Following world soccer from Beirut

ONCE again -- and how many times has it happened? -- Beirut turned into a battlefield with no off-limits. Apartment buildings were set ablaze. Mortars reached Palestinian camps, crowded with women and children. Even an orphanage housing 2,000 children came under machine-gun fire as Muslims, this time, fought rival Muslims. How could anyone trapped in Beirut be aware of anything but flashes before the eyes, explosions in the ears?

Yet those present reported that on the streets of Beirut -- on the battlefield of Beirut -- there were two obsessions. The second obsession: World Cup soccer.

Combatants as well as civilians wanted to know who was winning in Mexico City.

In the midst of random madness, it may be reassuring to think of green, unscorched fields with neat, white lines where men in shorts and jerseys take out their aggressions on a bouncing ball while referees keep perfect order. But there has to be more to this strange brotherhood of war and sports that finds the world of the military borrowing sports metaphors while the world of sports borrows military metaphors -- and the world of business uses both.

``It was war out there today, man. No prisoners taken'' -- this could equally well be T. Boone Pickens or a pro football lineman describing a hard day in the trenches.

One of the arguments heard during Olympic games is that sports are the civilized alternative to war -- a peaceful way to work off the cave man's adrenaline. But not a little mayhem occurs on the playing field these days.

During the week Beirut blew open, some 28 percent of those responding to a Sports Illustrated poll said they had witnessed an act of violence in sports during the past year -- not to mention what fans do to each other in the stands (and what athletes and fans alike do to one another after the game in parking lots and barrooms).

Some sublimation!

Yes, we're talking about some sports and some athletes and some fans, but maybe enough to justify asking: Is there some connection between sports and war?

This has been a trick question for at least 2,400 years, ever since the Greek poet Pindar made a profession out of composing odes to athletes. A ``singer of boxing bouts,'' Voltaire called him a bit scornfully.

Pindar believed that games were ``ennobling'' -- almost religious rituals. The word ``glory'' fell from his lips with reverence.

But when the Persians attacked Greece and all the athletes went to war, Pindar seems to have been horrified. Is this what all that ``manliness'' -- the Greek word for ``virtue'' -- is in training for? Is war the Big Game? Does one test one's manhood in athletic contests until the real contest comes along, and then prove one's manhood by the ``red badge of courage''?

Almost 25 centuries after Pindar, within the space of a few years, two candidates running for governor of Massachusetts have admitted to falsifying their military records -- making themselves out to be heroes. Could a more sincere Pindaric ode be written to the public esteem of the hero as war hero? To be a war hero and an all-American is to validate oneself, or so it seems.

We have arrived at the Age of the Computer when we systematically abstract life into data, and yet the only working definition of manliness we have is still as primitive as you can get: the competitor, the warrior. Hemingway was at his most popular when he told the world that courage is ``grace under pressure'' -- and the Hemingway reader knew pretty much what the man meant by ``pressure'': World Wars I and II; and in between, the hunt and the boxing ring and the bull ring.

In his latest movie, ``Cobra,'' just before he wastes him, Sylvester Stallone snarls at the first punk in a cast of thousands of punks: ``You're the disease. I'm the cure.''

Is the showdown the only drama men really love? Can men feel alive only in the shadow of death, or its simulation? If so, will we ever get the bodies off the streets of Beirut as long as machismo remains the code of the world's playgrounds?

Never mind the lip-service to public compassion and private sensitivity. When most men still combine a romanticized ethic of tooth-and-claw with nuclear stockpiles, the women and children of the world may well cry, as they did in Beirut: ``Have mercy.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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