The conventional wisdom that politics should be kept out of sport, that sport and politics do not mix, is a myth propagated by an establishment for whom political engagement on any level, apart from that which involves passively entering a voting booth to put your ‘X’ in the appropriate box, is deemed a threat to the status quo.
In truth, sports and politics are two sides of the same coin simply because politics and life are two sides of the same coin.
When it comes to football there is no more political an institution than Celtic Football Club in Glasgow. Formed in 1888 by an Irish Catholic cleric known as Brother Walfrid to raise money to feed and minister to the material needs of poverty-stricken Irish immigrants in the West of Scotland — a migrant community whose presence was regarded as anathema to a native population and workforce on the basis that they were people of an alien religion and culture, competing for the same jobs and thereby lowering the wages of all workers by dint of that eternal law of capitalist economics, supply and demand. Apart from ringing the proverbial bell when it comes to Brexit, it reminds us that we live in a country and a society in Britain that has scarred the world with an Empire that sowed misery and despair on a grand scale when in its pomp, and whose legacy remains a distorting factor across the world to this day.
The consequence for the Irish in Scotland in the late 19th century was that their assimilation into mainstream Scottish society was blocked, forcing them to create their own social structures for the purposes of survival — material and cultural. Celtic FC came into being as part of this process.
Out of this history has derived a concrete identity and set of values that generations of Celtic fans have embraced, upheld, and carried with pride. Aligned with the republican and nationalist community in the North of Ireland, with their bitter Glasgow rivals Rangers FC associated with Ireland’s loyalist and unionist community, Celtic supporters are typically among the most politically aware and conscious of any demographic in society. For them Celtic is more than a football club it is a political and social institution, one that has always stood and must continue to stand for justice in the face of injustice, racism, oppression, and apartheid wherever and whenever it arises.
Which brings us onto the furore over the intention of Celtic supporters to fly Palestinian flags during the club’s European Champions League qualifying fixture against Hapoel Beer Sheva of Israel. Celtic supporters, along with the aforementioned republicand and nationalist community in Ireland, have embraced the Palestinian struggle against occupation and apartheid as their own. It is an affinity based on a shared experience of colonial oppression and the religious, cultural, and racial bigotry upon which it rests. Laid bare and Israel is a settler colonial state that exists at the negation of the Palestinian people, a people whose existence has been reduced to a living hell on a daily basis as a consequence.
Aside from an occupation that has been extant since 1967, the year that Celtic were making history in Europe, aside from the theft of evermore Palestinian land and resources, the expansion of illegal settlements, economic embargo, hundreds of military checkpoints making free passage impossible, and the erection of an apartheid wall; aside from all that the Palestinians have ben subjected to numerous full scale military assaults over the years, utilising the most lethal and destructive weaponry in existence, in which thousands of civilians, women and children among them, have been slaughtered or seriously injured and maimed.
The idea that those who carry Palestinian flags are anything other than people motivated by a desire to express solidarity with those suffering injustice and oppression, that instead it is antisemitism and racism which drives such people, this is utterly grotesque and deserving of contempt.
It is not Israel’s Jewish character that is the issue, as those who attempt to delegitimise the Palestinian struggle and those who support it continually maintain. It is Israel’s apartheid character that is the issue, and where better to demonstrate resistance to apartheid than in a packed football stadium alongside thousands of others.
The Palestinian flag is more than a national symbol; it has taken on the mantle of a symbol of defiance in the face of colonial oppression and apartheid, both of which the Ireland to which Celtic FC is historically and culturally rooted has experienced in its long and tortured history.
Sport does not exist in a vacuum and the struggle for justice cannot and should not be parked outside a football stadium for ninety seconds much less ninety minutes. It is why the attempt to ban the Palestinian flag from Celtic Park is tantamount to an attempt to ban justice from Celtic Park.
If such a ban is implemented and succeeds the rumbling that greets it will be the sound of Brother Walfrid turning in his grave.
Mark Perryman reviews the best of this summer’s sports books
English football’s Premiership (sic), the best league in the world? The same 4 clubs, well give or take one perhaps, could be jotted down on a scrap of paper every August with a cast-iron guarantee they will fill the Champions League places, year in, year out. Tedium, its the brand value the Premiership has become past masters at providing, yet barely a word of dissent ever breaks through the breathless excitement football’s boosterists provide across the print, TV and radio media.
Meantime despite the sportification of society levels of participation in scarcely any form of physical activity continue to rocket downwards. Football, the richest and most high profile of all sports has amongst the sharpest rates of decline in numbers taking part, unless of course we count watching it from the comfort of our own sofa.
Cutting through sport-hype takes a combination of a love for and understanding of sport with a critique of all that it threatens to become. Jules Boykoff is a renowned expert at precisely this kind of combination, his latest book Activism and the Olympics provides a chronicle of activist opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and London 2012. Andrew Zimbalist does something similar over a longer timeframe, and taking in both the Olympics and Football World Cups. His conclusions in his book Circus Maximus are devastating, the socio-economic benefits of hosting are next to negligible and more often than not actually negative. Yet despite almost every pledge made by London 2012 remaining unfulfilled as Rio 2016 approaches the self-satisfied bandwagon that the Olympics has turned into will steamroll almost all critical voices into the margins. Perhaps what is needed to resist is the kind of ideological rigour that features amongst those profiled in the pioneering collection Sport and Revolutionaries edited by John Nauright and David Wiggins. Lenin and Che Guevara, who would have imagined the centrality they both gave sport and physical culture in the cause of human liberation? Or likewise social movements spanning Irish Republicanism, the overthrow of colonial regimes, anti-racism and civil rights. Each in their own ways , as essays in this excellent book recount, saw the importance of sport towards their ends. Two pleas though to an otherwise excellent publisher, Routledge. Why only the high-priced hardback edition limiting the sale to libraries? And why the standard, one-design-fits-all cover ? Both factors will seriously reduce the potential popular impact of what is an important book.
