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How to have a fight about sport

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Tim Franks | 10:01 UK time, Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Here's the shock. In "Arguably", the latest - and probably last - book, out next month, from the man frequently called Britain's greatest essayist, Christopher Hitchens, there are warm words for sport. Cricket, to be precise. Or preciser: cricket, in the West Indies, in the mid-20th century.

The shock comes if - like me - you'd only previously read Hitch's casually magisterial denunciation of organised sport, in Newsweek last year: "Fool's Gold: How the Olympics and other international competitions breed conflict and bring out the worst in human nature."

Hitchens spins the globe, pointing his pen at El Salvador and Honduras, Egypt and Algeria, Canada's recent Olympic attempt to "Own The Podium", et al. "Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want... or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of human personality... you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples."

This argument, as Hitchens himself points out, isn't new. In 1945, a few months after the end of the war, George Orwell published "The Sporting Spirit".

Yes, Orwell wrote, it is possible to play "simply for fun and exercise" on, for example, the village green. But as it grows, sport can't escape the black gravity of nationalism - "that is, the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige."

Orwell then produces six of the most famous words about sport, at the end of this savage paragraph: "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: in other words it is war minus the shooting."

The point about a good essay is not - necessarily - that you stroke your chin and say: yes, exactly, just what I've been saying all along, glad someone agrees. Some (most?) essays should prick and provoke. They should give the comfortable backside of conventional wisdom a good shoeing.

On the surface, Hitchens' sport-related essay in "Arguably" is altogether gentler. It's an appreciation of C.L.R.James - the West Indian activist, writer, historian and cricket-lover. (Of James's "Beyond A Boundary" (pub.1963), the Guardian's veteran book-reviewer Nicholas Lezard wrote: "To say 'the best cricket book ever written' is pifflingly inadequate praise.")

And so, through James, Hitchens describes cricket, as "inherently democratic... it teaches the values of equality and fairness. 'Beyond A Boundary'... is a lyrical account of both the aesthetics of batsmanship and the bonding and exemplary role played by cricket in the development of the West Indies."

The piece on James is not the most pungent, among this often wonderful exhibition of intellectual paint-stripping. I would like to have seen space, amid the eight hundred pages, for "Fool's Gold".

Because, as London 2012, Euro 2012, and all the other multinational entertainments draw close, what of our response now? "I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations... International sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred." Hitchens and Orwell: brilliant writers, powerful polemicists. Who's to say they're wrong?


  • Comment number 1.

    You should really add that C.L.R. James was a lot more than an activist, historian and cricket lover. He was a social theorist and writer on the subaltern with fundamentally important analysis of colonialism, rules and the construction of cultures. This could be an article on James and his views of how cricket developed and shaped the West Indian culture. That though, is a big ask to write here.

  • Comment number 2.

    "I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations... International sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred"

    While that may be partly true for the duration of the sporting contest, in the vast majority of accasions, even at the top level, this emnity is forgotten past the final whistle. In those cases where the hatred persists, it was usually there in the first place - the sporting contest acting as a magnifying glass on already burning embers.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hitchens should watch the Men's Cycling World Championship Road Race on Sunday and if all events were run like that it would change his stance on organised sport forever. Not only was it one of the greatest examples of national team work ever, if not the greatest, it also demonstrated how selfless sports participants can be. Not one sour word from the losers. Pats on backs all round from the non-British competitors for the British riders, not just for Mark Cavendish but for the whole team. When riders fell, they got back on. when they were beat, they acknowledged that and gave up garcefully. The joy was in the participation, in helping your teammates and the warm sincere welcome from the 1 million plus spectators at the road side. Total professionalism.

    Why is cycling like that? Because they do it for the love of the sport. It is free to watch, without huge pressures of TV executives breathing down the top competitors backs all the time and with the exception of a few top riders, wages are kept under control, so the riders focus on success rather than rich trappings.

    Sadly organised sport is all too often judged by the most unprofessional and ugly of all sports: football.

  • Comment number 4.

    I'd rather have war minus the shooting, than war WITH shooting.

