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Summer of sport


Recommended viewing - Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon

Recommended viewing - Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon

Recommended viewing - Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon

For many of us, our lives would be unimaginable without a constant supply of sport. But this is not just about us. We also find the lives of other people unimaginable without sport.

Personally, I have no idea how men live without a full portfolio of sporting events to fill the void of their existence. I just don't know what they do to make their time on this earth vaguely interesting or meaningful; let alone to get that blast of adrenaline that you can only get from watching highly trained professionals engaging in competitive games.

Nature itself, the four seasons, seem to be intimately linked to the sporting calendar -- for example, the end of winter and the start of spring is officially announced, not by some change in the weather, but by Cheltenham. And in a most encouraging development, there are many for whom the Christmas season is now inextricably linked with the World Darts Championship at the Alexandra Palace, though you may still find a few stragglers who know nothing of this good news of great joy.

Usually I try not to think about those poor devils, and what is left to them in this world. Usually I try to deny it, to block out the very idea that there are people out there with nothing to engage their attention except this terrible thing they call "reality".

But now I must put aside my denial, because this is 2011. And 2011 means just one thing. It means that this is one of those summers in which there will be no World Cup or European Championship in football, and not even an Olympic Games to provide some sporting comfort, however false.

If they had any consideration, or any commitment to the common good, the Rugby Union authorities would have moved their World Cup back from September to fill the space which was filled last year by a real World Cup. There was a major opportunity for them here, to break out of their rich-kid ways and to make themselves useful. Instead they are sticking to their autumn schedule, thus giving up any chance of entertaining the multitudes, who will not be needing Rugby Union or any other form of rugby when this Summer of Torment 2011 is over.

Of course, 2011 may mean other things to other people, but those things don't matter, and those people don't know what they're talking about. For those of us who know the Truth, this summer is about being steadfast, being resourceful, and being determined to get through this somehow.

It is about drawing on our love of all the other sports in the world, in the hope that they can carry us across the months of June, July and part of August, without football.

And it is about getting an unwanted taste of the way that those other people live, those lost souls for whom every summer is a summer without the World Cup and the European Championship, and who think that that is acceptable.

For a start, we must tell ourselves that football is not the only game, and that there are some who call themselves sporting aficionados who can actually live without it completely, even in a World Cup year. But they are deeply in error.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain it to outsiders, is that football is the equivalent of the grand piano in the orchestra. And some of us would argue that football also represents the strings, perhaps even a portion of the woodwind instruments, and even, if truth be told, the whole damn rhythm section. But I acknowledge that this would be a slightly biased view, and we must be reasonable here, at all times.

We must also concede that this summer is not completely and absolutely devoid of all football, since we will, after all, be having the European Under-21 Championship in June, which is perhaps not the grand Steinway at the centre of the orchestra, more of a baby grand, or even just a plain old stand-up piano. But you can still get a tune out of it, if you're feeling sad enough.

And there is also that last refuge of desperate men, the Copa America, which is a sort of South American equivalent of the European Championship, and which has traditionally been screened by Sky Sports round midnight at the height of July, emphasising the disorder of the senses and the general sense of deprivation which is being endured by the faithful during these arid seasons, these times of want.

Yet there is some small reason to go on living, if you can switch on your laptop at about one in the morning, in order to log on to your internet-betting provider and have a massive gamble on, say, Venezuela to beat Bolivia, with Venezuela leading at half-time and full time, and Bolivia getting 11 corner kicks or more. Yes, that could get you through the night. That endless summer night . . .

Realistically, we must plan for this difficult time without football by having a look at what is left to us from now until the middle of August, when the world is right again.

If Cheltenham is the official start of spring, then Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood and the Galway Races and the Derby at Epsom and the Irish 'classics' at the Curragh are surely what the good Lord had in mind when he was putting together this concept we call summer.

These are the great festivals of racing, these places rich with the aromas of whiskey and cigar smoke and horse shit, which make men feel so completely relaxed. And they are truly at peace, too, as they saunter towards the betting office to have a look at the runners and riders at an evening meeting in Navan or Roscommon or Gowran Park or Bellewstown, spending quality time with the Racing Post and with their fellow man. Spending money in the economy, too. Giving something back.

If you want to introduce your children to a pastime which will keep them amused and occupied and perhaps even obsessed to the point of madness for the rest of their lives, you should take them to Laytown, Co Meath, where they race on the strand. By cleverly disguising a day of gambling as a family outing to the seaside, Laytown in its quintessentially Irish way has introduced several generations to the magic of the turf, with consequences that are incalculable.