Getting to grips with the enduring absence of a social, economic, political and cultural dimension of too much mainstream sportswriting is vital to any kind of appreciation of how sport is consumed. If is only via this kind of project that recreation and leisure will become framed by the contribution it makes towards human liberation rather than simply consumed as a big screen extravaganza. Roger Domenghetti’s superlative From the Back Page to the Front Room provides an unrivalled account of the evolution of football’s monopoly of the sports media, with interviews and insights that are both informative and compelling. Jamie Cleland provides something similar, if more wide-ranging, in A Sociology of Football in a Global Context. This is a textbook study of the new football, ranging over almost every subject the serious student of the game might want to consider. Same publishers as Sport and Revolutionaries so same two pleas apply! Hugo Borst’s O, Louis is a supreme example of how sportswriting can capture the cultural and the social at its best without any negative impact on its ability to reach and engage with a mass audience. Van Gaal, despite his modest first season at Man Utd, remains set to be one of the great characters of English football for some time to come. His foreignness, his Dutchness, every bit as intriguing as Wenger and Mourinho’s otherness, if not yet framed by the same degree of success.
A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White is an alternative history of football told via 100 quotations’ from ‘There is Great Noise in the City’ describing 1314 street football to World Cup 2014. Jim White is a great sportswriter, he has chosen his quotes carefully while providing his own informative yet idiosyncratic narrative. Brilliant! But words alone, however well-written, can never entirely capture the appeal of football. Edited by Reuel Golden Age of Innocence is a combination of the very best world photography of football in the 1970s with a skilfully written set of introductory commentaries about the decade. Age of Innocence? This is domestic football both before the Premiership but also prior to the Bradford Fire, Heysel and Hillsborough too. Three very different events but each in their own way defining football in the 1980s. A book of global reach too, the world of football depicted as much less of a corporate enterprise than it is now.
But how to push at the boundaries of the limited meaning that modern corporatised football has become? Firstly breakdown its gendering. A process that has accelerated in the twenty-first century, from lets say the near non-existent to the painfully slow. Events recorded very well in the new book by Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, Football and the FA Women’s Super League (sadly though another academic publisher with a standard boring cover and high priced library edition hardback only, why?) Second, confront and expose the corruption in the administration of the global game. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s The Ugly Game investigates in breathtaking detail the sheer magnitude of the corruption at the highest levels of FIFA. Third, provide practical examples of what an alternative might look like. Rather confusingly also titled The Ugly Game Martin Calladine’s book is a very welcome pioneering effort to do just that. Fourth, dump the ridiculous rhetoric embraced by fans as well as the corporate brand managers, that the Premiership is ‘the best league in the world’. It’s the richest yes, but in almost every other regard it is inferior to several others, most notably the German Bundesliga. Read Ronald Reng’s very good Matchdays to find out how German football gets by without foreign owners, clubs 51% owned by their fans, mainly German players on the pitch, drinking and standing on the terraces. Didn’t that use to be ‘the English way’ when Liverpool, Notts Forest and Villa won European Cups and an England side could make to it to a World Cup semi-final. All pre-Premiership no thankyou very much.
Few football books manage to provide the breadth and dept of insight with the very obvious passion for the game that Mark Doidge combines in writing Football Italia. From the country of Gramsci, Mussolini,post-war Eurocommunism, Berlusconi and more it is no surprise that Italian football also is a game of extremes. What Mark Doidge manages, definitively, to explain is how a nation’s football can never be divorced from how a national culture has been shaped too, all with a neat line in understanding why sometimes despite that process Italian football retains a fateful appeal for fans the world over.
It is only in English football’s ever-shortening summertime off-season that much of any other sport gets any kind of look in. And even that is reduced in a year of a World Cup or a Euro. For a fortnight or so the media will go overboard for the tennis at Wimbledon. Such coverage aided when the rivalry that singles tennis generates reaches out beyond the strawberries and Pimms brigade. Peter Bodo’s account, Ashe vs Connors records just such a moment from the faraway summer of 1975. This is sports writing as social history against the backdrop of towering personalities and supreme talent, all the makings of a really good sports book.
An Ashes Summer used to more or less guarantee a mass audience for cricket. But since the appallingly short-sighted decision of cricket’s governing body to dump free-to-air live TV coverage interest has plummeted and is unlikely ever to recover, despite what looks like a fast-improving England team. In his newly published autobiography Curtly Ambrose provides a compelling picture of the heights of popularity Test cricket once enjoyed. A thrilling West Indies team becoming a symbol of resistance, diaspora and nationhood. This was international sport at its very best, fiercely competitive, individuals combining for the common purpose of the team, imagined communities acquiring some semblance of the real. Will we see the like of it on a cricket pitch again? Possibly not. Rob Smyth like Jim White uses 100 quotations to track a sport’s history. This time, The Ashes in Gentlemen and Sledgers . Rob depicts the changes from the pre TV era, the broadening popularity of cricket via television and radio coverage, England’s return to glory in recent years and then the catastrophic decline on the pitch accompanied by the loss of terrestrial TV coverage. Despite all this the 5-day 5-test Ashes series remained throughout one of the most epic contests in the world of sport and Rob’s book helps us to appreciate the reasons why.
