Opinion

Sport is not just life and death. It’s far more important than that

When Jon Harvey inherited his late brother's Crystal Palace season ticket, he realised that sport could help him keep precious memories alive

The human avatar of Count Binface Jon Harvey and brother Dan

Jon Harvey (left) with brother Dan. Image: Jon Harvey

Sport and grief don’t immediately sound like obvious bedfellows. One is a mostly harmless pastime that can be enjoyed or ignored as each of us chooses. The other is that hateful inevitability which confronts us all. But for me the two things are inextricably linked. And not just because I’m a Spurs fan and I’m coming to terms with life AH (After Harry). There are two bigger reasons.

The first is historical. Believe it or not, the explanation for why the ancient Greeks invented competitive sport in the first place was as something to do at funerals. As if that’s not strange enough, the kinds of sports they enjoyed back then were chock-full of death.

Take the ‘pankration’, an event which was basically ultimate fighting meets Mortal Kombat. Practically free from any rules, participants in this all-out slugfest were encouraged to bite, gouge, twist scrotums (NB each other’s) and pretty much anything else besides, and one contestant is even on record as having torn out his opponent’s intestines.

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As unlikely as it seems, disciplines like this are how sport on Earth began. Just as birds are descended from the dinosaurs, so it turns out snooker is descended from an ancient Greek wrestler ripping out another bloke’s duodenum. Death, glorious death, went hand in hand with sport from its inception.

That’s the long view. But I have another, very personal reason for connecting sport and grief, which goes back to a summer’s morning in June 2015. It was then that I went to visit my big brother Dan at his West London flat and discovered he’d passed away, aged 43, from undiagnosed diabetes. It was a complete shock, and life has never been the same again.

Jon Harvey
Jon Harvey, who is “the human avatar of Count Binface”, responded to his brother’s untimely death by attending every sporting event he could. Image: Matt Crockett

Dan was like a second dad to me, and what bound us together more than anything was an insatiable love of sport. We’d devour anything. Above all Dan was a massive fan of Crystal Palace FC, and when he died I inherited his season ticket. I couldn’t allow myself to give up the precious seat he’d held for over a quarter of a century. So I took his place, and for the 2015/16 campaign became my brother’s eyes and ears. I watched Palace yo-yo from the fringes of the top four to a relegation battle, before soaring into an epic FA Cup final against Manchester United, which they lost in agonising fashion.

The season ticket saved me. It provided a serendipitous crutch just when I needed it most: putting the sport into support. So integral to my grief did it become, I was unsure what to do next. Should I continue Dan’s season ticket streak? He’d had it for 26 years. Should I make it 27? 28? Was this a life sentence? It made sense – after all, keeping calm and carrying on is always a seductively comforting choice. But no. That would be living Dan’s life, not mine. Was there another way to honour his memory through the wonder of sport? I thought about all the big events we’d always longed to go to together but never made it to: the World Snooker at the Crucible, the Six Nations at Twickenham, the Derby at Epsom, and countless more. What if I tried to see as many of them as I could in a single year? Instead of keeping up Dan’s Palace season ticket, I could build the ultimate season ticket.

So that’s what I did. Across 2016 and 2017, I went to every single fixture I could snaffle a ticket for: from handball in Paris to American football at Wembley, from Wimbledon tennis to Wimbledon greyhounds, even the World Rubik’s Cube Championship. And it helped. Grief is quicksand in the head, always threatening to pull you back in. Sport gave me a foothold of stability, a constant ray of sunshine even through the dark, freezing winter. And that’s not all. It let me wallow in that peculiar strain of British nostalgia which Dan and I so adored, as I witnessed the death throes of the BDO World Darts Championship at Frimley Green, and caught Dennis Taylor playing an exhibition match at The Crucible, scene of his immortal black-ball final triumph in 1985. Along my journey I was bowled over by the kindness of strangers, whether it be diehard Harlequins fans adopting me at The Stoop, or a Parisian named Henning who wouldn’t let me leave Roland Garros until he’d bought me a ‘proper’ French coffee. 

When his brother Dan’s beloved Crystal Palace got to the 2016 FA Cup final, Harvey was there to represent his sibling. Image:
When his brother Dan’s beloved Crystal Palace got to the 2016 FA Cup final, Harvey was there to represent his sibling. Image: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

None of it could replace my brother. But sport was more than just a sticking plaster. By celebrating Dan’s favourite passion, I was keeping his fire flickering; his joy radiating. It meant that, in a small way, he was still with me. I realised too that sport isn’t just a fun pastime. It’s one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Does anything else bind billions of people together in such thrilling fashion? Stephen Fry has called it “the most important unimportant thing in the world”, and he’s right. 

As the great kick-off starts all over again, I can’t help thinking of my brother, and yes, I feel sadness. But I also feel energised. Not only am I learning to smile without him, thanks to sport, I’m remembering to smile because of him. They say it’s the hope that kills you.(Well, that and the pankration.) I say it’s the hope that makes it all worthwhile. It’s why, for me, the start of the new football season eclipses everything as the happiest moment of the year. Whoever you support, have a good one.

Jon Harvey is a comedy writer, performer, producer and “the human avatar of intergalactic election crusader Count Binface”

A Fan for All Seasons by Jon Harvey

A Fan For All Seasons: A Journey Through Life and Sport is out now (Yellow Jersey, £18.99)

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