(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 25.)
I squirm when New Zealand pulls off any against-the-odds feat on the world sporting stage, as it has done twice in the past fortnight.
Like any patriotic New Zealander, I celebrate these occasions and marvel at sport’s capacity to produce down-to-the-wire drama. But I brace myself for what I know is coming: an unseemly national orgy of self-congratulation. We’re always ready to claim a vicarious share of the credit for something achieved through the hard work and dedication of a few.
And so it turned out. The Cricket World Cup final reverberated in the media for a full week, choking the airwaves and devouring entire plantations of pinus radiata. And we didn’t even win, although a visiting alien, observing all the excitement, would never have guessed that.
It’s interesting to speculate on how we would have reacted if the Black Caps had actually beaten England. I’m not sure the national mood would have been any more exultant.
In a strange way, it was as if losing by the tiniest of margins – and due only to an arcane rule few knew about – fed into our view of ourselves as the little country at the bottom of the world that consistently punches above its weight and wins, morally at least, even when it loses.
The game was celebrated and analysed and then celebrated and analysed some more, until we had wrung every last drop of glory from the, er, defeat.
Everyone had to have their two bobs’ worth: cartoonists, editorial writers, columnists, talkback callers, letter writers and, of course, politicians. All felt compelled to give voice to what they apparently regarded as their own unique insight.
Then, just as it was all starting to subside, up bounced the Silver Ferns with their storybook redemptive win over arch-enemies Australia. And the nation, having almost exhausted itself over the cricket, had to summon the energy to do it all over again, except that this time there was a real victory to celebrate.
Bizarrely, it seemed almost anti-climactic. Perhaps the “Damn, we almost pulled it off” scenario suits the New Zealand psyche better than a last-gasp win.
It may seem disloyal to ask this, but are we really so dependent on sport for our sense of wellbeing? If we are, then something may be out of kilter in the national character.
To be fair, we’re better than a lot of countries at keeping sport in perspective. It’s not so crucial to our self-esteem that we need to assert ourselves by unleashing gangs of thugs on the fans of opposing teams, as English football clubs had a habit of doing not long ago. The Heysel stadium tragedy of 1985, remember, was caused when Liverpool fans attacked supporters of the Italian club Juventus, resulting in the collapse of a wall and 39 deaths. That was sporting tribalism at its ugliest.
It’s safe to say too that a New Zealand footballer who caused his team to crash out of the World Cup by scoring an own-goal wouldn’t risk being killed by a grieving fan, as happened to a Colombian player in 1994. Neither would we subject members of a losing team to a humiliating public inquisition, as in North Korea.
So we can congratulate ourselves for being relatively civilised by world standards. And as obsessed as we supposedly are with rugby, we still don’t match the Welsh – or, for that matter, Melbourne fans of Australian Rules football and American baseball tragics – for devotion to a sporting code.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that our jubilation when national teams win – and despondency when we lose, as with the America’s Cup in 2013 – is a bit over the top. And, dare I say it, a bit juvenile. It suggests a sense of national insecurity – a need to reassure ourselves that we amount to something.
It’s only sport, after all. No one’s life depends on it.
People can say it’s harmless, but I’m not even sure that’s entirely true. Women’s refuges know to expect more calls for help whenever the All Blacks lose, which suggests we invest far too much emotion in sport.
None of the above criticism applies to the Black Caps or the Silver Ferns, who deserve our admiration as much for their grace, resilience and good humour as for their sporting prowess. It’s not them whose perspective is a bit out of whack – sport is their career, after all – but the rest of us back home.
And here’s a strange thing: we love to compliment ourselves on not blowing our own trumpet as a country – unlike those appalling Australians, whose arrogance offends us.
I’m old enough to remember the days when an All Black who had scored a try would trudge back from the goal line with his head lowered as if he had just committed the unpardonable sin of drawing attention to himself. Boasting or skiting in any shape or form, by players or fans, was sternly discouraged.
Not any more, yet we still take pride in our supposed modesty. New Zealand must be the only country in the world that boasts about being humble. But you can’t take pride in humility; it’s a contradiction in terms.