Sport: better watched or done?


We know what capitalism has in mind for the future of sport; we can see the neo-liberal vision every day of our lives. Sport is increasingly defined as an activity which only the most unusual people can do, whether millionaire footballers or superhero Paralympians. Sport must be as competitive as the market, with which it is increasingly intertwined. Activities such as gymnastics, dance, walking, which humans have done together collectively for countless millennia, can find a limited place in the sporting world but only where they are done in a spirit of competition.

The increasing rigours of work in an age of austerity mean that the vast majority of people are too time-poor to do anything with sport but watch it. Indeed, we watch sport from further and further away. Here, as so often, football shows the way to all other sports. Watch old photographs of the crowd at the Hillsborough FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 and you will see something as distant to our time as Richard Arkwright’s spinning machine which launched the Industrial Revolution: namely a football crowd predominantly composed of people in their early 20s or younger (37 of the 96 dead were teenagers). In the modern Premiership of £2000 per year season tickets, few workers under 30 can afford to get in. The average spectator watching Premiership football live is in their mid-40s. Younger supporters make do, not with watching games live in the flesh but watching them on television, not on free-to-view programmes but on satellite channels, not on ordinary subscriptions but on pay-to-view tariffs. Supporters are driven to scouring the internet for clips of goals, mere fragments of games.

No sport is exempt from this dynamic of holding the spectator at further and further remove from the action. Live Test cricket is banished to satellite, so are the various Cricket World Cups. Watch the footage of West Indies’ victory at the 1975 World Cup Final at Lords and you will see an audience, young, mixed in terms of both race and gender, responding jubilantly to every boundary. You will not see the young or the poor at the 2013 Ashes, not when ticket prices start at £80 per head.

For football in particular this banishing of the spectator is extraordinarily self-defeating. Take away the intense passion of its supporters and football would be just another sport, as well-paid and as culturally significant as handball or darts.

Force people physically away from live sport, and their ability to grasp it is diminished. Their perspective is narrowed and flattened. In the women’s 800 metres finals at the Olympics, the consensus of those who commentated on the event was that Caster Semenya could and would have won gold if only she had started her final sprint 50 metres beforehand. It was the judgment of people who followed the event on a screen, focussing (as the camera does) on the action at the head of a race, not on those – like Semenya – struggling at the halfway point to keep up with the early leaders.

Watching live sport gives invariably a broader canvas, a better chance than technology ever allows to peer back from the moment, to view the whole, to see the runs at the side of the action, to grasp tactics and the personality of all the players. Of course, a minority of sports are hard to grasp live (cycle touring, I am told, is a case in point). The problem of late capitalism is its refusal to allow both a broad perspective and the intimate view that you can only get in the flesh.

The taming and corporatisation of sport has enabled a certain kind of journalism and academic writing to flourish in which it is perfectly legitimate to analyse sport as a variety of business, going deeper than the performance of individual players to analysing the accounting profit on player sales, relative wages of rival clubs expressed as a proportion of business turnover etc, the metrics in short which explain not the outcome of a game but of an entire season. Even the Financial Times now has its own sports columnists, such as Simon Kuper, advising a mid-Atlantic audience on the viability of the various Anglo-US sports franchises. The Guardian employs its own counterparts, such as David Conn, to cast a more sceptical eye over the companies’ accounts.

A socialist analysis of sport worthy of the name cannot begin and end with the visual spectacle of performance; it must absorb the insights of those interested in the workings of business and go beyond even them. It must dig deeper.

Anyone interested in the story of football should have a consciousness of the dramatic importation of the visual symbols of contemporary football support (i.e. banners, team scarves, hats) and its sounds (not songs but chants) in double-quick time at the start of the early 1960s, alongside other traditions which now belong only to history (e.g. swaying from side to side by thousands on the terraces). Among the best source material is the BBC’s Panorama film of the Anfield Kop in 1964 complete with interviews with fans explaining why they were “fanatic” about their team.

There could be no sufficient history of (for example) the Hillsborough disaster which did not take at least some account of the supporters’ position in the context of both the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, which outlawed causing or permitting alcohol to be carried on coaches or trains, being drunk in a sports ground, taking alcohol into a sports ground, and possession of fireworks at a sports ground and the policy obsession of the Thatcher government with compulsory identification cards for football spectators which formed a kind of “bridge” between the desire of senior South Yorkshire police officers to shield their force from criticism and the willingness of the Sun newspaper to lie about the dead.