    In my opinion the exact opposite is true, in the vast majority of sports we see the best of human nature and human achievement. The desire to be the best, the determination to overcome nature, to run faster and better than ever before typifies what made the human race great. The very fact that we have the technology so I can watch the Japanese Grand Prix live next weekend is a monumental achievement for mankind, conquering space in order to do so, something my grandparents may never have dreamed of, and I doubt my parents (in their forties) imagined satellite TV to be possible. Organised sport is great because it means we have put down the guns and come together - essentially - to play a game, what is not great about that?

    Yes, some sport may induce tribalism and conflict in those that follow, football hooliganism a key case in point, however, in what walk of life do we not have such tribalism? Politics? Religion? Even literature and the arts decends into different camps, more often than not.

    At the end of England v Romania on Saturday, after a hugely physical game, I noticed both parties went over and hugged members of the opposition. Most boxing, or mma matches end with an embrace or handshake. I am not certain, but I do not think wars have ended in such a fashion.

  • Comment number 5.

    Loser! Every sporting contest ends with one, and even if the defeated player/team shake hands with the winners, they are still losers, so sport doesn't do much for the self-esteem of most participants.

  • Comment number 6.

    The Olymp[ics is supposed to bring out the best in everyone yet we've had drugs [Ben Johnson etc.] tampering with equipment [that Soviet fencer whose name I forgot] vast, vast expenditure on high-tech kit [the UK swim team dolphin suit + cycling gear that's destoryed post-event] and corruption in qualifying [ABA World Championships] as well as brazen nationalistic posturing [Berlin '39 and Salt Lake City '10]. Now we've a UKA team and "Team GB" funded by Lotto cash presumably as a twenty years too late way of having "professionals" as amateurs after Eastern Europe used "soldiers" as amateurs despite the fact that they were pro's in all but name. Yet if you can forgive the recent corruption scandal (and the merest hint of Lotto funding) I love that the boxers are amateur in the true sense of the word (unless you look at some of the smaller sports like shooting) and if the boxer in question wants to keep his/her medal they need to remain amateur in the strictest sense rather than turn pro a'la Harrison and De Gale.
    I love sport but admit it - the minute that Athletic associations via whatever wheeze they managed it to pay professional athletes it breed discontentment - if sport was truly about comradeship and good naturedness then when every person lines up for the 100m sprint final, the 100m freestyle final or a track cycle event then all their equipment would be identical and it would come down to the performance on the day to win a meda. Techonology is acceptable doping IMHO. Hence why international sport isn't the love fest we all think it is. Faster, Higher, Stronger...pretty iffy principles for peace, love and light in sport.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think in all sports there is a large element of human endeavour and triumph of spirit. The biggest evocation of this I can remember was Derek Redmond in Olympic 400m. A career blighted by injury he made to the olympics only for injury to ruin his participation once again, but he was going to compete, going to finish, that is what sport fundamentally should be about, it should also be about emerging triumphant, being the best, but it should not be about winning at all costs.

    Everyone will turn towards football as everything that is wrong with sport, but that is too simplistic, all sports have it in some degree. Harlequins and "bloodgate", The cycling doping scandals, Prost and Senna "title decider" crash in F1. I would like those wh participate in "minority" sports to look inwardly and honestly say there is nothing rank in their pastime.

    The truth is it is not about winning at all but about the pursuit of wealth and the almighty dollar.

  • Comment number 8.

    Sport can bring out the worst in human nature, but it can also bring out the best, I guess the issue is how you think it all balances out. Some sports certainly seem to do better than others in this regard.

    And to the extent that sporting rivalry can lead to "orgies of hatred", well sure, see Rangers-Celtic among other febrile local rivalries. But if the argument is that sporting events are the underlying reason for the hatred, then I think you are full of it. When the USA and USSR had their fanatical Olympic rivalry during the Cold War, does anyone want to argue about what came about first?

    But most of all, if there must be an outlet for nationalism - and I assume that's inevitable for as long as we've got the westphalian model - sport seems as good a medium as any through which it should be expressed.

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree with THeTomTyke that "the war minus the shooting" was a poor metaphor. From Hitchens writings, we can discern that flowers and Kumbaya sing-alongs are not his primary goal. I'd wager that he realizes that sports is quite a good military substitute.

    Besides, what are Hitchens' polemics if not "war without the shooting"?


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