I am a long-time subscriber to Sports Illustrated. I realize the magazine leans left politically; Rick Reilly's liberalism is about as subtle as a brick through a plate-glass window. Still, I was surprised to read a feature article in last week's issue entitled "Everything Is Illuminated." The piece, by Jeff MacGregor, discussed the 15th Asian Games held in Qatar, a sort of mini-Olympics largely consisting of non-Western sports. But the piece, which ran over 7,000 words (10 times the length of this column), was not designed to stir curiosity. It was designed to make a point Sports Illustrated often pushes: Sports can unite us, superseding moral differences in a profound way.
"The host nation receives the greatest ovation during the alphabetical parade, from Afghanistan through Yemen," writes MacGregor. "Folks from the, um, Axis of Evil, however, run a close second. Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria all walk in to lusty applause. Israel's invitation probably got lost in the mail.
"Watching the close-ups of the teams, you see that each team is made up only of people, most of whom are taking smiling pictures of one another with digital cameras just like yours. Which isn't to say that ideas and the people who bear them out into the world can't be wrong or even evil but rather that we have more in common than most of us are willing to admit. And that evil can be, like everything else, a matter of where you're standing."
Ah, the sweet sounds of moral relativism. People may be evil, but evil is a matter of where you're standing. Qatar may ban bathing suits and refuse to recognize the State of Israel. Qatari crowds may cheer regimes that sponsor mass murder both domestically and internationally. But that's all just a matter of perspective. What really matters is that everyone likes games involving spherical objects.
The sports press plays this same tune every four years, with the advent of the World Cup. ESPN ran an ad during the 2006 World Cup in which U2's Bono gravely informed the audience: "It's a simple thing. Just a ball and a goal. But once every four years that simple thing drastically changes the world. It closes the schools, closes the shops, closes the city, stops a war. A simple ball fuels the passion and pride of nations, gives people everywhere something to hope for, gives countries respect where respect is in short supply and achieves more than the politicians ever could. Once every four years a ball does the impossible."