Monthly Archives: May 2012

Why people love sport and why people hate sport: sport as the alienation of play


 Guest post by Gareth Edwards of Inside Left

[I asked Gareth to write something on the distinction between sport and play, which he uses in his research as a way of thinking about organised sport in general and the Olympics in particular]

I once took a friend, a confirmed sports sceptic, to a game of rugby. As we watched two front row forwards, a combined forty stone of muscle, sweat and intent, collide with unnerving force he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what these guys are doing, but it certainly isn’t playing.” In a summer full-to-bursting with sporting contests – the Olympics, the Euros, Wimbledon, the test series – we’ll hear countless commentators talk of players, playing and plays in sports. But what is the relationship between sport and play?

Answers to the question have historically fallen into one of two camps. The first, exemplified by the liberal-idealist Allen Guttmann, sees sports as being a distinct subset of play, marked by its physicality, its competitiveness and its rules. In short, it argues that while not all play can be considered sport, all sport is necessarily play. The second argument, and one that characterises much of what passes for sports theory on the left, is the complete rejection of a link between play and sport. This is typified by the work of Jean-Marie Brohm whose book Sport – A Prison of Measured Time is held in far greater esteem than it deserves. In it he makes the point that “a child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters”.

The problem facing such writers is that their theory of play is so lacklustre – or in Brohm’s case, entirely absent – that the attempts to analyse the nature of sport inevitably fail. Instead of theorising play in any meaningful way they are reduced to listing a set of characteristics that are used to describe, rather than define, play. These characteristics include spontaneity, a certain sense of freedom, fun, a separation from everyday life and make-believe, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. In the absence of a working definition, nearly all the serious writers on the topic fall back on the same four words: play is not work. Or to give it a sophisticated feel, they talk of play as being a non-productive or non-utilitarian activity. And when they’re feeling particularly wordy, they describe play as being autotelic, i.e. it is an activity performed for its own sake.

This commonsense dichotomy between work and play might seem to be a fair approximation to reality but it is fraught with problems, and it is possible to arrive at a far more satisfying and insightful definition of play by using Marxist concepts. I would argue that play is the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use value. I’m aware that such a phrase is not only horribly unwieldy but also requires a fair amount of ‘unpacking’.

By defining play as a use value we recognise it as fulfilling a human need. As Trotsky notes in The Problems of Everyday Life, “The longing for amusement, diversion and fun is the most legitimate desire of human nature.”  Whether this need for play is an innate biological drive or socially and historically conditioned is unimportant, the fact is that the want for pleasure and excitement exists. That this creative drive should manifest itself in so many forms is an indicator of humanity’s ingenuity and inventiveness. It is, therefore, possible to see how play is the creation of use value, as Marx outlines:

“Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values.”

By stating that play is an unalienated activity one is able to both incorporate and transcend the quality of freedom that writers identify. But rather than limiting the question of freedom to whether one chooses to play or not, it encompasses the freedom of the players to create and control their play environment. Either individually or collectively people choose how they play; there are no structures delimiting play’s potentiality, nor are managers and supervisors issuing instructions as to the players’ conduct. Furthermore the separation of producer from product, a key feature of alienation, is missing as play belongs immediately and irrevocably to the players.

In similar fashion the notion of the simultaneous production and consumption of use values allows us to overcome the limitations of the autotelic model. Play is still seen as an end in itself, but this definition allows one to avoid being caught in the theoretical trap of the players’ intentions. Equally it renders as redundant the notion that play is an essentially non-instrumental activity. Instead play differentiates itself from other spheres of human activity not so much through what is (or is not) produced but in the way it is consumed. Here the very act of production is the act of consumption. In a dialectical sense they occupy the same moment. Labour produces use values that may be consumed at some indeterminate point in the future but in play production and consumption occur simultaneously. The very act of playing is the satisfaction of the need to play.

