'We need to stop using language of death for a life-affirming activity'
This is a plea by Peadar King for people involved in sport to desist from using the language of war.
King is a documentary film maker who specialises in human rights issues. Based in Cork, a native of Kilkee, Co Clare, he has been making the What in the World? television series for RTÉ since 2004. During that time he has filmed in over 50 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The subjects covered include famine, poverty, racism, police violence, resource exploitation, the death penalty, climate change, war and the legacies of war.
Last December he and cameraman Ken O'Mahony spent nine days in Aleppo, the city that has become synonymous with the apocalyptic civil war in Syria over the last seven years.
King is a general sports fan but the Clare hurling and Gaelic football teams are closest to his heart. He reads the sports pages and is dismayed by the war metaphors routinely deployed there.
"For example, before the Austria game last year, Roy Keane talked about the players needing to 'go to war', about them 'putting their bodies on the line' and so on. I was really struck by that notion, when you consider the fragility of the body and the way in which bodies are put on the line in time of war. And that kind of language desensitises us to the way in which war actually impacts on people, the actual impact of what's happening to people's bodies."
King's Aleppo film was broadcast on What in the World? last Tuesday night. He and O'Mahony had visited the city's University Hospital. In 2016 alone it received 28,000 casualties. An estimated 500,000 people in all have been killed during the war. Two million people have been injured.
In one ward, two boys are being treated for multiple injuries to the head, organs and other parts of the body, caused by a land mine explosion. In another room boys are being fitted with prosthetic legs; they are practising how to walk on them. In another, 17-year-old Suleiman lies unconscious; there are pieces of shrapnel in his brain from a mortar bomb. If he survives he will have permanent brain damage.
Suleiman and those other injured boys will never be able to run freely or play football or throw basketballs again. "The kind of athleticism that we celebrate in sport is gone from them," says King. "They will never have that opportunity to express themselves on playing fields; the fun, the camaraderie, the physical well-being - the kinds of things that sport celebrates. It's beautiful, all these things are wonderful about sport, and yet we use this destructive language around it."
King believes that this mentality is "particularly endemic in rugby. It's not a very scientific analysis but from my reading of sports pages and newspapers over the last 12 to 18 months, the language of war is more likely to be invoked in rugby as opposed to any other sport."
The terminology used around the schools game should be especially mindful. Bellicose hyperbole, comparisons with actual previous wars, should be avoided around any sports involving teenagers. "Some of it is really disturbing; it's shocking. I think it's unfair as well: it puts enormous pressure on young rugby players in a world which is already highly pressurised for them. I think it's irresponsible, that someone should invoke that kind of imagery.
"And I also think it does grave disservice to the young men who fought for example in the First World War, the Second World War. There is no nobility in war, particularly for the people who do the actual fighting."
Reem Asslo is a 22-year-old pharmacy student in Aleppo. She's been playing basketball since she was seven. She won a national championship with her club and still plays with the Jalaa team in the city. She was 16 when the bombs started falling. "Before the war life was beautiful," she tells King. Then her sister was shot dead by a sniper. "A bullet went through her heart. Doctors tried to save her and her heart started beating for a while but stopped again. This kind of pain stays forever."
King is well aware that the sports media has scant connection with the theatres of conflict around the world. "But language is important and sport is not war. It is not appropriate to ask young men to put their bodies on the line for the sake of a game. The integrity of the body needs to be protected and needs to be acknowledged.
"The frequency with which war is used as a sporting metaphor, it trivialises war; the stark reality of war is lost; it is lost by the normalisation of war in a sporting context. And I think it's time we resisted that normalisation."
Antoine Makdis, a 24-year-old Syrian photographer, brings the film crew on a tour of the bombed-out buildings of Aleppo, marooned in mountains of their own rubble. He recounts the first time he saw a human being killed. "The terrorists" arrived to his neighbourhood in October 2012. A man starts running; they catch him and force him to his knees. "They put a Kalashnikov to his head and start shooting."
King wants the major governing bodies - FAI, GAA, IRFU - "to disassociate themselves officially" from the language of war. "I would also ask sports writers, editors and sub editors to consider desisting from using this kind of imagery." And he would also like former players, those icons and role models who are now high-profile pundits, "to rethink the language they use."
Sport is a life-enhancing activity, he says. "I want them to stop using the language of death for what is a life-affirming activity. We need to re-engage with a language that does what sport does, which is to celebrate the beauty, the athleticism and solidarity that exists among players."
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