We are now deep in the recesses of the rugby off season. Yes the Junior World Cup is on, the Nations Cup is playing in Romania to packed houses of 2000 and the Churchill Cup is ongoing amidst heavy rain. The real rugby business is still some months away.
In the 19th century the romantic painting movement coined a new phrase, ‘the sublime’, a reference to new vistas and breathtaking scenery that frontiersmen, settlers and explorers gazed upon when they reached the great ‘wildernesses’ of the Rocky mountains and beyond.
Venturing into territory previously inhabited only by Indian tribes and wild animals, artists tried to capture the epic moments of an epic landscape. From sun tinged valleys, to waterfalls cascading down into deep canyons and where jagged peaks pierced the sky to the vast swathes of grassland stretching to infinity, here was a land of outstanding natural beauty.
Capturing the epic scale of nature on 2 dimensional canvas, was a truly epic undertaking in itself and one that spawned a whole genre of painting that still has the power to stir the soul. It required a sense of scale, a requisite of skill that enabled the mind to unscramble images and distil them on to canvas many times smaller than the reality.
I watch a lot of sport these days, primarily rugby, closely followed by cycling. I view golf, tennis, soccer and motorcycle racing to varying degrees of intensity. The majority of time either spectating or watching on television is spent watching the ordinary, the mistakes and the arcane.
Occasionally sport transcends the ordinary in those moments one might call the sublime, when a piece of skill, a tackle, a shot or a moment of pathos endures as a lasting memory
Subconsciously for me it is my motivation for watching sport.
Ravenhill on a wet Friday night isn’t in the pantheons of epic sporting experience. When the wind howls down the ground, when spectators huddle like penguins gripped by an Arctic storm and the players grit their teeth in the face of nature’s fury it is more graft than grace.
Yet there are moments when the game touches the sublime and when the echo of the wind, the shriek and jeers of the fans fade away into the vaults of time you are left clutching those magic moments.
It could be a 55 metre Ruan Pienaar penalty, an Andrew Trimble run into open spaces like his try against Bath or a thumping Steven Ferris tackle.
As the games fade into the memory, those moments of magic tinge the mind’s eye. It could be a whole match or a segment such as Leinster’s epic 25 minutes against Northampton in the second half of the Heineken final. It could be those fleeting moments of breathtaking skill by George Best, which remain forever immortalised, courtesy of grainy black and white film.
Sport has that ability to touch the right chords, in its unique moments.
For the past few months I have been following the pro cycling road tour from the Netherlands one day Amstel Gold classic to the grinding climbs of the Giro D’Italia.
With the preponderance of mountaintop stage finishes it has been a battle to stay awake as a smattering of riders have reached the climactic finishes to the pain inducing, teeth clenching, endurance riding up seemingly unending gradients.
On Monday night I settled down to watch highlights of another mountain stage, this time in the Tour of Switzerland and the bikes were pedalling towards the skiing resort of Grindlewald. It’s a place I visited on a motorcycle in the 70’s and I recall the awe inspiring drive up from Interlaken on a valley road hemmed in on both sides by towering cliffs of rock.
For this stage of the race the bikes were descending over the last 10km from a mountain pass down to Grindlewald. It was when the first bike topped the crest of the narrow road that the descent and the race took on another dimension.
It is hard to describe in the written word, the visual impact on a large TV screen of following a racing cycle hitting speeds of 50mph plus. All the time you are conscious that there’s a guy on a bike with tyres the width of a hosepipe, with little more than a helmet, and flimsy brakes separating him from a catastrophic fall or collision with a fence.
It’s a supreme sporting moment where the skill of the cyclist at high speed, keeping the bike on the road being captured for posterity in close up and in minute detail to a backdrop of snow covered peaks, rock faces and verdant meadows on either side of the narrow road.
It was largely due to the skill and presence of a motorcycle rider and cameraman standing shotgun on the back of the motorbike, that the 10 kilometre ascent of high speed cycling down steep slopes, round hairpins and 90 degree bends with water strewn across the tarmac, past fences and high walls, that the stage assumed the dimensions of a virtual roller coaster ride.
The commentary was tinged with the admiration for both the cyclists and the motorcyclists as the former raced on the edge of danger and the latter maintained a steady and unwavering line to bring the armchair spectator the reality of a high speed mountain descent.
Like most sports, cycle racing has its phases of nothingness which create the heightened excitement engendered by the sublime moments.
I recall a few years ago in France being excited by the prospect of seeing the tour pass the front door of a house I was staying at. After the barbecue we waited at the roadside watching the sponsors caravans passing as excitement mounted.
The arrival of the helicopter in the distance following the peleton, heightened an atmosphere of anticipation. Imagine then the leading group of 3 riders, sauntering past talking to one another as if on a Sunday morning leisure pedal.
Further anti climax followed when about 30 of the peleton, stopped at the roadside for a pee. Then they were gone.
It was like being in an airport surrounded by the sounds of speakers blaring, engines roaring and people running frantically. You go to the toilet.
Suddenly the plane takes off without you!!
Anyone who has played sport competitively will have their own ‘private Idaho’ where they have touched the sublime. Mine is a 60 metre try in a floodlit tournament, where every pass was gold, every sidestep precision and the end result was a try.
The elation of the congratulations from teammates and the referee telling me afterwards how much he enjoyed the game and the win, created a feeling that is only experienced infrequently in a sporting lifetime.
If I could bottle that experience and feeling of liberated elation and drink from it at the start of every day I wouldn’t get frustrated, bad tempered or depressed.
I’d be infinitely happy.
Sublime moments are created out of monotonous hours of the ordinary performed as the perfunctory and build the heightened sense of awe when someone or something transcends the normal to touch the sublime.
Familiarity will of course breed contempt.