All work and no play has made Indians among the dullest people on Earth with whom to have a conversation, while no work and all play has pushed Americans to the most terrifying economic crisis of our time. What then do we do about countries that neither work nor play, as Pakistan seems in the danger of becoming, if one were to go by the most recent terrorist outrage?

Granted that both parts of the first statement are more than a trifle exaggerated, it is likely that readers will sympathize with the view on a broader scale. Any conversation with an Indian inevitably leads to politics, religion – or worse, Bollywood [1]. If Indians manage at all to make any observations about sports, expect to talk about cricket, that ancient English game invented for people to play on lazy summer afternoons after a large beer-laden lunch. Generally one dreads these conversations if one has nothing to say about the most recent Intel chip [2], and especially if you have not a clue what a quad-core chip is.

Having conversations with Americans is generally a pleasure if for nothing else because serious topics such as religion and geopolitics are almost never broached; but most folks from Asia are usually left wondering how Americans manage to follow such a dizzying array of sports. Usually the next observation is along the lines of why do people with such strong sporting passions fail so miserably in their jobs? Exhibit A: the financial system. Exhibit B: cars.

All these though pale in comparison to the dangers of the third bunch of people who are progressively denied, as a religious tool, access to entertainment, eventually culminating in stunted social development that creates its own cycle of poverty. Afghanistan is the foremost example of this in the Islamic world.

After the Taliban takeover of the country in the early 1990s, sporting activities were progressively banned (perhaps that should be “regressively”) or else merged with the ruling party’s socio-economic ethic, which led to the chilling images filmed secretly by a British television channel that showed a veiled woman being stoned to death in the middle of a football pitch watched by some 30,000 spectators.

Americans have half-time entertainment too during their football games, although it takes more than a simple leap of imagination from having a couple of nubile, half-naked singers performing the latest pop hits to a crowd stoning a woman to death. To ensure full attention, the Taliban also suspended the actual football games on the pitch; perhaps they were worried about safety of players encountering difficulties playing football on a pitch littered with stones and pools of blood.

Given that the perpetrators of the most recent outrage in Pakistan this week involving the attacks on a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team had similar motivations, the question does arise if the first shots have been fired in the ultimate Talibanization of the country; a scenario that I have explained more than once on these pages [4].

Sporting prestige

Harking back to George Clemenceau’s quote that war is too important to be left to generals, sport has become a new focus in a world where full-scale bilateral conflicts have been replaced with guerrilla warfare and random attacks on civilians.

Beginning in 776 BC, the Greeks certainly knew the importance of sports as the various city-states vied for honors in the Olympic games. The reputation of many a nation was forged not so much in the theatres of war as the sandpits of Olympia. The Roman emperor Nero took the games seriously enough to bribe officials for the express purpose of disqualifying all other competitors in his category.

The echoes of Nero were to ring 2,000 years later, when Hitler staged Aryan superiority Olympics in Berlin, only to be upstaged by the black American athlete Jesse Owens’ triumphs on the field, as his pet-architect Albert Speer was to recall:

“Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games. Hitler was also jolted by the jubilation of the Berliners when the French team filed solemnly into the Olympic Stadium … If I am correctly interpreting Hitler’s expression at the time, he was more disturbed than pleased by the Berliners’ cheers.”

Following from Adolf Hitler, various communist countries quickly adopted sports as a matter of national prestige starting with the Soviet Union [5], a focus not lost on its acolytes in the rest of the Warsaw Pact as well as others including China and Cuba.

All this while other countries, including the United States and those in Western Europe, broadened the commercial appeal of sports; the 1951 live telecast of a college football game in the US opened the doors for sportsmen to become idolized and increasingly successful in the financial sense. In turn, this attracted more participants to sports; a self-feeding frenzy that soon produced better sports as events became much more competitive.

Between communist pride and Western commercial interests, the frenzy in sports also led sportsmen to cheat, resorting to steroids and banned drugs with a view to performance enhancement. In communist countries, the penalty for getting caught was nothing more than a slap on the wrist, the ongoing damage to bodies was another matter altogether being the subject of basic denial. Meanwhile in the West, commercially induced cheating produced a mini-boom in demand for chemistry graduates albeit in areas far removed from their usual spots in foul-smelling school labs.

The reason any of this became relevant in the rest of the world is of course the effect that cheating had on the aspirations of the young as well as the social commentary that inevitably followed. Sportsmen who cheated lost their fan following (at least in the past they did) but also elicited broader comparisons going back to their social or ethnic groups; in some cases it became the subject of national scandals.

Virtuous non-participation

With all this cheating going on, many countries and societies have fallen by the wayside of modern sports. I wrote in the previously cited article [5] about the poor record of Indian sportsmen, concluding that the lack of economic incentives explained their lack of participation not to mention excellence. About the only sport that Indians seem to be any good in is cricket, and herein lies the rub for the most recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

Indian cricketers are paid substantially more than those in any other nation playing the sport; more importantly they are also reportedly in the top echelons of the country’s own population when it comes to oversized pay. This puts them in the same category as American baseball and football stars, not to mention the ubiquitous basketball legends of the Michael Jordan variety.

All that wealth in an Asian sport clearly attracts attention, of the type that Islamic terrorists revel in. Far from an ideological conflict involving sports per se (although enough Wahhabi scholarship holds that sports activities are frowned upon) the issue is more subtle, involving the attention span of a people used to diversions.

In any poor country, the general time allocated to sports, leisure or entertainment activities is relatively small, which means that avid spectators are unlikely to also care about more serious topics such as religion and politics. That fear of marginalization, more than any specific political agenda, justifies the attention of Islamic terrorists who would like nothing more than keeping their support pipelines thick and strong with embedded national outrage.

In contrast, a people inured to the ups and downs of sports are unlikely to support extremism in its many forms. Good sportspeople respect their competitors, as do good spectators however fervent their support for the home team may be. People without much interest in sports – playing or watching – are more likely to indulge in violence: although ironically that observation reverses when we discuss peoples rather than the propensity of specific individuals to violence [6].

This then is the actual battleground. As Pakistanis suffer further damage on their economy due to the economic crisis, their sporting aspirations are also being dented, in turn pushing more young people into the path of the fundamentalists to recruit, train and utilize as cannon fodder.