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Drowning in Narrative

[Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images]

I like sports. If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll have figured that out. I’ve noted several times recently that my sports calendar peaks this time of year. The three weeks of the Tour de France would be reason enough for this to be the peak, what with daily races exciting in their own right, combined with the over-arching narrative of the battle for overall Tour lead. In addition, the Wimbledon tennis finals occur on the Tour’s opening weekend (two weeks ago) and the British Open golf championship runs from Thursday to Saturday of the Tour’s second week (this past weekend). If that weren’t enough, this year we had to make room for the World Cup, with its semi-finals and finals during the middle and end of the Tour’s opening week.

What is it that fascinates me about sports? Perhaps the key word is one I used just above: narrative. A major sporting event takes place within the context of the sport’s history and the biographies of the participants. With each development, we watch the narrative line take a different turn, imagine the new possibilities, re-write the story in our heads. Perhaps what I especially enjoy about golf’s four majors is that on the last day, so many players have their narratives change with each stroke. This contrasts, for instance, with tennis, whose major championships by the final day have reduced the competitors to two. At Wimbledon two years ago, during the extraordinary final between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, we were kept in suspense about what the final story would be, but there were essentially two possibilities. As the players make the turn on Sunday for the final nine holes of a golf championship, there may be three or four or even as many as seven or eight still in reach. I could give many examples of this — though not from yesterday’s concluding act at St. Andrews of the British Open.

I wish, however, to make a different point. Namely, much as I love narrative, I’m drowning! It’s just too much. The confluence of events this last month is pushing me to my limit.

I first thought about this two weeks ago, reading Wyatt Mason’s review in the July 15 issue of The New York Review of Books of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace . In the review, Mason quotes from an early essay of Wallace’s:

Human beings are narrative animals: every culture countenances itself as culture via a story, whether mythopoeic or politico-economic; every whole person understands his lifetime as an organized, recountable series of events and changes with at least a beginning and middle. We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing….

I think this is the appeal of sports: they feed our appetite for narrative. There may be more nutritious sources of narrative, but I cannot think of any with greater immediacy. The narrative is written as we watch. And the more we bring to it, in terms of our own understanding of the narrative to this point, the more we are drawn in. In the recent World Cup, for example, one need merely say the names of the great soccer powers — Brazil say, or Italy, or Germany, or Argentina — and hundreds of millions of people around the world could fill in the back story instantly. And then we could watch the narrative unfold: France’s shame, Italy’s lackluster play, the Germans’ brilliance, Uruguay’s unexpected return to soccer’s elite, England’s falling flat. And on and on, until there were just two stories left to be written, Holland’s and Spain’s.

Thrilling, yes. But perhaps too much. I may be ready for a break.

Not yet though. Give me until Sunday. Please. Have you been following the Tour these last two days in the Pyrenées? Mon Dieu! How will Schleck respond tomorrow after Contador took the lead away today when Schleck’s chain came off on the final climb just as he was attacking? And will one of them ride away from the other on Thursday, the final mountain day, in the closing ascent of the Col du Tourmalet. Then there’s Friday’s drama, as the sprinters come to the fore. Can Mark Cavendish win another stage? How will Petacchi do? What about the green jersey competition? Saturday brings the individual time trial. Ooh la la! One last battle for Schleck and Contador. They’ll coast in Sunday, but the sprinters will have one more chance to strut.

Five more great days. I’m not done with sporting narratives just yet.

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Categories: Life, Sports, Writing
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