Ever since sport was invented, people have tried to steal it for their own purposes – and they’ve all failed. Classic example: Hitler wanted sport to prove Aryan supremacy. It didn’t, because sport is about all of us, not just some of us.
Further example: all the men who tried to make sport a boys-only world failed, because sport can’t help showcasing magnificent women.
Sport can’t be contained or controlled. That’s because sport is about all humanity. It contains a million contradictions because sport is large and contains multitudes. We respond to sport in a million ways, some straightforward, some less so. Sport, being archetypal, goes very deep. That’s why it’s utterly simple and profoundly complex at the same time.
The shortlist for BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2016 shows both those things with its usual clarity – and I’m trying to do the same thing in my new series for Radio 4. As the year draws towards its conclusion, it’s gratifying to find that the year’s great sporting events – and an Olympic year always has double value – show the same contradictions and complexities as always.
So let’s take look at some of the year’s sporting highlights, and see how 2016 confounded all your preconceptions to show you that everything you think you know about sport is wrong.
1. It’s not a blokes-only zone
Sport is always bigger than those who designed it bargained for. That’s why 2016 was a great year for women in sport. Perhaps the greatest was Simone Biles, the American gymnast who won four gold medals at the Olympic Games in a controlled detonation of courage and skill.
Laura Trott (now Mrs Kenny), the British cyclist, the fastest pigtails on earth, was her majestic self, winning Olympic gold medals in the omnium and the team pursuit. I talked to her before the Games and she told me without self-pity about her life: total dedication to speed, strength and victory. Nicola Adams’s devastating mixture of violence and good vibes delighted us all again – and it’s rather splendid to have a British female tennis player in the top ten. Jo Konta was once regarded as mentally fragile; she has used her considerable intelligence to become a player with fearsome strength of mind.
2. There’s beauty in unexpected places
Sometimes sport creates beauty on purpose, as when Kohei Uchimura of Japan won gold in the men’s all-around gymnastics competition at the Olympics, retaining the title he won four years earlier.
In the Olympic diving, we had a classically beautiful performance from Britain’s Chris Mears and Jack Laugher, who won an unexpected gold, while Max Whitlock managed perfection in gymnastics. There was Charlotte Dujardin, too, winning dressage gold with the incomparable Valegro.
And then there is a more spontaneous beauty: the kind we found when Fiji won the rugby sevens in Rio, or when Moeen Ali finds his range as an England batsman.
3. It’s not just for muddied oafs and flannelled fools
Sport caters for us all. The most basic hurrahs are within reach of everyone, but sport is infinitely capable of more rarefied delights. The England football team’s disastrous defeat against Iceland at the European championships can be regarded as a national disgrace – and also as a fascinating tale of false expectations, hubris, neurotic insecurities, purposes mistook, suffocating national anxieties and the wild urge for self-destruction.
It’s all in the way these things strike you: but sport provides for all. And what’s more, it does so in continually unexpected ways. Sportswriters live by the cliché (I should know) but sport is continually new, continually reinventing itself.
4. It’s poetry in motion
How many times have we humans told ourselves the story of rags to riches? Cinderella, King Arthur, My Fair Lady, Great Expectations, Brideshead Revisited, Lucky Jim – and now Leicester City. This was the team that started as 500-to-one shots for the Premier League and impossibly won the damn thing. Sarah Storey and Andy Murray both fulfilled their quests in the manner of Odysseus, Aeneas and Frodo Baggins; Murray labouring his way across the world to become the world’s number one tennis player, while Storey became Britain’s greatest female Paralympic athlete.
5. It’s not war minus the shooting
You’d think from a casual look at the TV and newspaper coverage that the Olympic Games is a fight to the death between Great Britain and the rest of the world. But then you get sucked in and find a thousand stories to contradict this – starting with the greatest event of the Games.
That involved Usain Bolt. Who else? Though older and potentially fallible, he failed to fail us. He won the 100 metres and completed his collection with two more gold medals, winning three for the third Games in a row. Bolt pulled off the triple triple and became the champion of champions. Is he Jamaican? Or does all the world have a claim on him? Both, obviously.
Is that all a bit far-fetched? Only if you think so. True, you can say that Bolt is just a man who happens to run fast, that all Andy Murray does is to hit a ball with a stick and that Jason Kenny is quite handy on a push-bike. And you can say – who will stop you? – that Hamlet is a murder mystery and The Odysseyis about a man who gets lost. In other words, there’s always more if you care to look for it – and without question sport always has more. Sport has a great power over the imaginations of countless numbers of us; its rich and complicated nature touches us profoundly, sometimes almost in spite of ourselves.
So there we were, fresh from Brexit and endless rows about immigration and Islam, gazing at our TVs and cheering for a former Somali refugee named Mohamed who is a) British and b) the greatest distance runner of all time. That’s Mo Farah – showing once again that sport is bigger than we bargained for.
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards will be broadcast on Sunday 18 December on BBC1 at 6.40pm