26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 71


Binge and bust

Simon Barnes

TONY Adams has challengingly called his new book Addicted: observe the double entendre. For Adams, the England and Arsenal centre-half, is not only addicted to football, he is also one of sport's legion of alcoholics, though one who no longer touches the stuff. The book zip-pans rather sick-makingly from drink to football and back again, alternating between personal glory and personal degradation. Both these things are pretty much public knowledge anyway: fine player for England, cups and championships and last year the double with Arsenal; and the drunken car crash that sent him to jail, the fall down the night-club steps, the 29 stitches in his head and the affray in the Pizza Hut with the fire-extinguisher.

What strikes you most is the similarity between the sporting and the drinking life. Adams was a binge drinker. He talks about his total bewilderment at a room-mate who bought four cans of beer and drank two on one night and two the next. What the hell was the point of that? Football itself moves in a cycle of binge and bust, each week bringing you astonishing peaks of elation, or quite appalling troughs of disappoint- ment. But bottle-cracking celebration and the drowning of sorrows are the acceptable ways of dealing with such things: alcohol is, after all, the West's drug of choice.

Adams quotes the ancient footballing saying, Win or lose, on the booze' in expla- nation rather than as an excuse. The saying can also be applied to so many other sports which have deeply boozy traditions, such as racing, rugby and cricket.

Alcohol and sport are a symbiosis, sport being both an excuse and a reason to drink. Both sport and alcohol are a bit of a treat, something extra in the run of life. If you have an excessive fondness for either, peo- ple will say you are trying to escape from real life. Hippies used to say that reality was a cop-out for those wimps who couldn't handle drugs. Perhaps reality is more truth- fully the option for people who cannot han- dle sport. There is a temptation here to say that people who follow sport are therefore inadequate, sport making up for something they lack in their own lives. You could say the same thing for followers of grand opera. I am inclined to argue that placid, humdrum things are an essential part not just of real life but of real happiness unless we want to live our lives like Dosto- evsky characters.

But sport adds that pleasant intensity: a great drama that we live with, but vicarious- ly, unless, of course, we are participants. A front-line athlete has no choice but to think of sport as real life, no choice but to live life in an absurd alternation of peaks and troughs.

The basic nature of the sporting life is binge and bust: by providing us with enter- tainment and drama, top athletes have no choice but to make themselves high-risk people. But as we watch sports, and watch these people doing their stuff for our enter- tainment and in their own pursuit of glori- ous destinies, it is odd to think what they are risking. Life and limb and long-term health: that's obvious, but they are also risking their basic peace of mind in the binge-and-bust cycle of sport. Sobering thought.