In my last column, I talked about how actually going to an AFL game, rather than watching it on TV, makes you realise how many support staff there are on the ground at any one time. Like a flock of seagulls hovering around picnickers, they hovered, waiting for the chance to swoop in when they were behind the line of play.
And, just like seagulls, I found their presence rather irritating, a distraction from our enjoyment of the night, almost an intrusion. I found myself asking was it necessary to have so many extra people involved in the game? Were they serving a purpose, or were they simply the result of the gradual accumulation of so called experts and specialists over time?
Any corporation, or public body, that becomes large enough encounters this problem. Initially roles are created to support the core function, but soon they expand in scope and numbers, until finally they become self sustaining and replicating, and never likely to do themselves out of a job. And sometimes they start to think they are more important than the people they were brought in to support.
Shifting the focus
If you take a look at any professional sport these days, you will usually find that for every athlete there is a multitude of support staff, and they have become more and more involved in the game each year. As always, I go to cricket for an example—yes, I am a tragic—and it is no exception. From physiotherapists to drink runners, cricket has its fair share.
Where once they would have stayed decently out of sight, and had the grace to look ashamed as they furtively slunk onto the ground and rushed off as quickly as possible, they now seem as welcome as the players. When a player requires the physio, it becomes a show unto itself, seemingly full of of as much spectacle as the game itself.
Cutting it fine
In modern sport, the difference between winning and losing can come down to a fraction of a second. The tiniest bit extra speed or strength or reflex can make all the difference and, with so much money at stake, support staff are constantly searching for ways to get more out of their players. Technology means that everything can be tracked, quantified, reduced to numbers to fit into an equation.
A coach will know how long he should leave a player on the ground to get the most out of him, because there will be someone with a clipboard there to tell him. After a game, stats will show whose performance was up or down, or where the game was lost and won. There is no room for coasting, and no hiding the level of effort.
No pain, no gain
While they may make it look effortless, most professional athletes are constantly in pain, and carrying some sort of injury. They are strapped up, rubbed down, injected and scanned. Their bodies are always being pushed to the extremes, like a car engine running in the redzone on the tachometer all the time.
And just like a high performance race car, the modern athlete requires constant monitoring and maintenance, a team of specialist around them to make sure that a minor problem doesn’t turn into a full blown catastrophe. They have to be tweaked and tuned, every part watched closely for signs of wear.
A world apart
There is no doubt that this level of precision has allowed to witness some incredible athletic feats, records broken that we never though possible, displays of the human body working at its peak that amaze us and leave us gasping in wonder.
But part of me is sad that the days where we could look at professional athletes as people just like us, and dream that we could do those things if we were just given the chance, are gone. No matter how romantic the idea, some average sports fan given the chance couldn’t somehow compete. They now operate on a different level entirely, achievable only by the support of a dedicated industry.
It may have made the sports I love far more astounding as a spectator but, like the hovering crowds of support staff, it is a constant reminder that all we can do is watch, creating a distance between us and the game.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine, On Fire. He is a freelance writer, and an unapologetic geek.
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