It is only in recent years that Le Tour has featured very much at all as part of the Great British sporting summer. In the era that William Fotheringham described in his classic biography of Italian cycling great Fausto Coppi Fallen Angel the 1940s and 1950s cycling up mountains was something best left to continental types. And the domestic popularity of cycling hadn’t changed so very much by the time of his latest biography, the greatest French cyclist Bernard Hinault in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it is by reading William’s books the latter-day domestic popularity of this most extraordinary drama of human endurance can begin to be accounted for. Alpe D’Huez by Peter Cossins accounts for the kind of physical achievement Grand Tour cycling represents via the challenge of just one epic mountain these cyclists are expected to climb on their two wheels. The greatest climb? Quite possibly, though the greatness perhaps lies in the realisation that for these cyclists once they have done one day’s climbing another follows, and another, with next to no respite. It is a sport that borders on the inhuman, the biggest single reason for the scourge of performance enhancing drugs that for a while threatened to engulf cycling. Yet with dedication these climbs, or something like them, can be done. This is the dream of the sporting everyman, or increasingly everywoman too. Ian McGregor’s To Hell on a Bike rather brilliantly tells just such a tale, an ordinary cyclist who trains himself to tackle Paris-Roubaix, widely regarded as the toughest of all the one-day classic cycle races.
Two Days in Yorkshire by Peter Cossins and Andrew Enton superbly captures with stunning photography and great prose the sheer magnitude of what Le Tour starting in Yorkshire in 2014 came to represent. An unforgettable experience and one that deserves to be remembered as far more important than London 2012 in terms of its possibilities for reshaping English sporting culture. Rick Robson’s beautiful book, De Tour De Yorkshire again combines photos and prose, this time to point towards the kind of legacy Le Tour might yet leave behind. Showcasing Yorkshire as England’s capital destination for cyclists, to race or for pleasure and all points in-between.
The thrill of physical activity, recreational or competitive, for many is not only to maintain a decent level of fitness but to test what our bodies might be capable of. Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall gives the active reader something to aim towards, an approach to ultra-fitness that is almost philosophical in its gritty determination to inspire ever greater achievements of endurance. This is thriller-writing for fitness junkies. Adharanand Finn achieves something similar in his new book The Way of the Runner a gripping account of the place of marathon running in Japanese sporting culture. If all these sounds a bit macho read Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim, more than enough to reassure that both sexes are almost equally susceptible to the kind of physical obsession that can drive some in search of the very limits of our body’s potential.
Our sports book of the quarter? Opportunities to play sport, any sport at any level are inevitably socially constructed. The failure to understand this both narrows the scope of most mainstream sportswriting and at the same time ensures most writers on politics to wilfully ignore sport. Gabriel Kuhn is an author who would never make either of these cardinal errors. His Playing As If The World Mattered is an illustrated history of sport as activism. Refusing to treat one as the opposite of the other Gabriel weaves together stories and episodes, some familiar, many not, to portray sport as a vital space for and method of human liberation. The writing is effortlessly informative and inspiring while the full colour illustrations do a similar job visually. Together this is a truly great book to savour for a better future as well as to read now to help improve the present, on or off the pitch, track , inside and outside the ring or pool,wherever your sporting fancy takes you.
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Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football
Mark Perryman reviews books that can help frame our enjoyment of the Tour de France
There seems to be something about cycling that helps inspire fine sportswriting. Perhaps it is the landscapes and countries traversed, the solitude on a bike, the risk factor of a fall or worse, the extraordinary feats of human endurance, and human-powered speed too. Add a healthy dose of British elite level cycling success plus a dash of greenery and its no surprise that publishers are backing bicycling authors to deliver sales, for the most part with very good books too.
Of course it is Le Tour that galvanises this interest, every year, right across Europe, free to watch from the road or mountain side, on terrestrial TV live too. And this year the first two days are in Yorkshire, from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, then down south to London before crossing La Manche for the remaining three and a bit weeks of this most magnificent of races. Tim Moore’s French Revolutions is one of the best introductions to the scale and ambition of Le Tour from a cyclist’s point of view as he retells the experience of riding all 3,630km of one year’s route. Even for the keenest, and fittest cyclist such a venture would prove to be too far, and too much. Ned Boulting’s brilliantly idiosyncratic How I Won the Yellow Jumper is his own inside story on how most of us follow the race, via the ITV coverage. This is the professional journalist as self-confessed fan, which in Boulting’s case, but not for many others, works to produce a wonderful style of writing. Part of what makes Le Tour so iconic, as with all the major global sporting events, is its backhistory, now stretching back more than a century. The Tour de France to the Bitter End is a superlative collection of race reports from the Guardian beginning in 1903 to almost right up to the present with the Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012. Before Wiggins in terms of British riders the essential reference point was the story of the brilliant, yet tragic, Tommy Simpson. A career detailed in William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike. Road racing at this extreme physical level is sometimes described as a sport for individuals played by teams. Simpson’s final demise can in part be explained by his becoming a victim of this contradiction. Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger is the classic account of a bitter rivalry between two cyclists riding the race supposedly for the same team, Hinault vs LeMond, in what Moore dubs the greatest-ever Tour de France, the 1986 edition. Whatever the year, on the roads of France and beyond the riders will be stretched out over many kms as they follow the designated route for the best part of four weeks, a compelling sports drama. It is the sheer range of the riders that Max Leonard captures so well in his book Lanterne Rouge choosing to write not about the winners, but those at the back, the very back of the race, and what keeps them going. Ellis Bacon’s Mapping Le Tour provides the definitive insight into the scale of the endeavour of the race, beautifully illustrated, every edition of Le Tour catalogued, each stage recorded. Not only does cycling inspire and attract great writing, but it has a vivid visual culture too. A combination showcased in The Rouleur Centenary Tour de France with the very finest photography of the 2013 race alongside high quality reportage on each of the 21 stages, which ended of course with the second successive British Yellow Jersey winner, Chris Froome.
