‘Against all odds’: how sport grips us all

Cheeky: Willett shot 67 on Sunday, winning on a score of five under par. © PA

English golfer Danny Willett has snatched an unexpected victory at the US Masters. Meanwhile Leicester City are closing on an astonishing Premier League title. Fans are thrilled — but why?

A year ago, Yorkshireman Danny Willett was the 102nd best golfer in the world. Two weeks ago, he was unsure he would take part in the US Masters at all, as his wife was due to give birth during the championship.

The baby arrived early, and Willett flew to the USA with just two days to practice for the world’s most prestigious golf event. His mother placed a £10 bet on him to win the title, with a possible return of more than £1,000.

With six out of 72 holes remaining, he was five strokes adrift of the world number two and defending champion, Jordan Spieth. ‘Spieth is cruising to this Masters title,’ said the BBC‘s Iain Carter.

Then came a half-hour spell Willett described as ‘surreal’. Spieth made errors at two consecutive holes before at the next hitting his ball into the water, twice, and into a bunker. Meanwhile Willett gained three birdies.

An hour later, a man who used to practice ‘in the middle of a sheep field’ in Anglesey was the Masters champion. ‘It’s not been a bad 12 days,’ he said.

His victory enters the records of unlikely sporting triumphs. The Denmark football team and golfer John Daly have won major titles after being invited to tournaments to replace someone else. Croatian Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001 as a wild-card entry. And comebacks such as England’s victory in the Headingley Ashes Test in 1981 and Liverpool‘s 2005 Champions League victory have become part of sporting folklore.

An even more seismic shock seems likely in this year’s Premier League. Leicester City — almost relegated last year and ranked as 5,000-1 outsiders at the start of this season — now need just nine points from five games to win the league.

Many fans appear to enjoy such surprises. Willett gained 10,000 Twitter followers in 90 minutes on Sunday night. And Leicester’s manager Claudio Ranieri says: ‘A lot of people stop me on the street and say: “I am a fan of another team but if Leicester win the title, I am very happy”’.

This is my quest

Perhaps, say some, we just love a good story. According to the book The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker we are thrilled by tales involving a quest. Stories such as The Odyssey and Lord of the Rings see ordinary people struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds in pursuit of their goals. Sporting victories against the odds allow us to enjoy similar drama and theatre.

But psychologists identify a primitive explanation. Our sportspeople are like the warriors who fought on our behalf when we lived in small tribes, and we experience success and failure through those we support. ‘Whoever you root for represents you,’ says Robert Cialdini. When we support the humble competitor, we are really backing ourselves.

You Decide

  1. Do you enjoy witnessing unlikely sporting victories?
  2. Are ‘against the odds’ sporting stories anything more than good stories?

Activities

  1. Write a one-page story in which a character overcomes the odds to achieve something significant.
  2. Study the article explaining the ‘seven basic plots’ (under Become An Expert). Think of a book you have read. Does it fit one — or more — of these plots? Explain your response in a two-minute presentation.

Some People Say...

“Sport should only matter to those who play it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like golf — does this have any impact on me?
Sport can often act as a metaphor for wider struggles in life. Willett’s victory showed the role which hard work can play in success and the importance of keeping your nerve. And even if you do not care about sport, you will probably have noticed that many people do — often passionately. The reasons for their behaviour can give us an insight into human nature.
Does storytelling really break down to seven ‘basic plots’?
That is contentious — Booker published his book in 2004, and his work has since been very divisive. If you are trying to tell a story, the ‘basic plots’ can be a useful guide to the logical way in which people want to find things out — but if you observe them too rigidly, they may also constrain your creativity.

Word Watch

Birdies
A golfing term, meaning a player has taken one less shot than expected on a hole.
Denmark
The Danish team were invited to the European championships in 1992 with just a week’s notice, after Yugoslavia were disqualified as a result of a civil war.
John Daly
Daly was given just 24 hours’ notice that he would be taking part in the 1991 US PGA Championship, after nine people unexpectedly withdrew. He drove for seven hours to get to the event and had never seen the course before he turned up for his first round.
Wild-card
Granted to a selection of players whose world ranking does not justify a place in the tournament.
1981
England became only the second team in history to win a Test after following on. Bookmakers offered 500-1 odds against them winning at one point.
Liverpool
At half-time in the final Liverpool were 3-0 down to Italian giants AC Milan. They scored three quick goals to draw the game and then won a penalty shoot-out.
Leicester City
Leicester’s players earn less than those from 16 of the Premier League’s other 19 clubs, according to the Total Sportek website.

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