I want to draw attention to something particular regarding the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award 2012. It’s best encapsulated in this tweet from Sunder Katwala, who is director of the British Future thinktank:
Difficult to see what more Rory McIlroy could have done for #SPOTY bid; apart from doing it in a non-Olympic year
I love the suggestion that sports people might ‘bid’ for the Sports Personality of the Year trophy, as if it is an Oscar nomination or Presidential campaign that must be plotted and strategised years in advance. The humour lies in the idea that winning a world championship or a gold medal is simply a false peak, a means to an end, with the ultimate pinnacle actually being that little trophy of an old-style TV camera, on a polished wooden stand. Continue reading British Humour, Under Achievement, and the Sports Personality of the Year→
Another popular comment on the London Olympics is the idea that we should host them every year! That would certainly give a boost to team GB athletes but I am not sure other countries would agree!
this sentiment actually misses the point. The Olympics are about internationalism. Part of the reason London 2012 has been so delightful is because the event is part of a larger narrative: We are sandwiched between the might of Beijing and the sexiness of Rio.
We do host major international sporting events every year, for example, the Premier League or the London Marathon. These contests are televised globally and draw an audience, but the particular atmosphere generated by the Olympics is founded on the fact they are a one off.
The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.
This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.
In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.
But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?
The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.
This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.
In my youth, I would go skydiving at weekends. My take-up of the sport was round about the time that digital video was coming onto the consumer market and into the world of freefall. Most electronics shops sold high-end mini-DV units for four figure sums alongside VHS camcorders. All units were relatively bulky and you required a homemade helmet with a camera-mount bracket on the front.
The films we produced then were rudimentary. They were washed out and a bit shaky, and any that were edited were typically very basic montages set to some kind of dance-music sound-track. Here’s an example I made earlier.
Compare that with this beautiful thing from design studio Betty Wants In, advertising a skydive centre in Melbourne. Its in a different league to what I saw being produced a decade ago, even from the professionals. Chief amongst its virtues is the focus on stillness and calm, and the relative stasis that you achieve in freefall (relative being the operative word). By contrast, when I was doing this sort of thing, the entire culture revolved around speed and the iconography was all cliched lightning bolts and flames. It shows how the practitioners of this relatively new genre have evolved, helped of course by the reduced price and size of HD video.
My thoughts on why the World Cup is not xenophobic caused a good debate, here and at Liberal Conspiracy. I think the public response to our national team’s dire performance yesterday backs up my view that football fans (even England fans) know all too well that “its only a game” and that xenophobia is rare, unwelcome and marginalised.
In particular, the consensus that Germany were by far the better team and deserved to win, despite Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal. The ignorant patriot would hold that this mistake by the referee cost England the game, but apart from our Italian manager Fabio Capello, no-one is advancing that argument. In fact, the effect of the denied goal has actually been to remind us of the 1966 goal-mouth incident, where Geoff Hirst was awarded a goal by the Azerbaijani (not Russian) linesman. The merest hint of a suggestion that maybe there is a possibility that perhaps Hirst’s ricochet did not actually entirely cross the line used to be one of our nation’s most cherished shibboleths. Yet after the game, the idea that Lampard’s bad luck was karmic payback for Hirst’s good fortune is common currency: Richard Williams analysis in The Guardian takes this line, and echos may of the tweets I read yesterday evening. This is not the attitude of a xenophobic nation. Rather, it is an aquiesence to Law 5 of the game that says that the referee’s decision is final, even if it is wrong. A commitment to the Rule of Law that would make any civil libertarian proud.
These curmudgeons assume that any time two teams from different sides line up against each other, it is inherently warlike. They assume that whenever anyone chooses to support a team based purely on nationality, they are indulging in a form of blind patriotism akin to the worst excesses of political nationalism. And while the tone of these writings is, yes, a little knowing and light-hearted, I detect real sentiments of contempt in what they say. How strange that these writers cannot perceive the knowingness of the football fans at which they sneer, the tongue-in-cheek tone with which real sports fans approach their passion.
In particular, the charge of ‘patriotism’, or of any kind of ‘ugliness’ does not stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. Christ, you do not even need to go to South Africa to do this – the evidence is right there on the TV screens. See those idiot fans, cheering and leering behind the po-faced TV reporters? Look closely at their shirts, their face-paints, and you will see the colours of many teams, of many countries. The fun of a football tournament like the World Cup lies as much in the meeting of new people from distant shores, as it does in actually watching the game itself. The rowdy fans at Rustenberg and elsewhere know this – it is why they bother.
