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It’s all gone back to front….

March 6, 2010

It’s probably redundant to say that when sports news transfers from back page to front page, things are not good. Well, there’s been a bellyful of that kind of caper over the past month or so and it makes any sports fan question their commitment, and indeed, the reasons why sport is important to them.

While most sports fans are reasonably measured in their addiction, there are those, of course, for whom sport is an unhealthy obsession: children called after complete football teams, jobs, social contacts or family business relegated to second place, identification with a team or player that is taken to ludicrous extremes. I remember reading first in Hunter Davies’ excellent account of a season with Tottenham Hotspur – ‘The Glory Game” about fairly well off supporters who made it their business to discover which hotel the team would be in before a game and then turned up every week so they could ‘bump into’ their heroes and claim some kind of familiarity.

Those stories, of course, originated  over forty years ago, long before you could officially ‘pay for access’ to sports stars and the inner sanctums of sports organisations. It seems these days that if you have enough money and/or influence, then you can not only by proximity to the galacticos of sport, you can actually buy the club or, effectively, the player – at least in terms of publicity, marketing and career planning. We shouldn’t be surprised, of course, that young people of varying intellectual capacity, famous for high end sports ability,  are targeted by those with a penchant for making money. These days, it seems, the whole point of sports is that it has become a money making opportunity. As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, Formula  One motor racing was regularly and roundly condemned for being merely ‘advertising boards going quickly round a track’. Nowadays, with adjustment for the nature of the sport, the same could be said of virtually every major sporting activity, especially if it is in vogue with the television companies.

When Hollywood operated in similar fashion to top league football today – stars bought and sold, talent often subjugated to marketing expediency – it was frequently claimed that all publicity is good publicity. Fabio Capelli, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge may be likely to dispute that claim just now, but they can hardly be surprised at where they have arrived.

There are, indeed, strange forces at work. Football, once the preserve of the working classes and the great unwashed, has been tarted up and made presentable to the Gods of television sales; athletics, tennis and horse racing are similarly arranged round tv schedules and advertisers needs. Sports grounds feel the need to show instant replays on giant screens to an audience who have just witnessed the action live. We have rising generations who don’t believe anything is real unless it has been seen on a screen and nobody is worthwhile unless they have reached some kind of cinematic importance.

And where in this lies sport and its provenance? Where now Roger Bannister and his sub 4 minute mile, Jack Kramer and Fred Perry, Jim Laker and Brian Statham – heroes all who performed for love of the game, not love of the fame? Making money from sport isn’t new – God knows Denis Compton made a fortune out of endorsing Brylcreem – but it wasn’t the reason he played cricket and football, and it didn’t control how he played, where he played or what he said.

Sport has always been about competition and it hasn’t always been dazzlingly clean in its execution, but it used to be practised for its own sake, a repository for youngsters’ dreams, a proving ground for talent and determination, a positive opportunity to show humanity at its best, away from the grim realities of commerce, and from the drudgery of every day life – whether you watched or took part, and at whatever level you did so. These days it has become another arm of commerce, ground down by the demands of fake celebrity and witless fodder for a media ever more desperate to sell copies.

In Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of Harold Larwood, he tells of Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, personally bruised and battered by Larwood’s bowling in the infamous Bodyline series, leading a side that had lost the Ashes in the most contentious manner possible,  batting against the English speed merchant in the final test. Larwood broke down after the first ball of an over and only completed the over on the strict instruction of Jardine, his captain. Unable to bowl properly, he tossed down slow long hops. Here was the perfect chance for a measure of revenge against the Australian’s chief torturer. How good five sixes would have felt for Woodfull. Brave man that he was, he refused to take advantage of his injured opponent and dead batted each ball back to the Englishman.

Now that was a sports story fit for the front page!

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