Viewpoint: The dark side of sport
- 10 August 2011
- From the section Magazine
Has over-competitiveness and professionalism in sport ruined the experience for both fans and players, asks Dominic Hobson.
I remember vividly the moment I first understood why organised, competitive sport was hateful. It was a Sunday evening on the A12.
Not the most promising time or place for a revelation, but it came nonetheless.
My oldest son and I were returning from an under-12 county cricket match between Surrey and Essex.
We had risen early to get there. And waited for much of that rainy day for play to start, and then to stop, and then to start again. He finally went in to bat at ten-to-seven, in gathering rain and deepening gloom.
He was out, clean bowled, second ball. The drive home that evening was a long one.
An 11-year-old boy had let down his team. He had let down his father.
Above all, he had let down himself, for his character had failed to live up to his talent. Of course, there were plenty of hundreds to come and to savour on other days.
But sport is full of failure. That is what I understood on the A12 that evening.
Sport is war - it is about the loss, as well as the gain. We abbreviate Orwell on the subject.
"Sport," he wrote in 1945, "is war minus the shooting." Few bother with the passage which precedes this phrase.
"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence."
Sport is like that.
It is rich in triumphalism, disdain and pride, in the love of power and of domination. Sport has something else in common with war. It is zero-sum. What one gains, the other loses.
Of course, some find in sport a positive sum - an aesthetic pleasure akin to great art or literature.
The pleasure of effort rewarded, the mastery of a skill, the exhilaration of speed, the thrill of danger averted, the union of mind and body, and the unity of body and nature.
It can be beautiful to watch another human being run fast, or jump high, or bowl quickly, or strike a ball exquisitely.
The kinetic has its aesthetic.
"Sport has to be beautiful to be enjoyed," as my son put it to me while watching Roger Federer at Wimbledon.
"Why else would I support Arsenal?"
But even he prefers an ugly victory to a beautiful defeat. What Douglas MacArthur said of war is as true of sport - there is no substitute for victory.
In sport, it is the points, not the poetry, which count. Nobody remembers, as sports people are apt to remind each other, how you won.
This is why the sports-field is as much a moral vacuum as a battlefield. The fist-shaking at the net, the goal-mouth celebrations - these are the ugly metaphorical equivalents of mutilating slain enemies in battle.
I still recoil in horror from the behaviour of the parents, let alone the players, when my oldest son played for a youth football team in south London.
The character-building quality of sport is contradicted every time contestants take to a field of play.
All too often, sporting contests feature some combination of spitting, sledging, swearing, shouting, fist-pumping, glaring, grunting, grass-kissing, badge-tugging, or outright violence.
If sport really was improving the moral character of the players, it would not be necessary to equip officials with ever more sophisticated video technology to check they are not cheating.
Sport does not build character. At best, it betrays it. At worst, it corrupts it.
It is not just the players who are corrupted. So are the spectators.
The matron patrolling the touch-line in Lindsay Anderson's marvellous film, If.., urging the schoolboy rugby players to "kill, kill, kill", is not a creature of the imagination.
That American tennis coach who urged his daughter to "kill" was saying only what millions of sports fans think or say every Saturday.
The dehumanisation and humiliation of opponents and their supporters is as much a part of the modern sporting experience as the blood-lust of the crowds that filled the Colosseum.
"He delighted the people with the wholesale annihilation of their enemies," they wrote of Constantine after he fed his German prisoners to the lions. "And what triumph could have been finer?"
For a modern England football fan there is no finer triumph than feeding Germans to the three lions - they still talk of beating them 5-1 in Munich in September 2001.
There is no clearer demonstration of the capacity of sport to perpetuate historical animosities than the song the England football fans like to sing on occasions such as that: "Two world wars and one world cup."
Sport glorifies differences. It demonises opponents. And it erodes the moral character of its followers.
What Seneca wrote of a day at the games is as true today of an afternoon at a football match.
"Nothing," he wrote, "is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games, for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.
"What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman - because I have been among human beings."
Think how much political capital is invested in bringing the Olympic Games to Britain, and how politicians expect a return on that investment from sporting success.
In fact, if I was a Marxist, and I am not, I would be arguing that sport was invented by the state to keep the masses in a state of false consciousness.
For modern democracy has rediscovered what the emperors knew: grotesque entertainments guarantee the quiescence of the populace.
Sport, as Hugh McIlvanney famously wrote of football, is a "fantastic metaphor for life".
How much better it would be to live the life, and not the metaphor for life.