Tag Archives: sport

Sport: better watched or done?

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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.

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

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 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.

Dwain Chambers and the politics of drugs use

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The Mail and the Guardia are reporting this morning that the World Anti-Doping Agency has won its challenge the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban on some athletes found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs. Knowing that the decision was due, I recently read Dwain Chambers’ biography Race Against Me.

I write “some” deliberately. Of course, the BOA would strenuously deny that it applied its policy selectively. One compelling theme of Chambers’ book however is the arbitrariness of the BOA’s enforcement of the ban. He shows that where a person accused of drug use tells the BOA that a banned substance was in their body accidentally, as a result of a one-off fluke (which was Linford Christie’s line in both 1988 and 1999) or insists that they had innocent motives for repeatedly missing drugs tests (e.g. Christine Ohuruogu), the BOA does not impose a life-time ban. In practice, the ban is applied only to that smaller group of athletes who accept and admit their guilt.

The lawyer in me knows that there are all sorts of reasons why you might get to this situation. If a person says that they deliberately took drugs then the wrong they have committed is greater than that of someone who did so accidentally. In court cases about motive, juries always struggle to deciphere what a person intended. Because a positive drugs test will inevitably lead to suspension, it is usually open to any drugs user to say they were caught the very first time they cheated. Without a culture of whistleblowing in the sport, inevitably decision-makers have to take what they are told with a certain degree of trust.

But, however you get there, it’s offensive to penalise those who admit to drug taking while not penalising those (not Christie, of course, and not Ohuruogo, but others must exist) who take drugs and falsely deny that they did so deliberately.

The most interesting sections of the book are the one which deal with Chambers’ motives for drug-taking. A key moment for him was the 2001 World Championships at Edmonton, at which an injured Maurice Green won the 100 metres with a time of 9.82 seconds (three hundredths of a second outside his own world record), with another American Tim Montgomery in third. Chambers describes thinking: “By the time I’d run the first twenty metres I was done! What was happening? Within those first twenty metres the Americans Maurice Green and Tim Montgomery had taken yards out of the field … What were the Americans doing that I wasn’t?”

The following year, Chambers accepted an invitation to work with a Miami-based coach Remi Korchemny: as he explains the decision, to catch up with the American sprinters. Kirchemny introduced him in turn to the nutritionist Victor Conte, who told Chambers “You need pharmacology, Dwain.”

John Regis warned Chambers but he refused to listen.

Chambers met Conte again and told him that he had been clean all his life. Conte’s replied; “They’re cheating you, Dwain … You’re a very talented athlete, but you are not competing on a level playing field, my friend. Most of the top sprinters are on steroids; every time you race them, you are at a disadvantage.”

Chambers recalls: “I was thinking I had been conned and cheated; I felt as if I’d been mugged off since I’d started competing as a junior. At that point in the proceedings I was seething and I was thinking how many medals and how many championships I’d been cheated out of because the men who I was running against had been able to train harder, longer and smarter than me. thanks to the help of THG and other undetectable substances.”

Reading this passage, I believe it is an honest description of the mental state of false victimhood which allows someone to cheat, steal, etc. It’s not an attractive admission – on Chambers’ own account, he did not quiz Conte on what he was saying, but accepted it as truthful (when probably it is not). In all of this, Chamberlain, was very clearly lying to himself. As people do.

Chambers says that in 18 months of drug use he was training harder than he ever had before, but his track best for the 100 metres was reduced by just 0.1 seconds, from 9.97 to 9.87 seconds. This is the sort of improvement that a sprinter might well achieve anyway, by training and competing at the top level for an extra year.

A number of people come out badly from this book. One is Seb Coe, who Chambers describes as having encouraged him privately, before later condemning him publicly, in order to play up to the image the media likes to have of him.

The BOA apparatus also comes over badly. Chambers says that he made considerable efforts to offer his, and Conte’s, services in order to give drugs testers an insight into the techniques used by drugs cheats and to improve enforcement. The BOA took no interest in his offer. It may be that they felt that they already knew all they could need to know about the circumstances of his drugs use. Chambers’ own conclusion is while athletics officials undoubtedly care about their sport looking clean, they do not care in the least about the actuality of drugs use.

I hope, as I’ve written before, that the challenge to the BOA life-time succeeds. I do so because in my professional life I am confronted repeatedly with people who are punished more than once for a wrongdoing which they acknowledge (people who are jailed and lose their house, people who do something stupid and lose access to their child), and I am very strongly of the view that – in general – people should get second chances.

But there’s more to it than that.

Let me end with what may seem like a detour, but isn’t:

In my teens I began to read up on the history of the British left. Imagine my disappointment to discover that the first British Marxist, Henry Myers Hyndman, was a former stockbroker and that Hyndman’s standard device when he spoke to public audiences was to attend dressed in a frock coat and top hat. Hyndman would thank the audience for so generously supporting “my class”, i.e. the boss class. But socialism, if it is to mean anything, should mean the majority of people taking control of their lives. How could they do this, if they had to be led by a boasting toff? Hyndman’s approach struck me as flagrantly wrong.

Somewhere around my mid-thirties, my view of Hyndman changed. I didn’t stop being a socialist; I hadn’t read any more of Hyndman’s work. The penny that dropped was rather this: Hyndman was far from the only middle-class socialist in the 1880s or 1890s (his party the Social Democratic Federation included at various times George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and dozens more of a similar stripe). The style of most left-wing journalists, teachers, etc was – even then – to “prole up”, speaking in regional accents, emphasising their supposed personal poverty (think Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs but 120 years earlier), etc. Hyndman could not by himself solve the problems of poverty and class which really explained why many workers deferred to the middle classes even in the meetings of the socialist groups, which tried to be better and failed.

Simply from the vantage of personal integrity, HM Hyndman’s approach was truer to who he was. And this has increasingly seemed a virtue to me.

Chambers has been brutally honest about his drug use; and it is that honesty which explains why he, unlike other athlets (Christie, Ohuruogu) is still being punished, years after he stopped doing anything wrong.