty Images

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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