I think that it is precisely because football is “only a game” you find its purest form in the international competitions, not the club game. In the latter, I think the naysayers have a point – the excessive sums spent during tough economic times on ringers from overseas does seem obscene, bizarre and unsporting. By contrast, managers of national teams are limited in who they can pick. They cannot buy in new talent from elsewhere. In this sense, their situation is closer to the game as most of us play it – you’re stuck with whoever is available. At school, teams are usually organised arbitrarily along classroom divisions, or else by means of the dreaded ‘line-up’ so despised in the childhoods of the sportingly challenged. Either way, the talent pool is limited and the team is stuck with whoever they are given. In pub and amateur football (or any kind of team sport, really) you are similarly limited to whoever can get off work or out of bed in time for the 10:30 kick-off. Likewise in kids’ football, which tends to operate on a subscription model over which the person picking the team has zero control.
The fun of most sport, indeed, of most games, lies in these arbitrary constraints. We agree on some rules to abide by, and set ourselves other random constraints (such as the players, the cards, the dice)… and then we try our damnedest to win. The fact it is all made up; that we have chosen to spend our time like this; that the outcome does not actually matter to our lives one iota; that it is entirely and necessarily divorced from our day-to-day existence: That is where the ‘sport’ exists. The fact that it doesn’t matter is precisely the point, because it is an escape from things that do matter. Pointing out the futility of the exercise, usually by reference to the well worn “grown men kicking a pig’s bladder” cliche, is like the irritating snoot who tells everyone else how the magician does his tricks, thus spoiling the show.
Cheating in sport is despicable because it similarly breaks the suspension of disbelief in which the rest of us have colluded. Related, I think, is the way in which the obnoxious amounts of money spent on footballers’ transfer fees leaves a sour aftertaste: buying in new players seems like an attempt to rig the initial conditions. The presence of Kevin Pieterson in the England Cricket team makes many of us uneasy, despite his undoubted talent… because switching nationalities looks like an attempt to rig the initial conditions.
Football is so popular because most of us have the emotional intelligence to be able to buy in to the spectacle. The utter frivolity of what is at stake is the perfect excuse for a great big global party, in which people of all ages, from all continents and from all religions, can participate. The simplicity of the rules means literally everyone can understand what is going on. Yes, there have been idiots who use football as an excuse for violence… but the game was always the excuse, and not the cause of that particular type of stupidity. These men do not define the sport, and they are a dying breed. In their place steps an ever growing number of sports fans who just want to watch the game with their friends, old and new.
Are we wasting too much media attention on the unfoldings of a meaningless tournament in South Africa? I find it hard to be annoyed. Once every four years, the eyes of all of humanity turn towards the same place. Everyone, whether they like it or not, is distracted by the same thing. It is not religious, it is not violent, and it cannot be bought. Its a delightful phenomenon, one we should cherish.
There is a free speech element to the latest celebrity sex-scandal. John Terry sought a ‘super-injunction’ against publishing details of his affair, that also prevented the media from reporting the fact of the injunction itself. On the Index on Censorship blog, Padraig Reidy asks whether the lifting of this injunction by Justice Tugendhat could signal the end of the ‘super-injunction’ as an effective tool in the lawyer’s arsenal. The #Trafigura affair showed how such injunctions can be circumvented by beligerent members of society.
As an aside, I think ‘super-injunction’ is a misnomer. Surely an injunction that prevents discussion of itself should be a ‘meta-injunction’ or maybe an ‘auto-injunction’? Responses from linguists would be welcome.
Why the outrage?
The opprobrium directed at John Terry mirrors that experienced by Tiger Woods, who last month was exposed as having a penchant for sex with strippers and lap-dancers. In both cases, the chat has centred around the sponsorship deals the men have secured with various brands, and the inevitable loss of these contracts once their philandering has been exposed. The logic is that these sportsmen are paid because they represent wholesome family values. When it becomes known that they do not, actually, live up to those values, their worth as the face of the brand is diminished.
How does this compare to the glamourous film stars, predominantly but not exclusively female, who are paid to advertise beauty products? We all know that when they appear in display adverts, they are heavily photoshopped. Their smooth skin, supple necks and firms thighs are actually complete lies. Why no outrage and heamoraging of sponsorship deals, when Heat magazine reveals they have saggy bits?