As ever, the need to understand both performer and spectator applies not merely to football but also to other sports. Left-wing cricket writers have usually been most enthusiastic about the form of five-day Test cricket, a kind of sport which has the capacity to give intense meaning to passages of play lasting barely a few seconds. Yet in CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, the beating heart of English cricket was said to be league cricket, a one-day, limited over format, aesthetically bereft of Test cricket’s more careful pace, but within which the proletarian crowd was a much greater force in shaping the total scene.

In more recent times, the true state of British athletics is best illustrated not by the crowds that turned out for the Olympics or the Paralympics, but the half-empty stadium for the British Olympic trials in Birmingham just five weeks before. This was the second most important athletics meeting in Britain for decades, far cheaper to enter than the Olympics themselves, and with large numbers of global celebrities to watch as well as cameos from UK athletes including Mo Farah. Athletics had a real and sustainable mass following in 1980s Britain which it lacks today. This is one reason why the supposed Olympic “legacy” of mass participation will prove a mirage.

The socialist vision for sport goes deeper even than the joining up (important though that is) of what happens on and immediately around the field of contest. Part of Marx’s vision of socialist society was a world in which any person could in one day successively hunt, fish, shepherd animals and write philosophy. There are at least two parts to this vision: a first in which occupational categories have been smashed to bits and anyone can do anything, plus a second (logically prior to this) in which the knowledge on which any occupation rests has been shared universally.

Applying the same principles to sport would mean that anybody could have access to any sporting competition. Of course, something a bit like this happens even now, as during those barely watched 2012 Olympic trials where the 50 year old athlete Roald Bradstock threw 72.78m in the javelin, enough to some second, and taking him closer to an Olympic place than at time since his previous Olympic selection 24 years before. Bradstock is now the holder of the certified world record for the over-50 javelin, a fitting finale to a life spent claiming unofficial records, for throwing iPods, boiled eggs, golf balls, telephones and dead fish.

Bradstock’s journey may not have been consistently serious but it reminds us that one obstacle to a world of genuine sporting choice is the need of sports businesses to arbitrarily limit the range of activities which can be considered sport. The Workers Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s included performances of poetry and song, mass hikes, chess games, lectures and art, group gymnastics, and countless ways of being physically active that required little if any competition.

From the perspective of the future, a major unachieved “prize” to which all of humanity tends is the liberation of the working day. The cheapening of information technology has fuelled, over the past three decades, the most extraordinary increase in the collective productive capacity of all humanity. Computerisation and miniaturisation are meta-technologies; almost everything that people do has been made more efficient. Yet this new industrial revolution has been used nowhere to reduce the time that people spend on repetitive or menial tasks, instead we see their continuous re-entrenchment. The total number of hours worked by the average person is rising simultaneously in China, Iran, the US, and in every country in between. Meanwhile, the global speed-up is not altogether without purpose; in the US, the income of the richest 1% rose by 275% between 1979 and 2007 (the income of the poorest 20% rose, over the same period, by merely 18%).

There should be no distinction between “work” and “art”, “culture”, “leisure” or “sport”. There should be no reason why any one of us at 2pm of an afternoon should be incapable of going on any day for a cycle, a run or a swim. The person who exercises is a person recharged. They are more creative as a result.

What holds back this re-integration of mind and body is capitalism’s subordination of everything to profit and the principle which follows from it that no worker can be trusted to use their time intelligently but must always be managed by another person. But if work really was something that could be done in a few hours of concentration and if sport, along with art and music, was allowed to fill those vacant hours, how much richer the lives of all of us would be. This, ultimately is the socialist vision of sport, a world in which anyone really could do anything.

6 responses »

  1. I assume that by “cycle touring” you mean cycle road racing (cycle touring would, to one brought up doing it, mean going places by bike non-competitively for enjoyment, whether or not as an organised activity). It is certainly true that the progress of a race is not – and never has been – very easily followed from the roadside, except for races on very short circuits – the professional sport was a media vehicle almost from the start, organised by newspapers for promotional purposes – but it is still a peculiarly intimate, if often fleeting, experience for a spectator that is far from just a subset of what a TV viewer sees in toto; the TV viewer’s experience is of course just as heavily mediated as it is in any other televised sport, while the roadside spectator is, briefly, closer (sometimes perilously so) to the action than live audiences for almost any other sport get. It is also a sport that travels out to its public rather than requiring the public to travel to see it.

