From the Old Firm to Varsity: Why we need sporting rivalries?

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“Step aside – the greatest show on earth is about to return.”

So were the musings of Vice magazine writer Callum Hamilton on the third of this month. What could he possibly have been talking about, I hear you ask? What edgy, off-the-wall, “hip” delights would warrant being called “the greatest show on earth” by a publication whose projects have included, amongst others, interviewing cannibals, covering bride-kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan and, recently shadowing, up-close, first hand and with permission, the ISIL in Syria? (I told you it was edgy). But no, according to Vice, the greatest show on earth has nothing to do with cannibals, bride-kidnappers or radical Islamists. It is much closer to home and somewhat less civilised than the above subjects.

It is, of course, the Old Firm derby: Celtic versus Rangers.

Vice, in fact, has previous with the Old Firm. So does every media outlet.

So much for edginess.

But while the continuing sectarian nature of the Old Firm is what makes it unique. It is a fairly extreme example of a category that most readers will be able to have identified with at some point in their lives: the Sporting Rivalry.

So what defines a sporting rivalry? What is it that makes tribalism so appealing to the simple sports fan?

There are, it goes without saying, a good number of reasons why rivalries exist – geography, history, politics or religion. Let us start with one we can all have related to at some point – St Andrews and Edinburgh. Whether it is football, rugby, hockey (both ice and field), or any sport in which both universities field teams, there is always that little more incentive to play, to put in that little more effort, a little more oomph. Having once played Edinburgh at non-ice (real) hockey, I speak from experience when I say that. Not that it helped very much; we lost, and I’ve lost count of how much we lost by. Nonetheless, the rivalry still exists, and in this case it is because of the ancient status of both institutions (older than the United States by several centuries) and the academic competition between the two. Ergo, beating Edinburgh at any given sport is our way of showing them who is boss.

Of course, sporting rivalries extend beyond the Bubble. Why, just last week, Scotland took on England at Celtic Park, and although one may have thought that any side containing Chris Smalling in the starting line-up would be there for the taking, it was not quite to be for the gallant, brave Scotland side.

I probably do not need to go into why there is a Scotland-England rivalry; wars, land-grabs and military occupation provide a tasty historical basis and a reasonable guess for why England are known as the “Auld Enemy”. That is before we move onto matches in which Scotland beat England; one being in which Scotland became “unofficial world champions” (England had won the World Cup the year before – you can probably guess what year this was), and another, in 1977, when Scottish fans invaded the Wembley pitch, taking bits of turf and goalposts for good measure. Appropriate revenge for England annexing Berwick in 1482, some may say. It is also worth noting that this rivalry extends to rugby union, where the Calcutta Cup is contested exclusively and annually in the Six Nations and where the rivalry between fans is slightly more, let us just say, restrained.

Unfortunately, the Scotland-England rivalry does not extend to that other Great British sport, cricket. An even mix of Scottish weather, plus the view from some that playing such a perceptively English game is akin to an admission of homosexuality (not such a popular view in the modern age, obviously), means that Scotland has always been at Cow Corner on the international stage. That is a cricket term, for all you Scots and Americans out there.

But it is with cricket that we can move on to rivalries of a possibly more heated nature. I speak not necessarily of the Ashes which even the biggest ‘Muricans in St Andrews have surely by now heard of at some point, but of India and Pakistan. Not only is this rivalry one that is fuelled by geographically disputed borders, history (shared heritage in the British Empire, secession of Pakistan in 1947, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971) and religion (Hinduism and Islam) – these are two countries that threatened to blow each other to pieces by way of nuclear attack in 1999. Next time an Indian or Pakistani claims this rivalry is more intense than the Ashes, well, there is your answer why.

So far, you may be thinking, all I have done is suggest how rivalries are bad and maybe we should all be friends and abolish winning and losing so that no-one gets hurt. I will therefore stake a case in favour of the sports rivalry.

It is, after all, rivalries that provide us with some of the greatest sporting moments that people remember. Who can fail to be inspired by the story and spectacle of Muhammed Ali’s comeback, his iconic victories over Frazier and Foreman against the odds, and all after having missed out what should have been his peak performance years after his conviction for conscientious objection? If boxing, or conscientious objection, fails to float your boat, then how about the predominant multi-rivalries in tennis over the past decade? Where we have seen not one, not two, but possibly three of the greatest players to ever grace the courts in the forms of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Where the rivalry has often included our own Wimbledon winner Andy Murray, and has transcended the ugly heads of politics or sectarianism, and has been 100% just about good old sporting ability. When Murray did win Wimbledon last year, it was not just the fact he won, or that he was British, or his or the crowd’s emotions. It was also about how he had won against Djokovic, a man who Murray had known since they were both 11 years old, who had been Murray’s adversary in countless finals, yet was also one of his best friends.

The list of examples can go on forever. Golf means very little to me (I am aware St Andrews is the worst place to be in terms of that), yet the Ryder Cup, apart from being so unifying this side of the Atlantic it makes even Nigel Farage call himself a European, is one of the most gripping events on any sporting calendar. As a football fan, I cannot pretend that any Premier League derby, whether it be the Merseyside, North London or Manchester, does not add that little bit more to my weekend.

Even bearing in mind the politics at play, the Miracle on Ice surely, objectively, remains near the top of any list of sporting moments. Regardless of who you would have supported in the Cold War, of whether a dash of Reaganism or a spoonful of Stalin makes your medicine go down, the fact that a group of university students (albeit very talented university students) beat the best team of professionals in the world at the time is surely something no other team sport should be able to replicate. The political, historical and, once again, nuclear rivalry that existed between the US and USSR only serves to add to the romantic hindsight.

Whatever your views on sporting rivalries, one thing is for certain – they will never go away. Rivalry is an ingrained part of human nature, whether for good or for bad, and sport is no exception. Vice is wrong when it (admittedly “ironically”) calls the Old Firm “the greatest show on earth”. Any sporting rivalry, whether to a fan on either side or the keen neutral, is a spectacle greater than no other. Whether you watched Scotland versus England last Tuesday night, St Andrews Mens Hockey 1st XI versus the Edinburgh 1st XI last Wednesday afternoon, or the Formula One title decider between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi last Sunday – you were witness to the greatest show on earth.

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