Sport

My lack of sporting talent was surpassed only by my lack of interest, but now I am a sports dad

I didn’t set out to be a “sports dad”. None of the risk factors seemed to be present. Through my childhood and into my early 20s, watching or participating in sport struck me as a waste of time. Despite the presence of elite athletes on both sides of my family tree (a former Wallaby and a former top-100 tennis player, among others), my lack of innate sporting talent was surpassed only by my lack of interest.

So why now, with two children under four – when I have less free time and I am more sleep deprived than ever before – am I spending so much time watching televised sport?

My partner is bemused by this transformation. When she catches me in the act, slumped on the couch like Homer Simpson, she mutters, “Oh, sports dad,” and rolls her eyes.

Am I the same man she married?

During our courtship (ha ha), sport was at most a background hum. Occasionally, in those carefree days of childless cohabitation, around the time that the sublime Federer-Nadal rivalry was winding down, I might have suggested that we watch the final of some tennis tournament. But when this offer was politely declined, I could usually be persuaded to engage in other activities that would be more … mutually enjoyable, if you know what I mean (that’s right – board games or crosswords).

I was blind to sport’s appeal, but now I see.

As a rule-following, suburban father of two, my world has become smaller. Barracking for my team provides a vicarious thrill about as intense as I can experience without voiding my life insurance. And, almost buried in the slow-motion replays, the injury time, the bluster of post-match interviews, sometimes I glimpse a genuinely human moment of vulnerability, compassion, transcendence.

Earlier this year, Christian Leali’ifano lined up to kick the penalty that would make him the first player of Pasifika heritage to score 1,000 points in Super Rugby.

Leali’ifano had played for my favourite team, the Brumbies, until he was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2017. After his recovery, he has continued to play professionally (in itself a remarkable achievement) and now represents Moana Pasifika. That night, when Leali’ifano’s young son surprised his father by taking the field to deliver the kicking tee, and the two solemnly shook hands, and then Leali’ifano stepped forward and nailed the shot … well, let’s just say this sports dad got a bit choked up.

Sport can be boring, too, and this is also part of its appeal. I savour the lengthy breaks in play: the change of ends, the scrum reset. Commentators fill for time, rattling off statistics and rounding out the players’ back stories.

It is soothing, even soporific. I jolt awake on the couch at 3am with no feeling in my shoulder.

The people I am watching care deeply about the result of this game, but to me they are strangers, which means I can choose my level of emotional investment.

I love my children deeply, and at times they frustrate me deeply. It’s nice to get a break from that level of intensity.

For many sports fans, the last few weeks have been a perfect storm. Last Saturday, for example, there were no fewer than six rugby union tests – each lasting about two and a half hours – that I would have liked to watch live.

And don’t get me started about Wimbledon! A grand slam represents a lot of ball-related content that won’t just consume itself. But that day, my children had other ideas. Besides, the lawn needed mowing, and we were having people over for dinner. What’s a sports dad to do?

Well, this dad’s strategy is to time-shift all that content. If I can’t watch it live, then I impose a strict media blackout on myself and those closest to me. No results, please!

When night falls and the house is quiet, I fire up the streaming service. Far from becoming a social outlet, sports-watching has become a solitary pastime. I observe furtively, late at night and at low volume, as though I’ve stumbled across a racy foreign film while channel-flicking.

None of this makes sense. I am constantly low-key furious about my inability to find time for writing, which is my passion and creative outlet. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

I work an office job; I care for my children. My wife works and cares, too, and in the evening we sprawl for an hour or so in our living room in companionable exhaustion. And then I stay up late watching two mid-table teams play each other in Japan’s second-tier rugby competition. I sleep fitfully, wake up grumpy, rail at the lack of writing time … and then I look up the schedule for the next evening’s viewing.

My brain is broken. There is, as the parent of young children, a lot to worry about right now. And besides, is Bandit Heeler a model of fatherhood, or a mascot for the patriarchy? By the time my kids have been temporarily stowed in their beds of an evening, I am mentally shattered. I cannot write. I can barely remember how to boil pasta.

I comfort myself that my habit is not yet all-consuming.

The scenery in the Tour de France is nice, but I refuse to learn the finer points of breakaway strategy or team racing. The Adelaide Crows are my notional Australian Rules football team, but I am a fair-weather fan, and conditions have been inclement for some time. And I save hundreds of hours a year by getting my F1 fix exclusively via Drive to Survive on Netflix.

Perhaps one day, all feats of strength and skill will be consumable via a 10-hour yearly digest, and I will be able to reclaim my life. For now, my prospects look about as slim as those of an international rugby team playing the All Blacks at Eden Park, where the Kiwis have not lost since 1994. Which is to say: there’s always a sporting chance.