I NOW KNOW that I first developed symptoms during the 1994 World Cup, waiting for a plane at Chengdu airport in central China. What I didn’t know is that I was catching ICPS, International Couch Potato Syndrome, an exotic lurgy that has infected so many road warriors – usually blokes – in odd locales.
The entire departure lounge was transfixed by a match beamed from the U.S. It was a great game delicately poised and in the thrilling finale, as the flight was boarding, I contemplated delaying to see it out. By 1996 and the Cricket World Cup, I’d truly succumbed to ICPS, postponing an interview with the elusive mayor of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, because it clashed with Australia v Sri Lanka in Lahore. Bad call, as it turned out.
Since then, treating ICPS and juggling a job has made life tricky. There’s televisual temptation everywhere; quadrennial World Cups in football, cricket and rugby, Olympic Games, winter and summer and each 16 days; the FA Cup, endless European championships (though I draw the line at Le Tour), not to mention myriad Test matches – rugby and cricket – and its all 24/7 on ESPN/ABC/Sky/Star/Globo. I’ve determined that the South African sports channel Supersports is the world’s best, and Fox the worst. But how is one supposed to make a living with all that essential viewing?
In 1998, the virus had started to effect my marriage as I was struck by a mutation – its ability to turn one into a calculating liar. My wife and I had flown to Toronto for a friend’s wedding in nearby Ottawa. It was charming but come Sunday, my problem was the return drive to the airport that clashed with the World Cup Final in Paris between France and Brazil.
Options were limited; it was on Canadian TV but not radio and staying back to watch it left no time to get to the flight. But opting out of the traditional post-wedding brunch for sport was the height of rudeness, not to mention a risk to my marriage, for my wife’s long-time chum was the betrothed. Fretting, I told Sara we must leave early because ‘I have an urgent appointment’ in Toronto. “With who?” she asked. “Oh, just a guy I’ve been chasing for a while,” I lied. “Rubbish,” she snorted. “You want to watch the football. You are pathetic.”
She was right, of course, but by now ICPS had consumed me. We fashioned an artful compromise, which is how I came to be roaring at a TV in a bar en route, while she patiently browsed bookshops.
But sometimes we ICPS sufferers get free treatment, like during the 2002 World Cup in Korea-Japan. Flying Perth to Singapore, I resigned to missing the final (and afflictees know delayed broadcasts are no substitute for the real thing). But three hours before kick-off, Qantas announced there were ‘technical difficulties.’ The plane would be delayed overnight, and I’d be put up in a hotel. Damn. Not.
Lucky too in 2003 in India during the Rugby World Cup. I journeyed to an ashram outside Chennai to interview Swami Pranavananda Brahmendra Avadhuta, a 62 year-old Hindu monk who possessed a faith so pure he eschewed all worldly items, including his clothes. Fortunately the nude swami had a former life as Christian Fabre, a rugby-mad Frenchman from Beziers. M. Fabre had ditched his beret and all other garb en route to enlightenment but not his passion for rugger or a satellite TV connection which as France played England in the semi-final, is when I understood Nirvana.
A week later, I was on the couch of one Major Robert Hamilton Wright of Calcutta’s Raj-era Tollygunge Club for the final. After a lifetime in India, chainsmoking Bob, all 82 years and six-pinks-gins-a-day of him, had well and truly ‘gone native.’ But as Wilkinson hoisted England to glory in extra time over Australia, it was clear – Wright almost had a stroke at the thrilling finish – this Cambridge rugby blue hadn’t forgotten his roots. And neither had my English mother-in-law, of mine, as she called me from Pomgolia to gloat. Yes, Australia had lost a world championship but it took only a week to see another, the Davis Cup and this time watching from Kathmandu.
Still, Calcutta wasn’t as horrible as Frankfurt on the last day of the Oval Test in 2005. Being Germany, the hotel had lots of inhouse porn but no cricket. So I listened to Kevin Pietersen win the Ashes for England over the internet on the BBC’s Test Match Special. Except it wasn’t so special.
This recent first Saturday of the World Cup was my bleary-eyed acme of ICPS. I watched Hawthorn–Adelaide beamed via the ABC’s regional service, then two rugby Tests, then Geelong smash Essendon, then three World Cup draws on the trot, finally expiring at 5.30am. Fortunately I was in a smart Bangkok hotel, the spa-like surrounds an advance on 2006, listening to the Fat Lady sing on the US military’s broadband in a roasting Kandahar guest house, then the next week in Tehran, on a scratchy dial-up connection not banned by the mullahs.
I’ve now accepted that I’m incurable and, as I schedule assignments around important sport, realise ICPS will be with me forever. Direct treatment helps, like a $3000 two-day flying return from Colombo to the ‘G last September for the Cats’ glorious arm-wrestle with St Kilda. Jetlag? What jetlag?
And recently in Spain, I discovered the future, an AFL-connected website that streams matches live for $5 a fixture. The only downside was that Geelong v Hawthorn started at 5am. What I saw of the Andalucian dawn was stunning, but not as beautiful as Harry Taylor’s goalsquare spoil of Buddy at the death. And then La Roja won their first World Cup, and my small Spanish pueblo went off for a week.
At least now I’m learning to live with ICPS, which means I’ve stopped lying.
Recently in Kabul to interview Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his press officer called to finally fix a time. But on putting down the phone, I realised it clashed with Rex Hunt calling Geelong via the net. Overcome with ICPS, I phone Karzai’s flak to re-schedule, admitting my illness. To Karzai’s great credit, he agreed. “The President is a football fan too,” the flak revealed.
And in Jakarta to cover a terrorist bombing, I expertly delayed an appointment with a local Islamist hothead an extra two hours so I could see a Cats final. “It would be more convenient for me to come after Friday evening prayers,” I told the cranky cleric, aka after the siren at Docklands.
Now there’s a clash of civilisations.
Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent in Asia