How then does this relate to sport? The key to our understanding is, as Richard Gruneau has written, the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.” Governing bodies exercise control over sports across the globe setting rules and issuing directives. In sport the players are not free to participate, instead they are faced with a series of gatekeepers – managers, coaches, selectors. Some of these people then exercise control over the way in which players play. Tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. You could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.

At the heart of sport is a constant tension between play and competition. As the importance of the contest – and the financial stakes involved – increases so playfulness gives way to “playing the percentages”, “playing it safe” and “stopping the other team from playing”. But it would be wrong, I think, to say that there is no element of play apparent in sports. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious and competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.

The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use Marx’s criteria and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process” then professional sports are the alienation of play.

Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now a spectacle, and in turn, therefore, a commodity. In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the demands of capital, where spectators are the consumers of a product. In professional sports, play is mediated through the prism of capitalist relations and placed on the market as a commodity. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is the product, deliberately cultivated, and it is now play which is incidental. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”

As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.

This isn’t simply an academic exercise, nor is it an exercise in self-justification, as we lefties attempt to excuse our guilty passion for competitive sport. The more we can understand the link between play and sport the more we safeguard against writing sports fans off as mere dupes in front of capitalist ideology and the better fitted we are to orientate ourselves on sport’s struggles and contradictions, whether they take place on the pitch, in the stands, or – increasingly – in the boardroom.

The man charged with keeping the Games protest-free


On a whim, I thought I’d look up Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, the man who disclosed to the world’s press in March the fruits of his officers’ monitoring of social media: “There doesn’t appear to be anyone who wants to protest against the Games…”.

Allison’s biography is posted at various places online, including on wikipedia, and on various police and security websites.

He originally joined the Metropolitan police in 1984, as a constable in Walthamstow. It is not too outrageous to speculate that along with other constables in the Met he was sent in 1984-5 outside London to police the communities of striking miners. Those too young to remember that event should read the online blogs in which officers of that generation boast about beating up those they suspected of being sympathetic to the strike. One particular nice touch was the printing of a sticker “I’ve met the Met”, which was intended to be stuck on the backs of prone miners, after they had taken a kicking.

Allison found his way back to London, where became an officer of the Territorial Support Group, the force previously known as the Special Patrol Group, but disbanded following its officers’ killing of Blair Peach. (For the avoidance of doubt, Peach was killed in 1979, 5 years before Allison became a police officer; he could not possibly have had anything to do with that incident. If he can be criticised for anything, it was rather the decision to serve with a unit of the force that was still associated – 5 years later – with the events of Peach’s death).

By 2001, Allison was a middle-ranking officer – a chief superintendent. In this capacity, he took charge of the police operation to restrain that year’s May Day protesters, which involved holding the demonstrators without access to water or the freedom to leave, for eight hours, tightly ringed behind police lines.

After the killing of Ian Tomlinson, Allison had the job of boosting the TSG’s public image, which he did by organising a “goodwill tour” to spread the news that the TSG’s policing of demonstrations was a good and necessary task. The family complained that the first dates of this tour were chosen to coincide with events commemorating Tomlinson.

From then, he has been promoted rapidly, and is now an Assistant Commissioner and co-ordinator of the Olympics security operation.

On re-checking what Allison went on to say abut the Olympics, it is clear that his message was intended to be warning: “…But there may be those who want to use the Games as a way of getting their cause into the public domain. We are trying to get as much intelligence as we can about the broad range of threats.”

But most protesters viewed the remarks as more silly than sinister.

The sharpest riposte to Allison’s original quote came from Albert Beale of Peace News, in a letter to the Guardian: ” Is [Allison’s] middle name Clouseau? Plenty of the politically aware people I know want to protest against the games, many making no secret of it; and some of us will actually do so.”