    Concerning post-Olympic participation: there is a very real increase in interest in cycle racing here this season, measurable in terms of membership and entries, but also, for those who have been involved in grass roots racing for a long time, in terms of broad public acceptance of and interest in minor events happening on people’s doorsteps. Following races as an official, I am seeing people coming out of their houses to watch a race pass and willing cooperation from other road users in ways which would have seemed Utopian a decade or so ago when we felt as though it was practically an underground activity. That is with a combination of egregious success at elite level and a pretty low starting point, of course, and I expect that much of the increase in participation will be by people who would otherwise have used their time on some other sport anyway, rather than coming ex nihilo.

    • Roger, I’m delighted to hear that about post-Olympic interest in cycling. I took part in an athletics meet last autumn where numbers participating (there were no spectators) were very much up; I’ll have no sense for a couple of months whether that was a one-off.

      On reflection I’m sure you are right about cycling. I’m sure tha what I’ve written relies far too much on what just one friend (with an avid interest in the Tour de France) has told me.

      I liked what you said aboutcycling traveling out to its public rather than requiring the public to travel to see it. I’m guessing that you were annoyed by this story when it broke?

      • I was indeed (and didn’t go in the end). In the cycling heartlands (well, Belgium in particular) there is a bit of a tradition of charging non-residents for admission to bits of roadside, but as a rule only for lesser events (which are often not otherwise sustainable) and generally run on circuits rather than place to place. There has been quite a bad public response to recent route changes to the Tour of Flanders – which is probably the country’s biggest annual sporting event, with big Flemish nationalist overtones – from its traditional run into the finish onto a finishing circuit which facilitates the sale of “VIP” spectator packages at key locations (i.e. a space to park in a field, a scaffolding grandstand, a big screen and a beer tent). I haven’t come across spectator charging in France or Italy though, apart from at the World Championships (which are a bit sui generis) and little local exhibition races that traditionally follow the Tour.

  2. An excellent article. I go along with all your main points. Up to around 1960 the standard admission charge to a league football match was two shillings (10p). If we assume an average working-class wage of £10 a week, then a football match cost 1% of a week’s wage. You’d have to be very rich indeed for a football match to be 1% now. (Till I left school at 18 i always went in the “boys'” entrance for nine (old) pence.)
    The other side of the coin is that the maximum wage for all footballers (even Stanley Matthews) was £12 a week. That maximum was smashed by trade-union action (led by Jimmy Hill) – obviously something to be supported – yet it led to the obscene sums earned by the thugs and biters who now dominate the game.
    On ther Tour de France I have both seen it live and watched it on television. They are both exciting experiences and I suppose cannot be measured one against the other. But it’s impossible to follow the complex tactics of a three-week race other than on television.
    And finally, as i’ve told you before, Yorkshire and Lancashire league cricket was not “limited over”, but based on time – the first team had to declare at tea-time (5.00 p.m.)

    • Thanks so much for the comment Ian, and apologies for the “limited over” howler; if I’d thought about it more carefully, then, yes, I did know that.

      I can’t help but feel that there’s more to be said about the maximum wage – there’s quite a few steps between Jimmy Hill and the Bosman ruling, but yes, it is extraordinary how footballers have been able to force such salaries for themselves – not just high, but even higher than their managers’ salaries, most clubs’ chief executives’ salaries … I suppose it is a partial concession by Capital that Marx’s labour theory of value was correct

  3. Noticed something watching the Europa League final the other day – the TV cameras spent a lot of time, much to the anger of the English commentators, looking at the crowd (to the point that we all missed the first half of Torres’s run)…Benfica fans were noticeably younger, and seemed to be mainly men in their 20s; the Chelsea fans, on the other hand, seemed to be rather pudgy 50 year olds for the most part.

    Not exactly a scientific survey, of course. But while it’s a general truth that football is everywhere increasingly enslaved to filthy lucre, the English game takes the cake – probably thanks to our fine nation’s all-round economic function as a dumping ground for all the world’s dubious plutocrats.

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