The Climb is Chris Froome’s newly published autobiography and details his extraordinary road to the Yellow Jersey via growing up in Kenya, school in South Africa, joining the European pro-cycling circuit, debilitating illness and last year’s eventual triumph. Of course this was a victory whether he likes it or not will for ever and a day be measured against Bradley Wiggins’ triumph the year previously. Read the Wiggins biography My Time to get some kind of inkling of the nature and the depth of the rivalry between the pair of them. Before these two was Mark Cavendish, a rider expected to be very much a part of this year’s Tour too. The ferocious speed, not to mention the split second and millimetre perfect decision making required, of a stage finish seems to be almost the ideal environment for Cavendish’s very particular cycling. How he has developed and excelled detailed in his book At Speed. For many though whatever the scale of Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s achievements as British cyclists the long shadow of the sport’s drug problems remans so impenetrable as to cast such successes in doubt. The Armstrong case was eventually uncovered because of the dogged determination of the very best investigative sports journalism. And now with the revelations made spectacularly public and entirely unchallengeable Armstrong’s team-mates are producing confessional-style books to help reveal the mire of performance-enhancing drug culture the sport had become part of. George Hincapie’s The Loyal Lieutenant the latest, and as such a close and long-standing team mate of Armstrong’s, one of the most revealing to date too. Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies provides the panoramic view of perhaps the greatest story of decline and fall in the history of sport with a rare ability to get to grips with what Armstrong, the good the bad and the drugs, came to represent in and beyond his sport.
The Tour de France differs markedly from other sports mega-events – most obviously football’s World Cup – in the close relationship between spectating and participating. A huge proportion of those watching Le Tour in Yorkshire will be cyclists themselves, many pedalling their way to reach a prized vantage point on a hill climb. And lots in the weeks before, and after, will cycle a chunk of the official route with all the speed and energy they can muster dreaming of being in the mighty peleton on the day itself. This is in many ways a do-it-yourself sports culture. Kitted out with the Pocket Road Bike Maintenance handbook and the Cyclist’s Training Manual the advice will be more than enough to keep bike and body in the kind of shape to ride a Tour stage, or even two. For some the aim will be to rise a ‘sportive; the binary opposition of recreation vs competition blurred by a race which is mainly against the clock and our own body’s capacity to perform at speed, as documented in Successful Sportives. A tad muscle-bound some of this stuff, certainly gendering the way cycling is consumed and practiced. A welcome relief therefore provided by Caz Nicklin’s pioneering The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook.
A sense of the potential inclusiveness of cycling is provided by Robert Penn’s almost philosophical It’s All About The Bike. Penn is a missionary for cycling, he makes no apology for his two-wheeled evangelism. A bike as mode of transport, a means to a holiday, a family outing, a race to the finish. All this and more Robert Penn promises we can expect from our bike.
The rich variety of inspiration cycle racing can provide is admirably showcased in the latest volume of The Cycling Anthology.. Ranging over history, philosophy, the mediation and culture of the sport, this is high quality writing for the seriously enthusiastic.
And my book of Le Tour? Richard Moore’s superb Étape. There have been many histories of the Tour de France but instead of a dry chronology Richard Moore takes his reader to the core meaning of this most intriguing of races, the stages where the Yellow Jersey is decided by a lone break, a climb that defies human frailty, a calamity on the road, a rivalry unfolding. It takes three weeks to ride the Tour, ever day filled with drama. This book helps us to understand its ensuring and growing appeal, and to appreciate the tradition and culture this year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will be contributing to in no doubt its own very special way .
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Matk Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka Philosophy Football.
Mark Perryman argues that as a model of how to consume sport Le Tour puts megaevents such as the Olympics and the World Cup to shame.
No expensive new stadiums and arenas, often to be barely used after the extravaganza is over, sold off or knocked down. In fact no new infrastructure at all, apart from filling in the potholes on the road.
Free to watch. No frustrating battle for overpriced tickets, just turn up at the side of the road and enjoy.
Uncommercialised. The route so tortuously long, impossible for the sponsors and event ‘owners; to plaster with their advertising and police any local business or communities efforts to make any money out of the event.
