The playing of sport is a great public good—even if I don’t happen to do it myself. But that’s not what the Olympics will be aboutby Sam Leith / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Warning: just watching sport does not lead to a healthier lifestyle
One of the biggest stories of 2011 will be something that hasn’t happened. I’m talking about the phoney war: the pre-Olympics. The buzz—I know people use this term to convey excitement, but it makes me think of killer bees spoiling a picnic—has already started and mark me, by the middle of spring it’ll be deafening.
We’ll have the rows about tickets (too many for foreigners, too expensive, too many corporate tickets, forgeries, booking systems collapsing). We’ll have the rows about security (grave-faced investigative reporters infiltrating the Olympic village with suitcases full of Silly Putty and fuse wire; police chiefs calling for more money; security services leaking details of foiled bomb plots to the red-tops). We’ll have the rows about transport (Boris bikes disappearing off the streets, unions threatening to bring the Jubilee Line to a halt; shrieks of rage about lane closures).
There’ll be all the construction stuff, too: budgets will bust and IT systems will fall over; this swimming pool will spring a leak; that stadium will turn out to have been accidentally built out of butter. The discovery of a colony of rare and protected newts will bring construction of a state-of-the-art volleyball pitch to a dead halt. There’ll be poignant pictures on television of ninth-generation east end residents, dressed as pearly kings and queens, being carted off in tumbrels so their houses can be demolished to make way for an indoor basketball court. And everyone will have an opinion on plans for the opening ceremony.
Not that I mean to sound unenthusiastic. Even those of us who don’t like athletics will thoroughly enjoy all this. But this pre-Olympic moment, with the nation poised in its Speedos on the wobbly end of the diving board, seems a chance to air my theory that there are three distinct things about sport—and the connection between the three isn’t at all organic or straightforward.
First, there is the idea of sport—and the Olympics are all about this. In this account, the International Olympic Committee is not a private company with a shocking history of corruption masquerading as a UN committee in a tracksuit, which passes off one of the most nakedly political global boondoggles of our age as “above politics.” It is instead the torchbearer of the Corinthian ideal, or the Olympic spirit (and passing this on to the little ones is the most crucial part of the Olympic legacy).
Second, there is the watching of sport, which delights many of us and from which the money-churning business of sport proceeds. This gets you in the adrenal glands rather than the super-ego. When you’re watching you aren’t thinking of the nobility of competition; you’re ogling the gymnasts and hoping the guy you’ve bet on wins. This is the shadow the idea of sport casts on the wall of the cave. The Olympics are pretty bound up with that, too.
Finally, and it does come third, there is the playing of sport—as done by you and me when we were small, and as done by my brother-in-law on Wednesday evenings. As you can probably tell from my sneery tone and sallow features, my childhood memories of sport are of freezing mud, sullenness and humiliation. But I can see the point of it. The habit of sport produces health and energy and prevents sneering and sallowness. It is a great public good. The Olympics have more or less nothing to do with it.
Between these three things, there is no automatic relationship of cause and effect. As seen with Bruce Grobbelaar, Italian footballers and that perfect perisher who rubbed dirt into his cricket ball, playing sport does not mean you’ve swallowed the idea of sport whole. Likewise, as shown by the rise in pizza sales during the last World Cup (in England, Domino’s sold 374 per cent more than usual for the nation’s match against Slovenia), watching sport does not necessarily lead to adopting a sporting lifestyle.
As much as politicians like to mush these things together, vague bromides about “inspiring a new generation” won’t cut it. By pouring zillions into the Olympics, while at the same time cutting the school sports budgets to ribbons, our political class is, in essence, putting its money on the idea of sport being a greater good than the playing of it. This is strange. First, even if there were a causal high road between imbibing the Corinthian ideal and taking up five-a-side football, the young ’uns so inspired won’t have anywhere to play it. Second, if exposure to the Olympics is actually meant to improve the moral health of the nation (it doesn’t work if you just watch it on telly from overseas), then the Corinthian ideal—strive with every fibre of your being to win, then ostentatiously don’t mind when you lose—is an odd one to pick: noble, but of limited application in the wider world.
And governments aren’t really there to improve our spiritual state, are they? What they might do is more prosaic: help us have fun, keep off the streets and keep fit, thus saving the NHS money down the line. But, hey, it’s the pre-Olympics. Dream the dream.