22 Oct 2015

Curtain up on spectacle of sport

11:40 am on 22 October 2015

OPINION: The spectacle of sport has intrigued, fascinated and entertained New Zealanders throughout the ages.

All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw leads his side from the field after their quarterfinal win over France.

All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw leads his side from the field after their quarterfinal win over France. Photo: Photosport

Sport as theatre provides moments of drama, joy, triumph and despair - and sometimes all before half-time.

And on the playbill this week, a fascinating juxtaposition is being played out in Britain.

Stage right: The All Blacks on track to create history by becoming the first team to win back-to-back Rugby World Cups. Their brand is everywhere - on our milk, our peanut slabs and even our children's nappies.

They are being feted as heroes, champions, role models. Gladiators involved in violent confrontations for our entertainment. The mood of the country rises and falls with their results. We loved the first and second acts and we can't wait for the denouement.

Stage left: Former Black Caps cricketer Chris Cairns stands in the dock and defends himself against charges of perjury (and, indirectly, match-fixing).

Cairns was, in his day, also a hero. A world class all-rounder who could destroy opposition bowling attacks with the bat and then slice through their batting line-ups with the ball.

His name was mentioned alongside greats of the game such as Sir Garfield Sobers, Imran Khan, Ian Botham and Sir Richard Hadlee. He took more than 200 Test wickets, scored five Test centuries and 3000-plus Test runs at an average of more than 30 in an international career which spanned three decades.

Now, in a fascinating plot twist, the former golden boy is being portrayed as arrogant and unco-operative by the prosecution. He is being labelled a liar, who blackmailed young and vulnerable players for his own financial gain.

Not only that, the drama is being narrated by a chorus of Cairns' former team-mates, some former friends who are, in turn, having their own integrity and intentions questioned. The suspense is killing us.

Chris Cairns enters Southwark Crown Court in London on Monday 12 October 2015.

Chris Cairns enters Southwark Crown Court in London on Monday 12 October 2015. Photo: RNZ / Cushla Norman

If you listen to his accusers, Cairns meets the criteria of a classic tragic hero - a man of noble sporting heritage and a leader of men but who, despite his greatness, is afflicted with a fundamental flaw.

Even if Cairns is vindicated in the final act, it's likely the public nature of the proceedings will leave his reputation in question. Just ask former All Black Mils Muliaina who, after a very public arrest, this week had sexual assault charges against him dropped.

Cairns is a tragic character indeed, and it is a riveting story-line.

The Guardian's Michael Billington once wrote on the similarities between sport and theatre: "Both are public spectacles that reflect society and depend on attracting paying customers. The only real difference lies in the uncertainty of the outcome."

And Bryan Cowgill, a former head of sport at Thames Television, once said: "My problem is that if I go and see Hamlet, unlike a soccer game, I know the result in advance."

The real difference is, of course, that in a theatre the actors are pretending to be someone else. In the theatre of sport anyone who is not what they appear to be is eventually exposed and denounced.

Soon we'll know whether the Cairns story is one of redemption or comeuppance.

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