Against sport

August 12, 2022 8 Comments

My title will offend, I know.  Almost as much as would a blog of 1800, if one existed, that carried the title ‘Against religion’.  But bear with me, even if sport is your religion.  I want to argue, why, contrary to a virtually unquestioned consensus, I think the current fetishisation of competitive sport is a bad thing. (In case you think I’m exaggerating when I talk of fetishes, just think about how a television news bulletin will now routinely give up to half of its time to sport or sport-related news.)

I’ll start by saying what I have no quarrel with.  Physical exercise is an excellent thing.  Indeed, it’s a necessity when most of us lead mainly sedentary lives.  Sport that isn’t competitive is similarly fine.  For over ten years I played squash most weeks in Aberystwyth against an opponent who was highly athletic and who won every encounter between us, without exception.  We both enjoyed every match thoroughly, but the outcome, being as inevitable as death, was an irrelevance.  Apart from leaving me with a weak ankle and occasional lameness, my wild thrashing of a small black ball against the walls did no harm to anyone.

I wouldn’t deny, either, that sport sometimes has its beneficial spin-offs.  The success of the recent women’s Euro football tournament will almost certainly give girls a new confidence that they can perform as well as boys.  That confidence might even transfer from football into other areas and help to shift centuries-old inequalities – though that is a large leap.

No, it’s that word ‘competitive’ that bothers me.  When people talk about sport, whether professional or amateur, they almost always mean competitive sport.  They usually make the unthinking assumption that the competitive motivation is in itself healthy and good.  Sometimes it’s not an unthinking assumption, but a deliberate policy, for example by politicians who believe that instilling a spirit of competition in sport, especially among young people, will promote the kind of competitive, dog-eat-dog mentality they applaud in wider social and economic life, well beyond the world of sport.

The problem, I’d suggest, is that the wider world we all live in – not the elective and mostly unreal world of sport – now has far too much competition in it.  This imbalance leads inevitably to conflict and war, and to educational, social and economic inequalities that have worsened steadily since the end of the 1970s.  We’ve lost sight of the benefits of altruism, cooperation, collective provision and unselfish service, in the market economy’s unceasing invasion of areas in which it should play no part.  Of all the great post-World War II social inventions that depended on those non-competitive values, only the National Health Service survives.  And that too will be gone, or changed out of all recognition, within ten years, if current trends continue.  Health will become just another a competitive good, available or not according to whether you possess money or sharp elbows.

Competitive sport, at all levels, just encourages us all to take it for granted that the existence of winners and losers is a fact of life, a Darwinian given, rather than a social choice aggressively promoted by those in whose interest it operates.

As I was thinking about this subject I was browsing through George Orwell‘s essays, spurred by reading Rebecca Solnit‘s recent book Orwell’s roses, and came across an article entitled ‘The sporting spirit’ that Orwell published in Tribune on 14 December 1945. In it he argues that ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’.  Orwell concentrates on the capacity of sport to encourage war.  This was natural enough, since he was writing at the end of a world war, but he was also thinking about a 1945 tour to Britain by the Moscow Dynamo football team, a controversial visit, prematurely abandoned (the team, incidentally, beat Cardiff City 10-0).  ‘If such a visit as this has any effect on Anglo-Soviet relations’, he writes, ‘it could only be to make them slightly worse than before’. 

Orwell has no patience with the ‘sublimating’ theory of sport, the view that ‘if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield’.  The memory of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was still fresh in people’s minds.  Participants and spectators alike, he says, ‘work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe … that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue’.

It’s interesting to note, as Orwell does, that modern competitive sport, ‘war minus the shooting’ in his famous phrase, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  The Greeks were famously keen on it, of course.  They would declare a truce for the duration of the Olympic Games, but then returned with renewed vigour to their incessant inter-state warfare.  The Games of 364BC actually turned into a war.  But after the Romans competitive sport disappeared, and had to be reinvented on the playing fields of Eton as nationalism took hold and possibly, Orwell suggests, as most people began to live in cities and lead less active lives.  He finishes his essay by suggesting that, if it must indulge in nationalistic sport, Britain should send out ‘a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten and cannot claim to represent Britain as a whole’.  We seem to have lost sight of that admirable goal.  To win at all costs is now the universal aim.

I suspect that Orwell, transported to the year 2022, would put less emphasis on war and more on another target of his, capitalism, and its relentless insistence on competition at the expense of less harmful and more human values.  Contemporary attitudes to sport, our replacement for religion, he would see as powerful reinforcers of inequality and social injustice.  As a corrective, he might even reach back to a distant memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a statement he made in a speech in 1912, ‘competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but co-operation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off’.

Comments (8)

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  1. rita tait says:

    couldn’t agree more!

  2. Richard Saville says:

    An excellent corrective! Will the Lionesses (admirable) success encourage women to become football hooligans as well? And the pernicious effects of professionalism.

    I think Darwin somewhere also discusses the benefits of cooperation.

  3. Hywel Davies says:

    Diolch yn fawr iawn, Andrew. Gwerthfawrogi’ch negeseuon bob tro.

  4. Gary Beard says:

    Ti ‘di bwrw’r hoelen ar ei phen Andrew.

  5. Gill Lewis says:

    Cooperation indeed…that’s what the whole world needs.

  6. David Jones says:

    A very perceptive piece Andrew. For me, as a fan of Sheffield United, who makes occasional visits to Bramall Lane with my son, professional football is tarnished by the tribal aggression between supporters.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Thank you, David. My dad used to take me there (and Headingly, Harrogate and elsewhere) to watch cricket. I remember he never had any interest in who won, just came for the cricket and the sandwiches.

  7. Chris Edwards says:

    This piece is a winner, though sadly unlikely to be a game changer. I have hated all competitive sport all my life.

    Do you know Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso 2012)? He’s especially good on how competitions and stadiums (like social media algorithms, perhaps) are +designed+ to provoke tribalism and conflict. His wonderful concluding line is: “In the pestilential environment oozing out of sport … today… The only possible critical response is a firm assertion: there should be no sport.”

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