Interpretations of 5 hours

What does it matter, what we say about people?

This past weekend, my parents took me to two World League volleyball matches between Australia and Finland. The matches were both fascinatingly close 5-setters that took a combined 5 hours to decide. It extended my relationship with the Australian team, who I’ve come to appreciate through their performances at the London Olympics and their World Championship qualification series last year.

There’s libero Luke Perry – who is nothing like Luke Perry – who looks like he should be drinking heavily on a European Kontiki tour during his gap year rather than playing on a national sporting team. Appearing like the little-brother-who-thinks-he’s-the-coolest-guy-in-the-world, his teammates often look down and chuckle as he swears at himself for not cleanly returning an unreturnable spike that was travelling at a million miles an hour somewhere vaguely within his vicinity.

There’s the hilariously capricious setter Harrison Peacock who aggressively kicks his water bottle in frustration with his own performance upon being subbed off, angrily standing by himself a little separate from the other reserves. But upon his return a set later, he can be seen bouncing around the court to slap hands with each of his teammates as if to say “Don’t worry fellas, I’m here. You can count on me to guide you through all of this coolly and calmly.”

There’s Thomas Edgar, the mountain of a hitter. A man who looks like a 6-foot-11 version of Roger Ramjet, resplendent with jutting-out jaw and chest, who would attract attention if he were to walk down a street. Bystanders would hope like hell that he’s athletic, because they wouldn’t be able to work out what a guy with his kind of build would do if he weren’t. On court, Edgar throws the ball so high before his jump-serve, one wonders if arrogance and showiness has overtaken any sense of an understanding of the term ‘margin-of-error’.

There’s Adam White, the rangy hitter with the shaved head, a southern cross tattooed on a shoulder and the Olympic rings on the inside of a forearm. A guy who presents as the personification of the age-old don’t-want-them-at-your-Australia-Day-party stereotype.

And there’s Nathan Roberts, the smiley reserve-come-starter who seems like everyone’s popular, chilled, all-inclusive big brother. Exuding warmth and a relaxed confidence, his play doesn’t appear at all spectacular when compared to many of his peers, but he appears entirely confident with his precise understanding of the percentages and angles of the game.

It’s silly, of course, the way we develop judgements and reach conclusions about these people.

Would we find them charming and engaging if given the opportunity? Or are they immoral or dishonest, adulterous or violent? Are they suffering in ways we cannot comprehend – death, illness, estrangement? Or are they as lucky, happy, and jovial as can be? Are they so intelligent we’d struggle to keep up with them or are they completely illiterate?

And how much does any of this matter to those of us who are only presented with a 5 hour window into their public lives?

Despite endless evidence to the contrary, we pretend that sportspeople are precise mirrors of our interpretations of their on-court and media-driven personas. We watch, discuss, argue about and analyse the unanalysable. We choose heroes and villains by applying some beautifully changeable algorithm of persona, appearance and the team who they represent.

Watching such a relatively unknown team as the Volleyroos reminds one of this aspect of sportspeople’s place as reality television-esque characters within our society.

Take our various interpretations of the actions, movements and words of a teenage Ian Thorpe as an example. Those who saw him as a well-mannered, charming and carefree young man from a loving family now argue that swimming and fame have caused his current turmoil – something they say appears unavoidable considering the plights of Hackett, Huegill and others. Those who saw him as a tightly-wound, highly-strung, sexually-confused adolescent stuffed into an other-wordly-body say they always saw it coming.

But we still enjoy it all, of course. We love it, in fact – it’s a major part of the fun. And for each of us, our thoughts on an athlete’s character are, in our minds, as perfect an assessment of them as we can make. We believe whatever we believe about them all, however flawed our thoughts may be.

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