The 2020 Yearender: Learning to Write on Sport Again, And Refusing to Accept a New Normal

Writing, it so seems, is a strange vocation for these times. Sports writing even stranger. These two recurring thoughts made cameos in one’s psyche while the written word jostled for space amidst a year of visual extravaganzas — videos small, big, nasty and outright poor. The thoughts were also interspaced by columns on cricket, football, Black Lives Matter, corruption, the pandemic, lockdown, children’s right to play, the missed Olympics played out in a parallel universe, and last but not the least important, this yearender…

Writing, it seems, is a strange vocation for it forces you to learn, unlearn, relearn and let go, in torrents. Unleash words that seem true for you at the time, but are fake for many others, for it was conjured up in the recesses of one’s mind while telling oneself that this is the truth — the side which lost was beautiful, the team which won was too perfect, almost mechanical, and that nobody played fair. Subjectively fair, objectively unfair.

Well, it has been an unfair year!

Playing by the rules set by the unfair year, CE 2020, I wrote, then pulled out those pages to make kites to loft up in the air as beacons. The beacons always burn bright or so we believe. The words burn too, along with passing time, the versions of the writer whom I believed were the best I could ever get, burnt too. It is evolution for a sports writer, the right kind, and not the kind prescribed by 2020. Writing has always made one want to become a better person, a better human, a better journalist, a better sports journalist… Always.

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So, this year, like every other year, I was caught in transition — from the 2019 columnist, to the 2020 one, where strangely, and completely departed from nature, I did not aspire to sharpen my craft, but tried, half heartedly, to discard it for a new skill altogether. How to write a match report without actually being there at the venue. How to feel emotion without breathing in the same column of air as a sports star who wins or loses at a specific venue for his art as well as his legacy.

Now we know what it takes for a personal legacy-chasing career sports journalist to be at some stadia, some temple of dreams, some theatre of the absurd — a vaccine, acceptance of the new realities, selling oneself over to the business, or just plain become a window on a giant screen kept alongside the goalpost in an Indian Super League match, where fans come alive as animated mugshots. 

Absurdity is also in this small dream of breathing the same air as a footballer or a cricketer or Naomi Osaka or LeBron James or Lewis Hamilton or Marcus Rashford or Michael Holding — the woke athlete amidst unwoke leaders of nations. It is a sin. Where is my mask? One needs to cover the mouth and nose, block the virus, and also veil the journalist’s emotion-laden face which took a little over 15 years to make. Make it a more impassive, emotionless, inert content creator who could watch matches on TV and evocatively list out the ifs and buts and the cons and truth that gets played out in the name of live sport or sports governance these days — the false crowd background cacophony included.

Do you remember the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? One was taken back to the tournament during one of the matches this year, while trying to write a report on it. Those days, we could hear a match from miles and miles away — the vuvuzelas. Wonder if South African sports channels used the vuvuzela score to set tempo for their matches. Maybe they did. 

It was a strange year. A year when broadcasters realised that matches needed background scores, while missing the whole point that it is not the noise, but the collective energy of the hearts on the stands which drive magic on the playing field. Well, the spectator in me, the one who always used to mute and watch matches, reluctantly fell in line, agreeing that the noise was a necessity. How else would I replicate the slightly higher than normal throbbing of the vitals one experience while inside the media tribune of a stadium, writing on the history that transpired right in front of you, even if it was a dull draw in a dead rubber.

Sports writing has taken a forced evolutionary jump in 2020 and I am left behind. For I refused to learn. I tried to but refused to. It is an ethical flux more than anything else, and I am glad it happened. The fight. For that’s the least one could do for the profession (assuming as always that I am right here) in a year when many athletes stood up for what is right, knelt down to fight what is wrong, and, whenever they could, played to win, played to entertain, played to keep their world alive.

I refused to write match reports this year — turned away from taking the evolutionary plunge in sports writing — to fight my own personal battle of right and wrong.

While spending most of the latter part of the year battling this self-defined good vs evil tussle — believing in the poetry of a match report and the prose in the headlines, I broke my hiatus with a piece on Diego Maradona. After he left us. Imagine the pain, Imagine the curse one has to endure, writing obits, eulogies and epitaphs when all one wanted while walking into the profession was to write about life, about the vigour and virility of a goal, of a victory, of a medal, the pain of a knockdown, of a loss, of a headbutt, and everything in between. But certainly not death.This year had many obits.

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And, sports writing — live match reportage to be exact — will probably never be the same again. Or maybe it would and I am just analyzing it a tad bit harshly. 

Nonetheless, the truth remains that life is poetry, sport is life, and the sportsperson a muse one can admire but never love. For isn’t that unethical? And one can never live life or sing poetry or fall in love looking at a flickering screen. Period!

But I did admire a few sports heroes this year — the ones who stood out. Some of them I have named already. The others have already immortalised themselves as heroes. Am I trying to disguise, or rather mask (pun intended) this piece as a yearender?  No, in all honesty, the real attempt was to write lines like a lover in separation, away from love, away from the stadiums where dreams are made, and shattered, by the will, power and grace of humans who have risen about the rest. Deep within, the wish was to be the tragic sports journalist, if not a poet, in mourning.

The irony here is that on January 1, 2021, the sports scribe will once again try to evolve, striving to remain relevant. Like how sport (at least big sport) and many athletes managed to remain — both socially, politically and economically — in a year which hardly gave anybody a chance to do it. The odds were firmly stacked against us this year.

And as we stand on the cusp again, with the change of four digits in our calendars giving us hope of a restart with many resolutions, we may see those stakes and odds evolve too — mutate even like the virus — stacking even higher in 2021… 

But still, a Happy New Year beckons, in sport, life and beyond!

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