Nuance is the mortal enemy of essayist Christopher Hitchens. Whether it’s his rapturous support for Bush’s Iraq invasion or his best-selling dismissal (God is NOT Good) of religion, Hitchens will always eschew a surgical analysis for the rhetorical amputation. Beneath the Oxford education, he has become Thomas Friedman in an ascot, with all the subtlety of a blowtorch.
Now Hitchens has turned his attention to sports and the ensuing essay in Newsweek, called Fool’s Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature, is everything you might fear. I’m no fan of the politics that surround the Olympic games but when Hitchens takes out his dull saw, nothing connected to sports is spared.
As he writes, “Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples. As George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay ‘The Sporting Spirit’ after yet another outbreak of combined mayhem and chauvinism on the international soccer field, ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will.’"
It’s interesting that Hitchens doesn’t quote Orwell’s more known critique that sports is “war minus the shooting”, possibly because Hitchens has been such a cheerleader for the “humanitarian” virtues of empire over the last decade.
This also isn’t the first time Hitchens has sought shelter in Orwell’s genius to cloak his own doggerel. But the Orwell who wrote Homage to Catalonia never detested ordinary working people the way Hitchens does. Orwell's sympathy for workers came from living, writing and even fighting fascists among them. For Hitchens, they are the people who serve him drinks in Georgetown. And he finds them odious.
As Hitchens writes,
“[Have you ever] seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.”
Please spare us your disdain. Yes there is much to detest in the world of sports. But why then is it also such a source of solace, joy, and - heaven forefend – fun? Hitchens doesn’t care to explore this question. His contempt for the “rabble” triumphs any effort at reason. Just as with his ham-fisted analysis of religion, our love of sport is also proof-positive of our irredeemable idiocy.
Hitchens also shows no interest in the fact that sports also have a progressive political power. When racism, sexism, and homophobia have been challenged through struggle in the streets, it has ricocheted with electric results in the world of athletics. This is why we associate Jackie Robinson with the Civil Rights movement or Billie Jean King with the women’s liberation struggles of the 1970s. And lest we forget, the most famous draft resister in world history is a boxer, Muhammad Ali. On a far more grass roots level, sports are where many people - particularly young people - find confidence, friendship, and a sense of self. For many it's where the deeply segregated dynamics of our society are broken down. This is not true in every case of course. For every story of sports-as-savior, there are 100 gym class horror stories. Yes, it is absolute truth that sports can bring out the worst in athletes, fans, parents, and coaches. But it can also bring out the best. In this case however, it has brought out the worst in the Artist Formally Known as Hitchens.
To use one of his despised sports analogies, Christopher Hitchens is like an aging pitcher whose fastball abandoned him years ago. But in sports, once the skills are gone, you are kicked to the curb. Writers clearly get to just keep on going.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.