Three to follow at the Olympics


A number of my posts have been about the authoritarian politics and corruption of the modern-day Olympics. But there is always another side to the Games, the sporting contest in which different values struggle to break through. With that in mind, here are three people who I would like to see do well at this year’s event:

Bahaa al-Farra (above) will be running the 400 metres for Palestine. He has a personal best of 49.04 seconds in the 400 metres (about six seconds outside the world record). More details of his training regime here. And there’s am interview with him here in Arabic with English subtitles: “the sieze of Gaza”, he says, “will be broken with our will and determination”

Caster Semanya, who won the women’s 800 metres at the 2009 world championships by nearly 50 metres, but then had to endure a whispering campaign to the effect that she  is a man, a rumour refuted in this interview with her mother. As the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has written, “She also stands in a long line of gender variant people who threaten the very definitions of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and call into question the ways that we organize our sports, our toy stores, and even the pink and blue cribs in our nurseries.”

Caster’s times this year have been relatively slow; but if she is ready for London, she is capable of outrunning anyone.

Finally, if anyone in Britain seeks a “Cathy Freeman” moment, Mo Farah came to Britain as a child refugee from Somalia, and grew up here in a political climate where refugees were routinely jailed, denied the opportunity to work, and deported from the country on the flimsiest of pretexts. Here’s Mo winning the 5k at the 2011 world championships. Farah of course will have to do something pretty extraordinary to beat the Bekele brothers over 10k, but, if he does, anti-racists in Britain should be proud of him.

The forgotten anti-fascist Olympics Games


[By “Ant Fasci”, written for upcoming protest against the EDL in Walthamwtow]

Barcelona’s forgotten Olympics – 6000 athletes from 22 countries went to compete in an alternative 1936 Olympics to Hitler’s fascist games. The day before the opening ceremony the Spanish military coup was set in motion, triggering the beginning of the Civil War, and the Peoples Olympiad was cancelled.

Many of the athletes took to the streets in Barcelona and joined the pitch battles against the attempted right wing take over. The first brigadists were actually athletes there for the games and first columns to go to the Aragon front were made up of competing athletes. It was an impressive display of political solidarity from the sporting world yet remains an almost forgotten footnote of history.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were remembered at the time as a propaganda triumph for Hitler’s ruling Nazi party, despite the best efforts of black American athlete Jesse Owens. Germany topped the medals table and the observing world powers were given a convincing enough display to warrant Germany’s reintegration back into global politics.

For anarchists and radicals, and especially the militant labour movement of the time, the 1936 Summer Olympics would be an opportunity to express direct opposition to the racist policies of the nascent fascist state, and set about organising an alternative Olympics in Barcelona. Calling itself the People’s Olympiad it brought together thousands of athletes from around the world in a show of international solidarity against the rise of European fascism.

In Spring of 36 Spain elected a republican Popular Front government which immediately pulled out of the summer games in protest at the IOC’s continued support of Hitler’s regime and began preparing an anti-fascist festival of sport. As Antonio Agullo, who helped organise the track events, remembered “the idea started from the small sports clubs in the barrios”. It was embraced by the Communists who used it as a propaganda tool although the Soviet Union pulled back from sending any athletes.

Barcelona and the Catalonian region in general was an anarchist stronghold with a militant working class tradition and as such a the ideal setting for the games. In addition to the usual sporting events, there would be chess, folkdancing, music and theatre.

Thousands of sports men and women from around the world were registered to compete including athletes from US, UK, Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Scandinavian countries as well as Palestinian, Polish and Canadian athletes. There were also teams from Germany and Italy made up of political exiles from those countries. Many were sponsored by trade unions, workers’ clubs and associations, socialist and communist parties and left-wing groups as opposed to state-sponsored committees and represented their regions or localities rather than their country.

The Barcelona Games was to begin on July 19th but with the outbreak of the civil war immediately followed by a general strike it was swept aside as workers and radicals mobilised to defeat the nationalists and fascists. At least 300 of the athletes joined the initial columns to the Aragon front and many more stayed in Barcelona joining the incoming international brigades. In fact Felicia Browne, the artist and first British volunteer to be killed in the Civil war, was there specifically for the Games.

