Saturday 10 December 2016

The Couch: If you crave a perfect, egalitarian utopia then maybe sport isn't for you

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

King Henry: Henry Shefflin celebrates his ninth All-Ireland medal in 2012. Photo: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
King Henry: Henry Shefflin celebrates his ninth All-Ireland medal in 2012. Photo: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Henry Shefflin’s RTE documentary on winning last Monday night was a must watch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

As the opium of the working classes, sport - in theory - should always have been a fertile hunting ground for left-wing politics. But the left has never been historically enthusiastic about organised sport, mainly because it is a formidable rival in the eternal battle for hearts and minds.

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It is hard to emancipate the working classes, after all, when said working classes are more preoccupied with the 2.30 at Chepstow. Which is a tad ungrateful of them, to be fair, when the likes of Richard Boyd Barrett are busting a gut trying to get them to rise up against their capitalist oppressors. Unfortunately, they just don't know what's good for them.

There is another fundamental element of the business which socialism also finds distasteful: competition. And competition is a sacred tenet of the free market. But sadly, there it is too, at the heart of the sporting life: man against man, woman against woman, all of them striving to beat each other for the voyeuristic pleasure of those in the comfortable seats - and those in the cheap seats as well, it must be admitted.

How can we build an egalitarian utopia, a harmonious brotherhood of humanity, when organised sport divides the common masses into mutually-hostile tribes; when it drives people to fight each other in all sorts of games which, in reality, are internecine conflicts dressed up as regulated leisure? The left therefore has tended to view sport as a de-civilising obsession, an all-too-powerful barrier in the epic journey towards perfect human enlightenment.

They won't have been dissuaded from this opinion if any of them deigned to watch Henry Shefflin's documentary on RTE last Monday night. The subject under examination by the Kilkenny maestro was obviously close to his heart. It was encapsulated in the programme's simple one-word title: Winning.

Here it was stated, by a professor of psychology, no less, that the nature of sport is inherently red in tooth and claw; that it is fundamentally a Darwinian fable of conqueror and conquered.

"The biggest influence on our brains is other people," said Prof Ian Robertson, author of The Winner Effect. "It's our relationships with other people, and there's one aspect of these relationships that is absolutely critical - and that's power. Winning is a kind of power. It's when you're essentially dominating the other person."

To illustrate the primitive spirits at work here, Robertson took Shefflin to the Phoenix Park during rut season to observe a couple of stags locking antlers, butting heads and snorting aggressively - basically behaving like corner-backs before the ball is thrown in.

But perhaps the poor old corner-back, and his ilk in other sports, is a tragically misunderstood animal. Maybe he just can't help himself. Maybe he is just doing what his natural testosterone is telling him to do. Testosterone, says Robertson, is "the hormone of competition". (Memo to corner-backs: next time you take the head off a corner-forward, just tell the ref it was the hormones that made you do it.)

Inconveniently enough for those striving for a world of peace and love, evolution appears to have been slow to join the crusade. There is still an awful lot of excess testosterone floating around, in the male of the species at any rate.

In his wide-ranging and admirably academic exploration, Shefflin discussed the matter with an American neuroscientist and former Wall Street trader, Dr John Coates. He described testosterone as a "self-doping mechanism - we're basically getting a legal hit of anabolic steroids every time we win".

So when Wall Street traders embark on a winning streak, they get blasted by more testosterone hits, a cycle which may ultimately lead to a sense of omnipotence - and, of course, financial catastrophe. A possible solution, suggests Coates, is to have more women and more older men on the trading floor, because they simply have less testosterone. In sports, however, the typical attitude would be to find more of the stuff, not less. And one legal way to find more of it is to win more.

"If you win a match," says Robertson, "you've a big surge of testosterone afterwards. As a result of that, the brain creates some more receiving stations for the testosterone - and what effect does that have? It increases two things: one is motivation and the other is aggression."

And if that wasn't enough, winning also delivers another chemical delight to the body: the neurotransmitter dopamine. "It gives us that sense of real pleasure and makes us more optimistic and confident," says Robertson. "It's an anti-depressant as well." Man, that dopamine must be the equivalent of a stoner's narcotic high. But stoners are too stoned to get their kicks in this arduous fashion. Dopamine is a happy trip reserved for the squares, the puritanical sports heads who want to earn their highs the hard way.

Anyway, between the testosterone and the dopamine, winners have a ready-made incentive and a built-in advantage when it comes to repeating the feat. "So winning is a really, really powerful drug," we were told.

But if winning acts like an anti-depressant, then surely it follows that losing has the opposite effect. We know anecdotally from sports people who have suffered defeats that the feeling is dreadful. It takes them to a very dark chamber.

In their quest to be winners, they end up losers. But that's the deal. They know there is no place for the welfare state in competitive sport.

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