Amphitheatre entertainment in the modern period
|The new gladiators, the professional sports heroes of the modern age, capture the essence of the character who is pushing all the parameters to the edge of the possible. They share the same totalitarian and abnormally lopsided psychological profile of the Spartan soldier. They have to be completely single-minded, for physical and mental training is all there is. Maturity is limited to growth in their sports role. They do not have and cannot afford to have the emotional breadth, energy or time to juggle extra curricula development. Their trainers are the more ruthless kind of parent surrogates who apply remorseless pressure, administer the latest technique and knowledge, and take care of all the management variables.
In totalitarian sport, cash flows take precedence over biological flows because the financial investments, rewards and performance criteria are so overwhelming. Thus the gladiators routinely ignore pain, push their bodies past the tolerable limits and take risks with themselves that prematurely uses up the resilience of their youth and endangers their long-term health. They clash without flinch, hesitation or thought for their safety. They bear injury and surgical scars as a badge of their trade. They carry in their wake a raft of medical and paramedical maintenance and repair teams who keep them going through extra seasons when they should be considering retirement.
When they do retire, it all catches up with them and they suffer under increasingly intensive medical care for the rest of their lives. The post-steroidal miseries of former East German athletes are just the most extreme end of the normal distribution of professional sport post-retirement health outcomes.
Shane Warne, one of the most fiercesome cricket spin bowlers and greatest amphitheatre survivors of all time, was at his prime and on a good day, almost unplayable. If you watched his action closely, you would notice that the last flick of his bowling action had almost the same concentration of energy as a martial arts blow. The transfers of energy and leverage coming up from his shoulder through to his fingers in the last hundredths of a second of his delivery were enormous and he would do this maybe one to two hundred times a day in matches and practice.
To avoid an eventual shoulder reconstruction and having to take ‘illegal’ drugs that would speed and maintain ‘recovery’, he needed to be used sparingly. He needed to play for just one team and have a season off each year, particularly as he got older. To avoid permanent muscle injury and osteo-arthritis, retirement should possibly have been no later than his mid twenties to thirty.
‘Unfortunately’ for Warne, the media companies, the advertisers, the sponsors, the game organisers, the teams and the fans couldn’t get enough of him. When that interest was quantified in dollars, there was a tsunami of pressure to burn him out. Knowing that his income would drop calamitously once his career was over, he joined the rush as best and for as long as he could.
His brilliance as a sportsman was also matched by his immaturity as a character. However, his adolescent sense of fun and lack of responsible judgement was only a more extreme end of the jockstrap culture. It is full of emotional children armed with precocious and narrow skills who are masquerading in often (but not always and certainly not Warne’s) fabulous adult bodies. It was just that Warne couldn’t do even the minimum to keep that side of himself out of the piranha feeding frenzy that is the fish bowl hall of fame.
Warne was almost as useful to the regime as a ‘bad boy’ as a hero. The drugs he probably took to slow down his decline and accommodate the totalitarian demands on him became a convenient basis to put him on trial for 'counter-revolutionary crimes'. The regime could use him as a whipping boy for the grotesque excesses of their own system; its absurd and irrational expectations, its remorseless pressure and its need to keep feeding the monster new meat to replace the now stale and prematurely worn out. The wretched boy didn’t stand a prayer anymore than did the victims of the nineteen thirties purges in the Soviet Union.
Nobody dared question the interrogators. Everyone involved had far too big a stake in the sports industry to question anything below a certain level. Censorship in a free society is almost never imposed from above. It is a critical floor beneath which you do not dig, unless you wish to risk being marginalised out of the system. Nobody suppresses systemic critics. Only their credibility and employability are affected. Nobody is interested in hearing that modern sport is just another over-hyped, overblown and over funded marketing opportunity for sponsors to slake their hunger on. Warne, at this point in his career, was but a slivered morsel stuck between their teeth.
After his Siberian Exile, he continued to be a very successful post-shoulder reconstruction sportsman into his mid thirties, which was a testament to not only his resilience, but how good his medical support team and coaches have been. However, the question is not how long can he be made to last, but how much of his health will be left in the end?
As in Roman times, there were a very few successful gladiators who survived the arena reasonably intact to become trainers and eventually win their freedom and a well earned retirement. The question then as it is now, is what of the thousands who did not make it, or those who carried too many wounds to enjoy what was left of their lives?