[The above article was written by campaigners publicising ‘We Are Waltham Forest’ Stop the EDL in Walthamstow! Protest, August 18th, More details here:]

[Flier for anti-EDL protest here: stopedl_flyer01-6]

Today I am blogging in solidarity with…


Cat, who was dragged to the dole office on the Saturday of the Luton anti-EDL demo, in order to be “offered” job seekers’ allowance plus vouchers (but no additional wage) for 8-hour days working for Transport for London in Stratford

The many London school children who took part in Olympics competitions in return for the promise of free Olympics tickets, only to find that the tickets never materialised

The East London residents who find that missiles have placed among the flats in which they live

The Leyton Marsh jogger whose favourite routewas built over to make way for a basketball practice area, ruining her and her neighbours’ green space when half a dozen sports stadia in the vicinity are empty and could have been used

The several hundred, if not thousands, of London tenants who have been evicted from their homes so that their landlords could cash in on an Olympics bonanza

Students set home early by UEL so that their rooms can be requisitioned for the games

Everyone who will be arriving at work late during the Olympics

And all my friends (wrong as they are for doing it) who will be leaving London rather than endure this mess

Counter Olympics Network: a calendar of events


As far as I know, these are the main alternative Olympics events taking place over the next two months:

26 May 2pm Save Leyton Marsh DEMO for more details contact

31 May 7pm STOP THE OLYMPIC MISSILES PUBLIC MEETING Bow Road Methodist Church, 1 Merchant Street, E3 4LY Do we want missiles in our communities?’ speakers: Councillor Rania Khan, Bow Quarter Resident Brian Whelan, TH NUT Alex Kenny STW’s Chris Nineham

2 June 2pm Save Leyton Marsh Gathering on the Marsh. Protest the corruption, incompetence, and loss of this precious open space

7 June 10-3pm No to G4S: Stop G4S! Protest at G4S Annual General Meeting -London Stock Exchange, Paternoster Square EC4M 7LS Bring banners, drums, pans, and anything else you can make noise with!

9 June, Greenwich CND demonstration from Blackheath to Oxleas Woods, against Rapier missiles

10 June 2pm WANSTEAD FLATS PICNIC Save Wanstead Flats invites everyone to a community picnic on the planned site of the operations base


7 July 12-5pm FATTYLIMPICS Accessible to people with all kinds of bodies and abilities

28 July 12 noon Mass Mobilisation NO LIMOS NO LOGOS Counter Olympics Network demonstration, location to be announced

If anyone can add to this list, please just post in the comments

Trust your mechanic / To make you well


The latest instalment of my achilles tendon injury resulted in a trip to the physiotherapist. In an hour of his company, he neither tried to massage my leg nor did he offer me ultrasound. Instead, the bulk of the time was given over to asking me questions: had I been running harder, or for longer, when I injured the the tendon two weeks ago? At first, I countered by insisting that I hadn’t been doing anything different, that I was simply prone to injury. But under sustained questioning, I began to remember everything just a bit more carefully.

In the two weeks before my injury I had switched to a much lighter shoe. Encouraged by a man in the shop, a runner with a sub-15 minute time for 5k, it felt right, and in my two training sessions immediately afterwards I noticed that I was running far higher up on my foot, with my weight towards my toes (not the heel).

I ran a good 5k time, and even experimented with running the 800 metre laps of my local park – cutting my best (recent) time for that version of the distance by about 40%. No-one watching would have thought me fast, but my legs felt a distant echo of the memory of speed. I was training harder.

I am prone to injury; my prioperception is shameful for a runner. I naturally overbalance, left or right, when my legs tighten. Often, when I run, my weight just seems to be collapsing unhappily downwards. But it wasn’t just a problem of my general weaknesses as a runner. By running faster, I can now see, I was putting more pressure on my lower legs and making myself more vulnerable to injury.

I return home with dotted lines on my left leg, like the marks you sometimes see on drawings of catttle to indicate the cuts of meat.