Hitchens does make some reasonable and valid criticisms of international sports. To be specific, he does point out that international sporting events have led to serious conflicts and some rather reprehensible behavior. However, he does not stop there. He moves on to attack sportsmanship itself by pointing out bad behavior on the part of athletes and fans. He also attacks the overuse of sports metaphors in politics, complains about the coverage afforded sports, and takes the usual shots at the overemphasis of sports in major universities.
His criticism of sports does have some merit. After all, the incidents and behavior he points to are quite real. Like him, I find the excessive coverage of sports a bit tedious and I also have been critical of how sports is often handled at the university level. However, Hitchens sweeping attack has a rather serious flaw, namely that he is engaging in a relentless straw man attack.
His specific form of a straw man is one that I point out to my students in my critical thinking class: one way to make a straw man of something is to focus entirely on the negative aspects of the target, while conveniently ignoring or underplaying the positive aspects. To fairly assess something, such as sports, it is important to consider the positive aspects as well. After all, focusing merely on the negatives will produce a rather distorted assessment (as would focusing only on the positive). Naturally enough, such a balanced assessment can lead to the conclusion that something is rather negative. But, at least such a conclusion would be properly justified.
This tactic is standard for Hitchens and one he routinely employs against religion. Perhaps he honestly sees the world this way and is psychologically incapable of presenting a fair assessment. Perhaps he merely uses this tool because it works as a persuasive device (while failing as a logical method). However, his motivations are (obviously enough) irrelevant to assessing his case.
To begin with my reply, I am obligated to say once more that I am an athlete so as to allow people to be aware of this as a possible biasing factor in my views. I competed in high shool and college and still compete today. Of course, the merit of my case has no connection to my status as an athlete-to think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem fallacy.
My main contention against his case is, as noted above, that he seems to simply ignore any positive evidence in favor of sports. While my view of sports is based on my own experiences, these still count as evidence for the positive aspects of sports.
First, my own experience as an athlete has made me a better person. My coaches always emphasized fairness, good sportsmanship and character and they took all this very seriously. Through their guidance and through the lessons of competition I learned the importance of competing fairly, of maintaining integrity and showing respect to my fellow athletes. I can honestly say that sports helped shape my moral character and much of what is best about me has come through sports. I am not claiming to be a saint or exceptionally good. But, I do know that my experience in sports has, as Aristotlewould say, has developed my virtues.
Second, my observations of my fellow athletes has shown that most of them have also benefited from sports. With some notable exceptions, the people I have competed with and against have shown good character. To see this for yourself, go to a local road race or even a large race and observe how people behave. To use just a few examples, runners will share water with their competitors, tell people they are racing against the right way to go, and even stop to help an injured competitor. People also volunteer to work at such races, often getting up very early and sometimes enduring rather tough conditions. This is hardly a sign of bad character or poor behavior. Yes, there are some people who are jerks (I’ve taken a few needless elbows to the chest, for example). But, what I have observed has generally been rather positive in character. Lest I be accused of presenting a small sample or a biased one, I have competed in hundreds of races ranging from the Beach to Beacon 10K to the Columbus Marathon to high school meets to college meets and so on. As such, I have a fairly broad sample to work with.
Of course, I can still be accused of presenting a biased sample. After all, my experience has been primarily with runners and often with runners I know. Perhaps running is different from other sports in significant ways. Also, there is the obvious concern about extending my experiences from this one sport to other sports. However, even if running is unusual it does serve as counterexample against Hitchens’ attacks on sports. Also, Hitchens can also be accused of using a biased sample: he focuses only on the negative while ignoring the positive.
To finish up, I do agree that Hitchens makes some points well worth considering. Sports can lead to rather bad behavior and serious problems. However, this is not a quality that seems to be inherent to sports. Rather, it is a problem with how people react to sports and how people behave. The fact that some athletes act badly and that some fans are true fanatics who engage in violence over sports merely serves to show their failings rather than the failings of sports. As noted above, my experiences with running have been very positive and shows that sports can be something very positive. Like everything else in life, sports is largely what we make of it. Those who bring vice to sports will find it there. Those who bring virtue will find that.