Camus on ice

It’s springtime in Scandinavia when waterways are no longer covered with a thick layer of ice and a shortcut across a lake turns into an adrenaline-boosting sport. Last weekend, however, I still discovered with my boy scouts an idyllic pond covered with crystal-clear ice. Too bad none of us carried skates in our survival bags!

Another indication of Scandinavian spring is the ice hockey hacks’ occasional lapse into analytical overdrive. National championships reach their climax, the NHL playoffs keep progressing, and the wait for the annual world championships is about to end.

Here in Finland, the imminent closure of the ice hockey season turned a prominent sports journalist into a budding philosopher. According to him, an ice hockey team provides a ‘perfect image of a modern, fully functioning society’.

How to make sense of the aphorism? It was indeed a serious observation, not a joke. Just try to count the highly paid sports coaches teaching leadership skills to business leaders throughout the year. What did the hockey hack mean, then?

The game might be different, but the Camusian undertone of the dictum is unmistakable. No self-respecting soccer commentator has failed to impress his or her audience by quoting Albert Camus at least once: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.’

On the face of it, the French novelist merely substituted Sunday school lessons with a football match. But who would dare to undervalue a Nobel laureate’s sense of irony? What the good old existentialist actually meant, I believe, is this: Better to get wise young. (After his boyish career as a goalkeeper ended, Camus assumed a spectatorial position.)

The opponent is stronger than you? Pinch him hard! Cannot keep up with the enemy in the second half? Take her down; just avoid the referee’s gaze. Still losing the game? Dive, pick a fight, collapse in agony and bribe the ref! Appropriately, a battle-axe (tappara) emblazoned the jersey of this season’s Finnish ice hockey champions.

As it happened, my scouts too wielded an axe during our expedition – to break through ice. Next spring I will surely leave the axe at home and ask everybody to pack a pair of skates instead. As monsieur Camus suggested, a nice little hockey match without codified rules is the perfect way to celebrate spring. Rules beget cheating, no rules means no cheaters.

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