Decentralised. What other global sporting event takes in Leeds, Ilkley Moor, Skipton, Ripon, Harrogate, York, Keighley, Hebden Bridge, Huddersfield, Sheffield, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Saffron Walden, Epping Forest, and not forgetting London. That’s just before it crosses La Manche to go to all points north, south, east and west Francais. Click to continue reading →
To drag ourselves away from the banalities of the Brazil 2014 TV studio punditariat Mark Perryman provides a World Cup reading list.
The professionally cautious Roy Hodgson just couldn’t resist it could he? ‘England can win this World Cup’ he declares on the eve of the tournament. Not if Roy consults the match histories elegantly provided by Brain Glanville’s classic The Story of the World Cup they won’t. No European side has won a World Cup hosted in South America, Central America or North America. No England side has made it past the quarter-finals in a World Cup for 24 years. No England side has ever made it past the quarter finals at a World Cup in South or Central America. Why should things be any different this time Roy? That’s not to say the next three and a bit weeks can’t be hugely enjoyable for football fans, England loyal or otherwise. Chris England’s witty and accessible pocket guide How To Enjoy the World Cup provides ample enough ways to drag ourselves away from what the TV studio punditariat serves up and consume the tournament on our own terms. Or delve intoThirty One Nil. A footballing travelogue which explores the global reach of the World Cup via the qualifying games we would otherwise never have heard of because the losers haven’t a hope in the proverbial of ever making it to Brazil for the finals. Yet without this international back-history the World Cup loses much of its sense of meaning, a case superbly made by author James Montague.
As tournament hosts Brazil will unsurprisingly be the focus for much of the TV and other media coverage. Yet the richness of Brazilian football culture cannot be disconnected from the broader place of football right across Latin American society. Alongside Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and possibly Colombia will be serious contender. The collection The Football Crónicas provides a football-writing insight into the state of, and culture of, the game across the region. A prison team in Argentina, a team of Colombian transvestites, Peruvian women’s football, Chilean football hooligans. Romario’s campaign for a just World Cup. This collection really has got the lot. Golazo! by Andreas Camponar is a splendid history of Latin American football on both the continent and the international stage, including of course most importantly success at World Cups. This is football writing at its very best, epic on the pitch, socially aware off it.
The best writing on society and culture repays this kind of literary compliment by accounting for sport’s role in making the social. Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities is critical travel-writing with an expert eye for urban design. The author tells his story via a tour across Latin America, on the the way accounting for how urbanism shapes the politics of Brazil. This is a powerfully original way to begin an understanding how the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics both seek to represent modern Brazil. Published by the Latin America Bureau, their brand new guide Brazil Inside Out is easily easily the best guidebook to have handy beside the TV as we wade through a month of banalities and lazy stereotypes. Perfect for a half-time alternative catch up to keep yourself better informed on Brazilian politics and culture.
One of the by-products of hosting a World Cup is the unprecedented focus on the host nation. Brazil remains best known for its football, there is no obvious way of avoiding that salient fact . Jogo Bonito helps us to understand the central importance of global footballing success, dating back to the 1950s and pretty much ever-present since then, both to Brazil’s self image and external profile. Futebol by Alex Bellos is the definitive social history of Brazilian football and an absolutely joy to read. David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation is also an historical account of Brazilian football with a sharp political edge to connect this story both to the formation of Brazil as a nation and the current state of this nation as 2014’s host, and favourites to win the tournament.
And my book of the World Cup? Written by the finest critical sportswriter in the world today, Dave Zirin his new book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil mixes incisive sporting commentary with an angry polemical style that drags readers along to marvel both at the sport we love and the outrage FIFA with corrupt politicians in tow quite rightly spark. Read it to be informed in your anger. Not to spoil your watching of the World Cup, but to enrich the experience.
Note A signed copy of Futebol Nation with Futebol, Brazil Inside Out and Football Crónicas, all half-price is available for just £24.99 fromPhilosophy Football
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy Football.
The death, at 76, of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter reminds us of the racism which underpins the US justice system, even today.
Carter spent 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, despite a campaign to release him which involved the endorsement and support of various celebrities, including Muhammad Ali. One of Bob Dylan’s most iconic protest songs – Hurricane – was written and released in tribute to Carter and his fight for justice in 1975, featuring heavily in the singer’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour of the same year and on into 1976. He also played a couple of benefit concerts for the former middleweight contender.
In 1999 Denzel Washington starred in The Hurricane, a dramatisation of Rubin Carter’s story, which won the actor an Oscar nomination.
Among the books written about Rubin Carter and his case was his own critically acclaimed autobiography – The Sixteenth Round – in 1974.
Carter moved to Canada upon his final release from prison in 1985 (he was briefly released on parole in 1976 before being retried and returned to prison), where he worked with an organisation highlighting the plight of people wrongfully convicted of crimes and imprisoned.
It is impossible to imagine the despair suffered by Carter whilst incarcerated and the moral courage it took to continue his long struggle for justice in the midst of that despair. The fact that his case constituted and constitutes just one among many hundreds, thousands, of cases involving wrongful conviction and incarceration stands as a brutal indictment of what passes for justice in the United States.
After Wiggo, London 2012, Murray in New York, The Ryder Cup and Chelsea winning the Champions League it looked like last summer could never be bettered. And then this summer began… Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews a selection of books that explain sporting success, and failure.
The Lions series victory in Australia, Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon, Froome making it two British Le Tour wins in a row, Mo in Moscow, a home Ashes win as well. Summer sporting success is something the Brits are starting to become accustomed to.
Two new books help us to understand the meaning of sport’s enduring, and huge popularity, as well as how economic and social change impacts on the organisation, consumption and performance of sport. Sport in Capitalist Society by Tony Collins is a highly readable historical account from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day of how capitalism has served to shape sport. Victorian morality, Empire, the Cold War, globalisation and much more are each detailed in terms of how they served to change sport.Add all the insights together and a comprehensive picture of today’s marketisation of sport is provided. Edited by Michael Lavalette Capitalism and Sport has a more activist-based approach to the subject. The range is amazing, including cycling, cricket, rugby league, tennis, football and more. The tone is angry yet never fails to be appreciative of the sports the authors clearly hugely enjoy despite their opposition to the economic structure that frames their fandom and participation. An invaluable guide for sporting summers past, present and future. Click to continue reading →
A summer of sport is unfolding that reveals Britain as a nation of winners. Mark Perryman, editor of a new book on last year’s London 2012 asks what this means for our national identity.
A British encore in the Tour de France. Not even a sniff of winning the yellow jersey for 99 years, now we have two in quick succession. On the same day England pile up the runs at Lords to go 2-0 up in an Ashes series, for the first time since 1979. Add Andy Murray at Wimbledon ending the 77 years of hurt since the last British man won the singles title at our ‘home’ Grand Slam and the Lions tour victory down under, their first since 1997. Plus golfer Justin Rose winning the US Open, the first Englishman to win a major since 1996. 2013 already has all the signs of what seemed to be an unrepeatable 2012 Summer of sport, topped of course by Team GB finishing third in the London 2012 Olympic medals table.
A number of writers are already suggesting that all this adds up to ‘winning’ becoming a big part of British national identity. But what nation are we talking about exactly? In a wonderful sentence that must have taxed the skills of the sub-editors at the Guardian the complexities and contradictions of British sporting success were summed up as follows:
“It would make Chris Froome the second British cyclist to win the jersey. History beckons the quiet Kenyan.”
Chris Froome, born In Kenya where he spent his childhood, first representing his country at the Commonwealth Games, educated in South Africa, wins the Tour de France as a Brit. With his right-hand man from Team Sky on the road, the Aussie Richie Porte.The same kind of mixture applies to almost all of British sporting success stories. England’s cricket team is actually England plus Wales, not to mention more than a handful of batsmen and bowlers who could just as easily represent South Africa. Sport’s version of economic migrants except their search for a better life delivers a salary of millions and heroic status rather than at best a living wage and ritual demonisation. Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936, or Scotland’s first since Harold Mahony in 1896? Rugby’s Lions complicate matters still further by not only temporarily uniting in one team the fiercely independent rugby home nations of England, Scotland and Wales. But by adding Ireland too as one country ending the division that still defines Irish politics, north and south of a border that rugby wipes off the map.
Seasons in the sun
Until that summer of 2012 things, in sporting terms at least, were a bit simpler. These were summers that every other year in England were dominated by our biannual foray to end those years of hurt since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. A semi-final in 1996, quarter-finals at World Cup 2002, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 might be all we had to cheer for. But the relentless build up of expectation was more than enough to get the St George Cross flags flying, worn as a T-shirt, daubed on kids’ faces and after the inevitable early exit sustain the hope that it might just be different next time. 2012 stated to change all that, despite England getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, going out pluckily on penalties to eventual finalists Italy, the football barely merited a footnote to that year’s summer of sport.In 2013, with no summer tournament football hasn’t featured at all of course, apart from the near-endless stream of transfer speculation. But there’s another process in motion too. These other sports are acquiring a well-deserved share of the media spotlight because we appear to be rather good at them. England’s footballers on the other hand reveal themselves time and again as also-rans at the international level while at the same time providing the central focus for a national identity, Englishness, which politically simply fails to exist. Scotland and Wales, off the pitch, can boast a civic nationalism, broadly speaking social-democratic in character. Northern Ireland remains divided between nationalist-republican and unionist politics. In England we wave our flags for an under-performing football team and not a lot else.
Success on two wheels
So what does ‘British’ cycling success add up to? A mix of the public and private. It was state funding that first helped deliver the years of Olympic track cycling success, from Athens 2004 onwards in particular. The Gold medal haul was quite extraordinary with absolute dominance at Beijing 2008, sprint and endurance events, men and women. Repeated once again at London 2012, with a new generation fast emerging to replace those retiring, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy. Success that led to the ambition to translate this into winning the Tour de France. A full-time professional team, sponsored by Sky though whisper this quietly in quite un-Murdochian fashion this is a sponsorship that has a benevolence quite unlike most corporate involvement in sport. ‘ From the podium to the park’ is an imaginative approach in association with British Cycling, focussed on local mass participation Sky Rides. Yes of course there is Sky branding all over the events but the essence of the message, connecting elite success to easy-to-access, informal participation which is predominantly recreational and non-competitive is hard to fault.
England’s fading football glories look unlikely to be restored at World Cup 2014, qualification is by no means certain. Summer age group tournaments rarely attract much coverage but the failure of the Under 21 and Under 20 sides to even get out of their groups at their tournaments have added to the felling that things can’t only get better. Even the women’s side who up to now had been enjoying a rising level of success failed to win a match at their Euro 2013. However international football has one significant advantage over these other sports. Its on the TV all-year round, and international football is on prime-time terrestrial TV, BBC 1 or ITV. Cricket’s selling off of the Ashes to Sky, Rugby doing the same with the Lions, cycling shunted off to ITV 4 , all have significantly eroded their impact as a national moment. Wimbledon is different, yet tennis really only achieves any kind of media profile for that one fortnight a year. A more pluralistic sports media would not only help to undermine the worst excesses of the commercial monster that modern football has become it would help these other sports play a more effective, and positive societal role in terms of the impact they can make. Cycling is the key to any connection that might be made between participation and elite success, what other ‘sport’ can you do as a way of getting to work or going to the shops. As a family day out, for a good cause or if you fancy the challenge test yourself with a 100-mile century ride.
Translating success into participation
There is no automatic connection between a Brit in the Yellow Jersey, thrashing the Aussies, a record Gold Medal haul and boosting sporting participation. Look at Australia, not only in cricket and rugby seen as a close rival but a nation in an earlier era that wrapped its national identity around its apparent sportiness. The Crawford Report commissioned by the Australian Government after the country finished a disappointing sixth to Team GB’s fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics medal table suggested that the massive skewing of sport investment to elite-level competition might be misplaced. Instead, motivation towards physical activity exists largely outside of the emulation of the achievements of elite athletes.
“Evidence shows that participation in physical activity is dominated by non-organised sport and physical recreation. Moreover, this is an increasing trend: aerobics and fitness activities were the biggest growth areas for participation between 2001 and 2008. The growth of time-poor two-income families leaves little time for sport. As a consequence, exercise is ‘purchased’ and ‘fitted into’ a schedule. People are moving towards activities that are able to suit lifestyle and time constraints and thus provide the most flexible options. Seven out of the ten growth areas in this time span were activities such as walking, running, cycling and aerobics/gym exercise—essentially activities that can be done on an individual basis. Apart from aerobics, in 2008, participation in the five most popular sports in Australia largely took the form of non-organised involvement. There is substantial growth in the number of people engaged in non-structured physical recreational activities— such as skateboarding, skiing, golf, cycling and more informally organised competitions such as mixed indoor cricket, netball and volleyball.”
The report provoked a furious response from Australia’s sporting establishment which sought to defend the enormous funding provided for high profile sports elite-level competition. Commenting on the row from afar, Observer journalist Kevin Mitchell noted drily that the report’s analysis was being accused of “Putting the general health of the nation over medals.”
Sport’s magnificent triviality
Understanding sport requires a sense of their social construction, particularly by class, gender and race. Not to ruin our enjoyment of watching, and doing sport, but to enrich and inform those processes. Without that kind of engagement we won’t begin to understand how to translate sporting success into participation apart from boosting numbers doing sport, from a sofa or a bar stool. Interest defined by the number of hours per day we spend watching sport, not doing it. Such a shift is one kind of vision surely of a better society , where leisure time is freely provided , recreation for all not just for some.
But sport’s contribution to our culture isn’t just about the instrumentalism of ‘taking part. It has a cultural impact out of all proportion too, what academic Alan Tomlinson describes in the book London 2012 How Was It For Us as ‘magnificent trivia’. Alan writes “It is top-level sport’s abiding appeal that it can draw us into a Never-Never land, combining an escapist focus upon the action with a willed immersion in the magnificently trial.” It is that ‘magnificence’, heavily mediated of course, that elevates sport’s possibility to provide the opportunity to start conversations around national identity. It cannot effect change on its own, that is the task of social movements. But the latter need sport, and all manner of other forms of mass culture too, to give substance to its hopes and objectives. In the past three and a bit weeks on the roads and up the mountains of France perhaps such a politico-cultural opportunity has been starting to unfold. The greatest cycling race in the world, which in its centenary edition remains defiantly French in every detail of its character and organisation , is becoming a part of our British sporting summer too. An embrace of its vocabulary, its history and culture the kind of popular Europeanism largely absent in Westminster bubble politics, defined by the people of Europe not its democratic-deficit institutions. A British love affair with the Yellow Jersey perhaps the beginnings of an effective counter to the little Englanderism of UKiP’s isolationism masquerading as so-called independence. Parlez-vous le cycling?
Mark Perryman explores what Andy Murray and the Lions tell us about sport’s impact on national identity
“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people” – Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm’s acute observation concerning the impact of sport on national identity has been carted out so often that it is in danger of descending into becoming a cliché. Yet its enduring currency is reinforced by the fact that Monday after last weekend’s miracle of British sporting success at both ends of the global hemisphere commentators and politicians were scrambling to stake a claim for what the Andy Murray and Lions victories tell us about Britishness.
Large sections of the Left choose to absent themselves from this debate on the grounds that there’s nothing progressive about patriotism. Yet the ways in which sport represents, and shapes, national identity has been an increasingly popular discourse since another sporting summer, Euro ’96. Of course being football this one ended in anything but glory, instead the traditional early exit on penalties, and no trophy to show for it. The tournament took place a year ahead of the newly elected Labour government’s devolution referendums began the constitutional break up of Britain. In support of England the widespread, and then novel, flying and wearing of the St George Cross flag in place of the customary identity-confusion of the Union Jack indicated a growing awareness that England and Scotland shared an island but weren’t necessarily the same. Scotland, and Wales, had of course made sense of this a long time previously, for the English this was something new. And there was another difference too. In Scotland and Wales this popular mood around national identity connected to a wider politics of civic nationalism, with differing ambitions ranging from devolution to independence. In England, then and now there is no such expression of any such intent at a political level. Some of course on the Left portray any such awakening as reactionary, or worse, but the spectre of a racialised nationalism around Englishness is in large measure confounded by its primary vehicle, football. By far the most multicultural of all our team sports, on the pitch, in the stands, watching and cheering from the sofa. In many ways the St George cross, wrapped round football, a symbol of inner-city multicultural England.
Such was the evolving narrative every other summer 1996 through to England’s disastrous performance in South Africa at World Cup 2010. Given a nudge too by the winning of rugby’s World Cup in 2003, cricket’s Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011 , all in England’s colours.
But after 2010 the biannual summer of hopeful expectation and flag-waving celebration has taken more than a bit of a knocking. Despite getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and decent TV viewing figures, the popular mood seemed to have changed. England no longer creating the kind of buzz they had become used to. Instead 2012’s summer of sport was absolutely dominated by the London Olympics and all things GB. With Wiggins winning the yellow jersey, an incredible last-day recovery to win golf’s Ryder Cup and Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam victory in New York thrown in for happy measure. But these versions of sporting nationalism are more complex. The Olympic success often in sports where there is next to no interest outside of the Games, and zero fan culture of the sort football boasts on a weekly basis. Sports where the individual is celebrated, obviously to the maximum by those who share his or her nationality but beyond that it is his or her achievement that matters not the flag embroidered on the kit worn. The Ryder Cup in the most teasing of ironies given golf’s self-image of UKiP at play won under the EU flag. Andy Murray defying that favourite sporting maxim of a certain brand of Englishness , ‘Scots when he loses, British when he wins.’
The Lions victory doesn’t fit into a previously cosy version of sports nationalism either. Elite rugby players of course, but entirely unused to playing together as a team until they go on tour. This is teamwork at its best. The incredible third Test victory against Australia featuring a solid core of Welsh internationals, it couldn’t have been won without them. This de-centres a traditional version of Britishness. As for the Irish contribution. A united Ireland team playing this most English of sports, and all its home internationals are in Dublin. At a club level Ulster ranked alongside the other giants of Irish rugby, Munster and Leinster. Arguably Ireland’s most successful team sport on a global stage, this is a mix that the political imagination can hardly begin to comprehend.
And Andy Murray? David Cameron and Alex Salmond in the posh seats, nothing could better represent broken-up Britain. Each desperate for some of the gold dust of Andy’s victory to do their poll ratings some good, to strengthen the case for the Union or the cause of independence. But nobody was very much interested what either had to say, or tweet. Tennis, like most individual sports, doesn’t really do nationalism in the way team sports do. The story becomes a personal one, of family, sacrifice, talent-spotted and developed, turning disappointments into a glorious sunny July afternoon of triumph, with the backhistory of the tennis version of the years of hurt, all 77 of them, adding to the magic of the moment.
This is a superlative sporting achievement. But it hardly affects our emotional investment in that joy to add the observation that the All England Tennis Club’s pocket of SW19 doesn’t look much like the rest of that world-famous postcode, the rest of Wimbledon either, or London for that matter. An almost exclusively white crowd, white flight in reverse, this isn’t metropolitan Britain as we know it. Not ‘political correctness gone mad’ of the Jeremy Clarkson type jibe but enriching our understanding of sport by noting, accounting for, and acting upon those left out. Sport is socially constructed by gender, race and class in particular. Very few sports are ‘for all’ , some never will be, most could be. Why they aren’t as vital to our understanding of Britishness as lifting a trophy in Britain’s name, Wimbledon’s or any other we can get our hands on.
And this means also that John Inverdale’s pre-match commentary on Wimbledon’s women singles champion Marion Bartoli suggesting her father might have told her “you’re never going to be a looker” and this would explain her playing style “scrappy and to fight” weren’t simply a gaffe but deeply revelatory. And what it reveals is a misogyny at the core of sports culture. This was a statement that the media star of London 2012, Clair Balding, it is inconceivable to imagine would have made. Inverdale , not an isolated example, rather he is emblematic of a sports media culture blokedom, saloon bar putting the world to rights, keeping women in their place, getting down to the real business of sport, reinforcing their masculinity. As football shuffles way from its summertime tournament stage other sports offer the possibility to challenge this but not so long as the likes of Inverdale rule the studios and backpages they won’t
Meanwhile we can’t afford to get cocky. Last weekend may be as good as it gets this summer. But Chris Froome in the yellow jersey and a home Ashes win would surely set the seal on a British summer of sport every bit as good as the one in 2012 we thought we’d never get close to experiencing ever again. Will it change Britain for good? No, the impact of elite success has next t no impact on levels of participation in sport. They can help inspire, of course they can, and popularise a sport. But the tools for increasing participation require a much more serious unpicking of sport’s social construction, to account for the exclusions and inclusions, and most of all to focus investment and initiatives on the level most of us will ever aspire to, the recreational not the competitive. But there could also be the beginnings of a more profound cultural shift too. The bi-annual flag waving for the England team as it heads off to a Euro or World Cup only to return early with nothing much to show for the effort turning into a more multi-sports summer culture, breaking the hegemony of football over sporting culture, enabling a much greater variety of ways to identify with what sport and nation means to us. England, GB, a bit of one, some of the other, or none at all.