"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed by that attitude. Let me assure you, it's much, much more important than that."
--Bill Shankly, one-time manager of Liverpool Football Club
When the IOC sold the television rights for the 1998 Winter and 2000 Summer Olympics, they did quite well. In the US, for example, they received $1.2 billion -- enough to write off Haiti's national debt. Meanwhile, in England from the start of the next football season, two television companies will pay the English Premier League $2.2 billion for screening privileges (slightly more than the combined GDPs of Somalia and Liberia). The current NFL TV rights have gone for $17.6 billion (more than the combined GDPs of Somalia, Liberia, Angola, Kenya, and Tanzania).
Apart from providing a graphic illustration of the gap between the rich and poor nations, these figures also tell us something about the presence of competitive sport in the consciousness of early 21st century humans. And it makes me wonder: is this a purely human trait? Or when we imagine other forms of intelligent life, should sports also figure?
Certainly when we project ourselves into the future, we seem ready to believe our sporting passions will continue. Hence baseball on the colonized Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson, or both baseball and boxing making appearances in Babylon 5.
Occasionally, writers have also considered how human sports could evolve. For instance, mercuryball from the Tom Corbett books of the fifties, or paraorbital skydiving in Star Trek, or the Roller Ball of William Harrison. In the first two examples, these sports are simply technological advances, but in Harrison's story, the rule-changing, increasingly violent pursuit of Roller Ball also tells us something about the direction society has taken.
In this manner, an "alien" sport can shed light on the culture that produced it. The most obvious cultural marker being the nature of the sport itself -- the gladiatorial entertainments in the first Dune novel underline the harshness of Arrakeen life under Baron Harkonnen.
Another, more subtle, cultural indicator would be the way a particular sport was followed. For instance, how might spectator sports function under an authoritarian regime? Extrapolating from human experience, the support of certain teams could become a sly form of social protest. In Franco's Spain, Catalonians couldn't go out onto the streets and denounce the dictator, but for one Saturday a year in the Nou Camp stadium, they could scream abuse at Real Madrid (perceived as being Franco's team). Likewise, the hated chief of Stalin's secret police, Beria, supported one of the Moscow football clubs and made sure it got all the best players. Of course, no sane person would criticize Beria in public. His team, on the other hand. . .
The choice of a particular sport or a particular side can reveal fault lines of class or religion. In Glasgow, for instance, the city's two football clubs face each other across a Protestant/Catholic divide. A sporting competition can be an interesting focal point for conflicting ideologies or cultures. Or, as in the Howard Waldrop story reprinted in January, it can illustrate the way a culture is about to change.
Often when an "alien" sport does appear in speculative fiction, the sport itself is the purpose of the story. Roller Ball being a case in point; another being the future Olympics of Larry Niven and Stephen Barnes, in Achilles' Choice (where players compete to join the world's ruling class). What we don't often see is the presence of sport as part of the background music of people's lives: a distraction from work's dull routines, or among strangers, the surprise discovery of a common interest; a reason for feeling slightly better or slightly worse about the world.
This is probably asking too much from a short story, which by its nature demands a tight focus, but it would be easy enough to achieve in a novel. In this way, sporting interests can be used as a means of describing not society or politics, but character and personality-type: the passive, eternal spectator, the hyper-competitive show-off, the control freak who only plays if he knows he'll win. In the Harry Potter series, Quidditch forms this kind of background at Hogwarts, and apart from providing useful sub-plots, is also an indicator of character. For instance, Draco Malfoy buys his way onto the Slytherin team.
Although much of what I've written here seems to apply only to science fiction, there's no reason why these considerations shouldn't also apply to fantasy worlds. In realities where magic exists, the magic itself would provide competitive opportunities (cf. Harry Potter). Even in worlds set in the past, there are possibilities. After all, in England, the historical evidence of football goes as far back as the 13th century. (Although admittedly this wasn't football as it's played today. In fact, it was mostly two villages using a pig's bladder as an excuse for beating the hell out of each other. But still.)
Overall, then, surely competitive sports are as important an aspect of world-building as arts, politics, or religion? Admittedly, creating a convincing "alien" sport is not easy. But if done, it can offer the author a useful tool in that most difficult of tasks: the construction of a world messy and uncertain enough to believe in.
Mithran Somasundrum is a Copy Editor for Strange Horizons.
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