Like most things in life, sport is ideally viewed from a large armchair in front of the television. And this is especially true of one of the masterpieces of the summer season, the British Open.

Golf tournaments in general are much more enjoyable on the small screen than at the track itself. You could make an expensive and tiring journey to the actual course, where you can only look at a small part of the event at any given time, while the folks back home are seeing everything that matters, as it happens.

But if all golf on TV is innately relaxing, the British Open connects us to the deepest feelings of peace we will ever experience on this earth. When we sit down in the middle of July, to watch the first balls being struck on the Thursday morning, knowing that there will be about 12 more hours of this on the BBC, uninterrupted by ads or by anything else, each day until Sunday, we have some sense of that thing they're talking about when they talk about happiness.

This year the Open is at Sandwich in Kent, at the Royal St George's club, and even now the contemplation of that linksland with its ancient sand dunes and its lunar contours creates within me a mood of profound tranquillity, a sense of oneness with the spheres.

Interestingly, my birthday tends to coincide with one of the four Open days, so perhaps my natural rhythms are specially attuned to this annual gift from the gods. But then I believe that most human beings are similarly affected, once they learn a few simple techniques, such as sitting down, shutting up, and pointing the remote control in the right direction.

For those who do not understand, there is still time . . .

I say this with complete confidence because, until a couple of years ago, incredibly, I had not yet learned to love the great game of cricket. So yes, there is still time . . .

It was gambling that got me into cricket. Realising through my indefatigable work in this area that every game of cricket offers myriad betting opportunities, I started to get involved in the odd Test match. Then I lucked in to the new, shorter forms of cricket such as 20/20, in which a whole game can be finished in as little as four hours, a blissful way to spend an evening in June, watching Leicestershire playing Worcestershire on Sky.

Now, at last, my life was complete. I had tried so hard over the years to discover the secret of cricket, because I knew that therein lay a source of deep contentment. Cricket in the mind's eye is usually played in the sunshine, during those crucial months in which there is no football -- so if you can learn to love it, you can be involved at the top level all the year round.

Indeed for any Irish person, with the recent success of our cricket team, there is now no excuse. Moreover, the game would seem to be specifically tailored to fit the Irish temperament -- any game which can require the spectator to head off for five days, during which he can be drinking beer from morning till night, with no remarks passed, would seem to have a special attraction for Paddy. And that's without the betting action.

Recent researches have duly shown that the game was widespread in this country until the GAA came along with its 'Irish' codes, denying us not only this beautiful game, but an essential part of ourselves which is only now being rediscovered.

Perhaps we can now see Gaelic games and hurling in a broader context, whereby the Irish started to devise their own ways of expressing themselves during the 'cricket' season, and it sort of got out of hand. But still there will be many who will enjoy an excellent day out in fine weather in the months to come, sipping a few cold ones and supporting their native county in the hurling or football championships.

And the best of luck to them too.

I would also highly recommend the Tour de France, which can be seen every summer on Eurosport. For those of us who couldn't afford it, or who had no inclination to go on a holiday to France or to anywhere else, Le Tour on Eurosport has always provided an important public service. Quite apart from the cycling, with its awe-inspiring climbs and its terrifying descents, you can view the land of France in all its magnificence due to the superb TV pictures, with aerial photography a special feature.

Not only can you watch the peloton sweeping through the countryside of Provence, you can learn about the local history, geography and culture, and generally get yourself an education about France and the French that you never got in school.

Even in the fat years, this was not just cheaper, it was far, far better than actually going to France. Now that all the money is gone, it is not just a holiday with all the bad things about holidays taken out, it kills the day. In fact, it kills about three weeks.

And Irish viewers are fortunate enough to have a tour guide who speaks their own language, with commentary by cycling legend Sean Kelly, bringing an echo of Tipperary to the Tour -- ah, it is super. Just super.

If you can get past the suburban twee-ness of it, I would also recommend the tennis at Wimbledon. Clearly it is a constant challenge to have to listen to the crowds roaring with laughter when a pigeon flies across the court, or when an umpire nearly gets hit by a ball, but Wimbledon has at least two things going for it.

There's that deep, deep relaxation that all men feel when they look at any contest taking place on a green surface, and there's the fact that they can bet on every match on the internet, knowing that there can only be a winner or a loser -- in tennis, there are no draws.

There is also the exquisitely poignant experience for the viewer of watching his relaxation slowing fading away, as the perfect green surface of the first match on Centre Court deteriorates each day of the tournament, until, eventually, it is but a verdant memory.

It is the story of our lives.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine