Tribal Chanting: A review of, ‘Shall we sing a song for you?’ Tom Lamont,

If ever there was a sporting intractable, a conundrum outside of the realm of rational thinking, it is the question of football terrace chanting. The chants are sometimes warm and amusing but more often, outright insulting. By definition they have to be. That much is clear. Who could imagine terrace chanting without that nasty sting in the tail?

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‘ Blair starts race to find grassroots sports heroes’

Another Legacy Gimmick Once again they have got us jumping through hoops. This time it is to find, ‘the most imaginative (grassroots sports) projects across London and show them to the world’. Tony Blair, we learn, ‘called for the community heroes behind London’s amazing grassroots sports projects to come forward to be celebrated’. Olympic Legacy awards are, we are told, to be doled out in order to highlight the, ‘vital role of community sport’. Now would this be the same community sport that has been chronically under-funded by the Blair/Brown government for the past 12 years? Would he be referring to the community sports projects that often survive only through the paternalistic goodwill of some local charity? Might he be thinking of those thousands of sports projects that received a one off payment from the Awards-For-All Lottery funded scheme and then left to flounder for the rest of their days in financial penury? Once again we are back to one off gimmicks that flatter only to deceive. What London and indeed the entire United Kingdom desperately needs is a coordinated, long term, comprehensive grassroots funding scheme that provides financial stability so that the army of grassroots volunteers can get on with what they do best; coaching youngsters into sport rather than getting bogged down endlessly juggling the accounts. As for the concept of granting awards to the best projects or project organisers, I find this highly subjective and quite divisive. Who is to say which is the most important piece in a jigsaw? Clearly every piece is equally important. A large well funded, high profile club is not necessarily the one with the greatest input into the ill-defined world of social inclusion. And how do you measure these things anyway? Social cohesion by its very nature is a complex tapestry. Why attempt to award one project over another. Recognise the importance of social cohesion and promote all those who work in the area by creating a sustainable financial structure. Interesting to note that once a short list of five sporting heroes has been magically conjured up, the Evening Standard readers get to vote, X Factor style, for the winning entrant. So with London awash with disaffected youth finding solace in gang culture, all our beloved leaders can come up with is a celebrity style award for the person or project with the greatest wow factor. Thanks but no thanks! End JPK 29/05/09              


More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid, Chuck Korr and Marvin Close, Collins, 2008

The promotion on the front cover boasts, ‘The most important football story ever told’. Not only was I mesmerised by this story from the very start, but by the story’s end I seriously began to wonder if this book was a genuine contender for the title. The story is amazing enough in itself. The South African prisoners on Robben Island, a place made famous by Nelson Mandela’s thirty year imprisonment, organise firstly a football league and later an entire prison Olympics in the face of the most severe brutality meted out by the Apartheid prison authorities. With the majority of prisoners being political prisoners, the aim was to keep up morale and train the men both physically and mentally for the ongoing struggle once they were released. The fact that many of the prisoners went on to play leading roles both in the final defeat of apartheid and in the governance of the newly liberated South Africa is testimony to the tactics and courage of the imprisoned freedom fighters. The detail that is collated by the authors over a fifteen year period via interviews and documentation enables them to recreate this extraordinary story as if they had been there themselves. The debates, the passions and the tactical planning by the leading organisers is laid out with such painstaking clarity that the whole anti apartheid era struggles come hurtling back into view.  All this is enough to allow the publishers/authors to make claim to this being the most important football story ever. But there is another dimension to this book that serves to elevate it above all others; the interweaving of the international political situation with the football story on Robben Island. On the one hand Korr and Close have produced a story specific to one place at one time but on the other hand they have produced a piece of political history that has reverberations to this day. Their chronicling of the appalling attitudes of many of the sporting governing bodies and the World’s governments themselves is brought back into the spotlight and many of these organisations and their leading individuals do not come out smelling of roses. The key events outlined centre around the proposed MCC tour of South Africa and the actual South African rugby tour of Britain. But before recalling those dramatic events Korr and Close are particular in highlighting FIFA’s own dire record in the early days of the apartheid regime. They recount, ‘In 1961 FIFA had imposed a ban on South Africa’s whites-only national team playing competitive or friendly games against other countries. However, its then president, the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, a die-hard colonialist, had campaigned long and hard against what he described as political interference. He was content to ignore the fact that the South African government’s racial policies were a political decision that ensured that only whites could participate in international football at the highest level. In 1963 the world ban was withdrawn based largely on Sir Stanley’s assessment that South Africa’s coloured footballers are happy with the relations that have been established.’ P54 This was not to be FIFA’s finest hour but to their credit the ban was reinstated the following year. The cricketing crisis for the Apartheid regime began when the MCC refused to select the inform South African born UK resident, Basil d’Oliveira for the tour of South Africa. It seems the MCC had not wanted to offend their racist hosts. A national outcry erupted in England and after intervention by the Minister of Sport, Denis Howell, the MCC did a U-turn and included d’Oliveira in the team. The Apartheid authorities were incensed and declared that the England team was no longer welcome. The English cricketing authorities, who had now been humiliated both at home and internationally, were forced to call off the tour.  British sport had barely recovered from their cricketing disgrace when our ‘enlightened’ sporting bodies were confronted with the fall out from an all white South African rugby tour of the UK. Every match of the tour was met with mass demonstrations both on and off the field and although the tour limped on, it was clear that racist South Africa would never again be allowed to peacefully compete in international sport. Korr and Close explain;  ‘Other international rugby players were quickly getting the message that it was impossible to separate politics - and injustice, oppression and racial prejudice – from sport but, while many international sportsmen and women were making a stand against apartheid, the men running English cricket again revealed how determined they were to hold to their stance to keep politics out of sport. A deeply conservative body run by deeply conservative men, the MCC proved it had learned nothing at all from the Basil d’Oliveira affair. The following year, 1970, the MCC invited the all-white South African team to tour Great Britain again. The outrage in Britain was massive but predictable.  But it was only when the African, Asian and West Indian countries threatened to pull out of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh that the British Government was forced to intervene and cancel the tour. The key point in all this is not that the cricket and rugby tours were being supported by their respective UK governing bodies or that there was massive protests to these tours, but that the then Labour Government was so weak in its opposition to a regime that was every bit as fascist as that of Nazi Germany. The fact that South Africa was then Britain’s third largest trading partner may have had something to do with our government’s disgraceful prevarications. Despite this collaboration, by both government and governing body, with the South African racist regime, sport found itself in the front line in the battle against apartheid and ‘More Than Just A Game’ is a very apt title for what may well be the most important football story ever told.  And in one important sense this story has got one or two more chapters yet to be written; the chapter detailing South Africa’s winning bid for the 2010 World Cup and of course, the coming events of that World Cup itself. Those that played football on Robben Island, against all the odds, will no doubt shed a tear or two when the opening ceremony finally comes around. From the prison camp football league on Robben Island to hosting the World Cup in a multi racial South Africa: that must surely be the most important football story ever told.  JPK 25/05/09     .          


The Chelsea Syndrome

I can recall clear enough, even though I was just ten at the time, the day my sister and her boyfriend returned home from a football match armed with a gigantic glossy poster of Chelsea Football Club. You know the type. The whole squad including the coaches, the reserves, the backroom staff and the management neatly arranged in three rows with the front row kneeling, the middle row somehow rising above them and the back row standing tall and proud. I’m sure that football clubs still produce those standard set piece posters, no doubt at ridiculously inflated prices for their globally marketed fan base.  Anyway, it was a present for me, though I never thought to enquire on whose initiative the present materialised, the boyfriend or the sister. I don’t ever recall my sister engaging in anything remotely resembling sisterly love so I guess it was down to the boyfriend. Either way, I loved that poster and even now, some forty four years later, I can name at least a half dozen of its star studded cast. Peter Bonnetti, Peter Osgood, Chopper Harris and his brother, Alan Hudson and the bloke with the amazing throw, Ian Hutchinson. There was a Dempsey and a Bobby Tambling I recall, but it all starts to fade after that. As for the manager, it was probably Tommy Docherty, though he may well of come on the Chelsea scene some years later.

 Should I be eternally grateful for that poster or simply regard it as just another piece of ammunition in my life long feud with my elder sister. I can say without hesitation that it was that poster that hooked me into a lifetime of Chelsea addiction that even now, with all that I know about sport generally and Chelsea FC in particular, it is an addiction I am unable to break.

The point of all this, is the increasingly random nature of football affiliation. Long gone are the days of local families following their local team.  Why a youngster in Indonesia or Thailand or Australia should choose to follow a Liverpool or a Man United or a Chelsea only the gods may know. And if not the gods, then the marketing department of these increasingly global conglomerates. And that is the unpalatable truth. Top flight football is just a commodity with player loyalty increasingly to their obscenely fat pay packets. A player sitting on the bench may earn more in a week than a nurse may earn in five years. Where is the humanity in that.   And where does the money to pay such morally corrupting amounts come from. In the case of my beloved Chelsea, the case against is very compelling. The trail goes all the way back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the privatisation of their once nationalised resources by a process commonly referred to as gangster capitalism. Workers in each of the former State industries were given shares at the time of privatisation but the workers were hungry and you can’t eat shares. Unscrupulous agents swapped food hampers for shares and before you could say Boris the shares had found their way into the hands of a handful of oligarchs. Get the picture. A lot of shooting also went on behind the scenes as a way of reinforcing the new political order. Russia today is still an extremely dangerous place for those that oppose the new status quo.

Yet knowing all this I still cannot break the addiction. When we lose I feel mortified. When we win I am euphoric.  Getting the results is like a shot of caffeine in the morning. I need the hit to kick-start the day. I can be twelve thousand miles away in the Central Australian deserts yet still I hunger for results.     
I crave Champions League success. I yearn to be triumphant at Wembley. I pine for another Premier League title. And all the time knowing that I am complicit in a gigantic corporate scam with its tentacles reaching across the globe.

As it is for Chelsea Plc so it is for an increasing number of English clubs. US money, Arab money, East European money and even Thai gold. British Football up for sale to the highest bidder.

Things will get worse. Soon there will be no national football leagues worthy of the name. Only the Champions League will count. That may even involve a fixed number of teams with no promotion or relegation. Some of the big clubs are already pushing in this direction. Corporate sponsors would love this scenario. So too would the big twenty European Clubs. Financial security guaranteed for life. Yet still I will follow my beloved Chelsea. Can anyone out there help me with this crippling addiction. I need help.

Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport, Joe Humphreys, Icon Books, 2008

It was like a gift from the gods. The thorny question of giving unquestioning allegiance to a corporate monster called Chelsea FC was weighing increasingly heavy on the mind. As each season passed the whole corrupting football affair was becoming less and less tenable. So when I stumbled on the book that put it all in some kind of perspective you can imagine my heartfelt joy. I was no longer alone in my torment.  At least one other human soul had come to the conclusion that something was seriously rotten at the heart of our new global religion. If there were two of us, perhaps there were more.

Humphreys declares in his conclusion,’ sport starts to go wrong as soon as it’s taken too seriously. And that can happen in a school playground as easily as it can happen in an Olympic stadium. It can happen in the mind of an athlete who values winning above all else, or in the heart of a spectator who becomes a manic obsessive’. P223

Well that was me. Forty five years of obsessively obsessing about Chelsea football results and twenty years obsessing about keeping my ping pong club one step ahead of the pack. I needed therapy and Humphreys was on hand to provide it.

If you ever wake up believing that sport is ennobling, life enhancing and a medium for world peace and harmony, Joe Humphreys’ book will quickly disinvest you of your delusions. We have thankfully embraced The God Delusion from Dawkins, now we have been treated to the ‘sports delusion’ from Joe Humphreys. Humphreys proceeds to unravel every façade that has been constructed around the sporting delusion; moral, social, political. By the end of the text we are left with a rather sober account of what most of us actually suspect; modern sport is morally, socially and politically bankrupt. The few notable exceptions are just that, exceptions.

Humphreys argues that,‘ Modern sport can be seen as a moral experiment and a moral experiment that has gone badly wrong’. P49 It all began, he explains, in the era of Queen Victoria. ‘The British Empire was at its height, and public schools across the home nations were embracing the philosophy of ‘Muscular Christianity’. The thinking was that sport would not only prepare the next generation of British leaders for the hard knocks of life, but instil in them virtues such as self-discipline, courage and justice. Britain at this time saw no contradiction in preaching Christianity while committing mass murder in the colonies. So a theory suggesting that boys could be made better through brutalisation had an instant appeal. P46 But contrary to the hopes of the Muscular Christianity adherents, latest research tends to show, ‘that team sports are mostly detrimental to one’s moral character. The pack mentality dilutes players’ sense of individual moral responsibility.’ P52

That finding could just about describe any professional football match across the globe. On the rare occasion when a player does disagree with the referee in favour of the opposition it makes national headlines. You can count the examples on one hand. The research concludes, ‘The more competitive the sport, the lower the participants morals tended to be. P53 Humphreys adds, ‘sport in general was found to encourage unethical behaviour.’ P53

Having debunked the moral and ethical pretensions of sport, Humphreys goes on to explore the highly contentious issue of drug use and abuse in sport. Here Humphreys tends towards the conclusion that performance enhancing substances are entirely in  keeping with the general win at all costs ethic of all professional sport. He quotes Jay Coakley, a US sociologist specialising in behaviour of elite sports performers who controversially concludes, ‘The use of these substances is not the result of defective characters among athletes, or the existence of too many material rewards in sport, or television coverage, or exploitation by coaches and managers, or moral weakness among athletes…most substance use and abuse is clearly tied to an over-commitment to the sport ethic itself…’ P71

I particularly warmed to the chapter, ‘Sport, Lies and Self- Deceit’. For me, this chapter gets to the very heart of my life-long obsession with Chelsea. When Humphreys writes that, ‘everything- tradition, history, a sense of community, ‘old fashioned values,- can legitimately be sacrificed
on the alter of sporting success’, I sense he is talking directly about Premier League Football supporters. Humphreys continues, ‘Note how little outcry there is in clubs over the demolition of memory-filled stadiums…or over ‘foreign’ takeovers.’ Chelsea fans know all about the joys of a foreign owner lording it over all and sundry. At the time of writing Chelsea are on their fifth manager under the Abromovich regime. Nothing and nobody is sacred in the pursuit of glory.  

Throughout the book Humphreys makes the parallel between sport and religion and it’s a very convincing parallel. Humphreys explores the work of American psychologist, Daniel Wann, who has studied the impact of sport on mental health. Wann explains, ‘People don’t go to church as often as they used to so one option is sports fandom. By going to a game, or even watching it, you get that sense of tribalness, of community, of a common bond you can embrace.’ P172 ‘A surrogate faith in a Godless society’ to use the words of Humphreys.P172

In the same way as Marx described religion as the opiate of the masses so we might regard sport in the very same way. Humphreys proceeds, ‘In fact, sport may be worse than a distraction in that it gives people the illusion of being involved in important matters of state, whereas this couldn’t be further from the truth. Humphreys continues, ‘It should not be forgotten, moreover, that sport was deliberately used by some of the worst dictators of the 20th century, not only as a distracting device but as a vehicle for suppressing political dissent…. Franco effectively stole football titles for Real Mardrid to boost his public ratings’. P181

Humphreys returns to the sport as religion theme when he explains, ‘religious events – winter and summer solstice, papal visits, pilgrimages, Easter vigils and the like – were the definitive social unifiers, bringing old and young, men and women and rich and poor together for a common purpose. Today, sport is our primary form of communion. No longer do we mark the seasons by the changing colours on a clergyman’s robe. Rather we know its autumn because the English Premier League is back.’ P184

Humphreys’ conclusions on modern sport are bleak and perhaps one sided. Humphreys’ position is best summed up by his reference to George Orwell who had this to say on the subject, ‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.’ P187
Humphreys continues in uncompromising form,
‘In fact it could be argued that sport is a last refuge for racism, sexism, homophobia, animal cruelty and bad language too…’

My own managerial experiences in sport from grassroots to elite level have certainly borne out much of what Humphreys has described but they have also yielded great moments of individual and collective joy. With careful guidance, young people can grow and expand their horizons but the key here is the guidance. Without it they can easily succumb to all the negatives that Humphreys has so adequately outlined. Without a nurturing hand, sport can quickly degenerate into bigotry and tribalism. But with the right sort of nurturing provided by a coach, a manager a teacher or occasionally a parent, a young person may rise above their immediate circumstances and tentatively crawl out of the cesspool of tribal bigotry to see the bigger picture.

‘Foul Play’ should be compulsory reading for every coach, every governing body, every parent and of course, every athlete in every sport. Read it at the start of every season and it may just be possible to mitigate against some of the more dehumanising aspects of sport; our obsession with winning no matter what the costs.

Good as Humphreys’ little golden book is, it still hasn’t weaned me off my Chelsea obsession. With an FA Cup final coming up next week, can I really pretend that I’m just not interested?  

‘What Sport Tells Us about Life’, Ed Smith, Penguin Books, 2008

Some two years after Barnes’ barnstorming epic, former top notch cricketer and fellow Oxbridge graduate, decides to tread pretty much the same territory and for me he does a rather solid job. He presses many of the same buttons as Barnes exploring the contradictory nature of sport and the conflicting motives of both athlete and spectator.

The first couple of chapters set the tone of what is to follow with Smith setting out his philosophical stall very much in the manner of Barnes. Sport, smith tells us, ‘appeals equally to two apparently contradictory world views. First, the notion of a golden age of true heroes from which we have gradually declined. Second, the evolutionary view of human progress the sees sport as perpetually improving. Which is right? Or is there some way that both theories can be true?’ Thus Smith embarks on an examination of both positions seeking as he does to find a unity in these opposites. Smith also has an eye for the antithesis between nature and nurture, facts and opinion, amateurism and professionalism, experience and raw intuition. He even uses the exact same Dylan quote as Simon Barnes to illustrate this perpetual duality within every athlete. Smith tells us that a study of the contradictions within sport will lead us to ‘questions about evolution, destiny, psychology, the free market, history and many other disciplines.’ It’s an excellent read both from a purely sporting perspective but also as a general study of what makes us tick. It falls short of Simon Barnes only in that Smith tends to be a little didactic, a little mechanical in his approach whereas Barnes has that ability to tell a story and the philosophy flows more naturally from the people and the events.  

There is a strange little oddity however, about Smith’s work which is worth exploring. He seems to have a bee in his bonnet about the free market and the failures, as he sees it, of socialism/Marxism/communism. In the very last chapter Smith goes off on an interesting tangent firstly polemicising against the political Marxist views of C.L.R. James, the former West Indian cricketer and then launching into a tirade against Marxism itself. Smith elucidates, ‘Marxism displaces one establishment-preserved revealed truth ( class, aristocracy, the Old Establishment) with another. But the principle is the same. The Marxists were high priests of received wisdom. We have got the truth, they said, and it is locked in our tabernacle that we drag around. ……Thus the revolution reinstates that which it despised.’ P181

Now every science has its own language and those within that science tend to agree on the meaning of words or at least they know exactly where and how they interpret words differently. Smith casually interchanges the words socialism, communism, Marxism and revolution in the very same way that the bourgeois press always does and without any attempt to define what he understands by each of these very precise terms.  And this from a man who has read History at Cambridge. Had Smith been paying attention during his lectures on Marxism  he would be aware of the never ending debates within Marxism itself as to what exactly constitutes socialism both in its early and mature stages and further, when would it be possible, and under what material conditions would it require for socialism to transform itself into communism. As for the highly contentious role of the communist vanguard party, Smith should go back and read or re-read Lenin’s, ‘What Is To Be Done’. The question of attempting to build socialism in a very backward society like 19th century Russia or 20th century China are many and complex and cannot be simply dismissed as a problem of the Party. Smith, coming from an obviously privileged background should avoid offering up trite platitudes. Yes, a serious ongoing polemic is required to deal with what both Marx and Lenin referred to as the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as a necessary pre stage for building socialism, and how the revolution during this period can prevent itself becoming the dictatorship of the Party, or worse still the dictatorship of the Central Committee or in the worse scenario the dictatorship of the Great Leader.

Smith should know from reading history that many of the dictatorial tendencies that developed in the Bolshevik Party were the result of the foreign intervention in the Civil War by fourteen armies of the capitalist countries that sought to strangle the Russian Revolution in its womb. Smith would also do well to consider the possibility that for all the supposed failings of the Russian Revolution, its successes were a major spur for Capitalist Britain to introduce the Welfare State as a means of discouraging the British working class from taking its own revolutionary course. As for Britain, so for the rest of Western Europe.

Smith should try to understand from his vantage point of privilege that a bloody revolution is not a game to be played out on the playing field of Eton. It derives from centuries of grinding poverty and stultifying cultural backwardness, the very poverty and backwardness that the British Empire perpetuated for near on two centuries. While the world starved, Britain grew rich and the elites played cricket. (Why does he think that the West Indies and India want to beat England at cricket so badly?)  Food for thought Mr Smith.

And as for the free market mentality that Mr Smith lauds so highly, he may wish to revise his thoughts on this one in light of recent developments in the world economy. Joe Citizen has been subsidizing the so called free enterprise system with our hard earned tax revenues for the past two centuries. This has now reached the point that the entire rotten edifice would have come crashing down were it not for the state bailouts of his beloved ‘free market’. Don’t believe everything they tell you at the establishment’s esteemed halls of learning Ed.

Finally, my advice to Ed Smith is to employ the same dialectical thinking to the questions of revolution and social development as he adeptly showed in his thesis on sport. Well worth a read though.

The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes, Short Books, 2006

I didn’t want to like this book from the very start. The fact that Simon Barnes is chief sports writer for the Times was an inauspicious marker. Anything that falls under the umbrella of the Murdoch media empire is sure to be tainted. Then there was the distinct whiff of Oxbridge about the opening few chapters complete as they were with clever literary references and a liberal sprinkling of Latin, French and German phrases. To make matters worse, Barnes is one of those ‘horsey’ people with a total preoccupation with all things equestrian. Not exactly the sport of the proles. And when he wasn’t waxing lyrical on the symbiotic relationship between man and horse he switched to his other obsession, Steve Redgrave and his five Olympic Gold medals. Rowing; another working class sport practised by millions across Asia, Africa and the inner city ghettos of the metropolises.

So the reader is treated to the all expenses paid travels of a Times sports correspondent as he flits from one elite sporting event to another. Not a mention of grassroots sports played by tens of millions of people every day, whose relationship with their sport must surely have something to do with ‘the meaning of sport’. Do their humble experiences count for nothing? Do the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who give their all to their humble little clubs count for nothing in the analysis of sport and its meaning. Not a mention of such trifling matters for our Mr Barnes. He has more glamorous fish to fry. So overall it doesn’t sound too promising does it!  
It came as a huge shock and a wonderful, delightful surprise then, that by the end of the read I found myself wanting to rush out and buy fifty copies of the book and distribute them like confetti to all and sundry. I haven’t felt like that since completing Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion.
I can say without reservation that this is the best sports book I have ever read and possibly one of the better books of any genre I have ever read. If Barnes had titled his book, The Meaning of Life’, it would not have been overly pretentious because on nearly every page he gently explores what it is to be human. Above all, for Barnes, the human condition is one of contradiction and his musing on sport both from the performer and the spectator illustrate this point convincingly. Barnes could easily be writing about any one of the myriad human endeavours. He simply chose sport because that is what he knows best. By the end of the tale you feel you have been treated to a perceptive philosophical text but one mercifully free of academic jargon. This is philosophy for the everyman. It is the book I would have loved to have written.

Barnes explores the dialectic relentlessly. There is the obvious dialectical unity between winning and losing and the accompanying relationship between the pain and pleasure that must occur at every sporting encounter. But Barnes does not leave it at that. He understands that every winner will sooner or later taste the bitterness of defeat and even for the handful of sporting athletes who retire at the top; they too taste the defeat in being no longer able to perform at the highest level. One day they are invincible champions, the next they are just a fading memory and after a few decades not even that. Either way, every athlete in every sport knows that defeat and pain are lurking behind every sporting day. The old champions give way to the new. Youth and innocence are perpetually in battle with age and experience. As in sport so for all human endeavour.

The very best, the most poignant paragraph for me comes in chapter 96 and I trust Barnes will forgive me if I quote it at length. ‘Humans are contradictory creatures. This matter is familiar to us all: we want at the same time to be married, to be free: to be wildly promiscuous, to be forever faithful; to travel, to stay at home; to seek adventures, to remain in safety; to be idle, to be rewardingly busy; to revel in company, to be contentedly alone. And sport being a human pursuit, is naturally filled with contradictions.’

It delighted me but did not overly surprise me that Barnes, the master at unravelling the contradictions within sport should pay homage to the musical master of human contradiction, a one Mr Robert Zimmerman better known by his stage persona,  Bob Dylan. Barnes makes the point that any great wordsmith or artist, like the greatest of sports athletes, go beyond the rational, thinking level. They operate at the instinctual level so when asked how they managed to achieve such wonders they are genuinely unable to explain; not even to themselves. Greatness then, perhaps is the dialectical interplay between the conscious and the subconscious.  Barnes, quoting Dylan muses, ‘If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to programme your brain not to think too much.’

Towards the end of this magical masterpiece Barnes offers us a summation of the dialectical meaning of sport and I doubt if anyone will ever produce a better all encompassing summary. Without giving too much away I cannot resist quoting the first few lines. They give a tantalising taste of what is on offer page after page after page.

‘Sport is everything: sport is nothing. Sport is important: sport is trivial. Sport is packed with meaning: sport means nothing. Sport is an escape from real life: sport makes life uncompromisingly vivid. Sport is packed with contradictions: Sport is the most straightforward thing on the planet. Sport is simple: sport is complex……….’  Get the idea?

End. JPK 19/04/09

Post Script: Simon Barnes, a man who knows a thing or two about travel, might be quietly amused to learn that the above review was penned at the very edge of Alice Springs, at the foothills of a sacred Aboriginal site teeming with exotic central Australian birdlife.

Your Charity Makes Me Sick

Over the past years I have had dealings with a number of sporting charities and each one in their own way has done an excellent job in helping to develop grassroots sporting opportunities. My most recent contact has been with the Greenhouse Schools Charity, a charity that has been particularly proactive in the sport of table tennis and has been largely responsible for a mini renaissance of table tennis in London, particularly at school level. In fact, the club that I helped develop and manage over the past twenty years, London Progress, has now come under the Greenhouse umbrella and is now commonly known as Greenhouse Progress. 

Against individual sporting charities and their leading personnel I have no axe to grind. I would however like to take a particularly sharpened axe to the whole concept of charities being encouraged to fill the void left by habitual government under funding of grassroots sport. It is as if we have returned to the 19th century where a handful of deserving waifs get a philanthropic handout from generous wealthy do-gooders much like that described in a Dickens novel. The whole process is totally random. One school might get a charitable boost, another will miss out. One sport might become flavour of the month, another sport will be totally ignored. One promising athlete may get a helping-hand, another hundred will fall by the wayside for lack of funding. Some might argue, something is better than nothing, but I would respond; what a way to run a national sporting programme!

When it comes to charities the question that keeps raising its ugly head is, why. Whether it be the mighty Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation or the more modest charities doing the rounds in the UK sporting arena, the question still begs an answer. Is it a purely altruistic pulse, seeking to do good works with wealth they have acquired well beyond their needs. Or might it be a pulse of guilt over ruthlessly acquired millions. Or perhaps a form of social enhancement where after a period of good deed doing a knighthood or some similar social recognition is bestowed upon the gracious benefactor. This of course is mere speculation and the real motive for charitable works may well be a complex interaction of many factors. But one cannot help but suppose that if every wealthy individual or institution paid their full quota of tax without recourse to clever accountants and dodgy tax havens there might well be enough loot in the state coffers to properly fund a nationwide community sports programme that was not dependent on charities at all. Furthermore, if there was some serious joined up thinking at national government level about the huge resources currently allocated to the youth criminal justice system and the health battles against obesity, alcoholism and drug abuse, then we might just see some of those resources being profitably diverted towards a comprehensive community sports programme. As the old adage goes; prevention is better than cure.


You don't know me!

The very fact that you’ve probably never heard of me or thousands like me, who toil away building our respective sporting clubs to varying degrees of success, says a great deal about our national sporting media and by extension, the nature of our commodity driven society. Small local sports clubs with their loyal, dedicated administrators simply do not bring in the mega bucks. Premier League Football is the only real show in town; the gladiatorial contests of our times, and virtually everything else plays second fiddle. Tennis, cricket, golf and rugby have their annual jamborees. F1 and horse racing are always there by virtue of big money backing.  Boxing gets a look in if a British boxer is involved. All other sports must content themselves with a four year outing at the Olympics if indeed they are lucky enough to be even considered an Olympic sport. Even those few sports that do capture the brief attention of the national media are only showcased at their elite level. Community football is no more successful than the pack of so called ‘minority sports’ in grabbing the media lime light. The soap opera that is the English Premier League has become as much a national obsession as the other TV soap operas. It’s not surprising but it’s damn frustrating. Even my paper of choice, The Guardian, is totally dismissive of community sports and you would think that they might have a slightly better perspective on these things. Ironically, The Times and The Telegraph are marginally better at reporting the grassroots stuff. It’s a funny old world.
So where was I? Yes, I was about to establish my credentials in the UK sporting world because the media moguls have taken a conspiratorial decision to relegate me and my club to total obscurity. Actually, that is complete nonsense. No such conscious decision was ever made. The unseeing hand of the ‘free’ capitalist market made the decision based on the undisputable statistics that table tennis in the UK does not put bums on seats nor does it attract major sponsors. The growing economic clout of China may have something to say about that in the future, but as it stands at present, ping pong is a non starter in terms of our media and corporate moguls. So the fact that I may well be a contender for the most successful British domestic sporting manager of all time, eclipsing even the greats, Shankly, Fergusen, Wenger et al., counts for nothing. In a managerial career roughly spanning that of Sir Alex, I helped take a two-bit, once a week, after-school ping pong club to British League Champions for no less than ten consecutive years.            

 Recognition was slim pickings indeed. Even my own Governing Body seemed reluctant to shout about the achievement, the possible motives for which are outlined in graphic detail in my self published book; ‘The Meaning of Success’. The national media totally blanked this sporting achievement, with the half exception of the Daily Express, who once ran a full page article about the club some fifteen years ago during the early days of the club’s rise to prominence.

The nearest we came to national recognition was to be awarded UK CCPR Sports Club of the Year  in 2008, but that was more in recognition of our huge community programme rather than our sporting prowess on the table. And lets be honest, who on planet Earth has heard of the CCPR? (Some arcane body loosely attached to the Football Pools and The Foundation for Sports and the Arts, grandiosely calling itself, The Central Council for Physical Recreation and acting as an umbrella organisation for the governing bodies of sport in England)

One of the motivations behind this website is to attempt to redress the balance. I have this gut feeling that there is a gigantic wall of frustration amongst grassroot sporting enthusiasts about the state of affairs within the sporting media in the UK and I would not be surprised if, given the chance, a virtual avalanche of criticism descends from many quarters.

Who can name the current squash, badminton or table tennis champion of Britain? Who knows the champion hockey, netball or baseball club in this country? Which is the most successful athletics club in the UK? Where does British martial arts fit in to the world rankings? How is the development of basketball going in this country? And so on…..

The point is clear. Grassroots, community sports adds massively to the national social fabric but  rarely registers on the national media because it does not make money for our corporate masters. The result: chronic under-funding and anonymity. Sporting Polemics has fired the first shot in what it promises  to be a long war of attrition. 2012 promised us a sporting legacy and we are going to make damn sure we get one!

Olympic Legacy: What a Joke!

I started day-dreaming about the legacy idea way back in the year 1999 when the then Blair Government was pontificating about a Millennium legacy. I dreamed of a National walking and cycling track that linked all the major population centres with all our wonderful national parks and our delightful seaside towns. Capital outlay would be minimal. Local job creation would be considerable and it would send all the right messages for the twenty first century; environmentally friendly, individually healthy, community orientated and spiritually uplifting.  Instead we got the vacuous Corporate Dome, corporately sponsored, individually mind numbing, community dumbing and spiritually alienating. It closed early to universal derision. To be fair, it told us exactly where the government’s priorities lay for the new century and they did not disappoint on that count: a national economy in hock to the City of London with all its speculative greed and avarice.

I still have that dream of a national walking and cycling track and it could so easily be the legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games. It could, in its initial stage be tailored to suit the London emphasis of the Games by becoming  a London Olympic path linking all the great parks and attractions within  the city with the existing Thames Path and Grand Union Canal towpaths upgraded to become its spine. Don’t worry. We don’t need to get bogged down with the details because it’s not going to happen. Instead we will get a gigantic new stadium that has no known use after 2012, a few unconnected gestures like free swimming for the pensioners. Worthy enough in itself, but hardly in the category of a lasting Olympic legacy. Many of these small scale gestures should be carried out anyway as a matter of course by the 33 London Boroughs as part of their provision for their respective residents.

No doubt there will be a half-hearted attempt to get the local communities to use the new Olympic stadia, but that will fail miserably. Those that are most in need of sports provision are those least likely to be marching into grandiose stadia. Our learned Olympic planners just don’t get it. In a city like London, if you are going to make a difference you have to start locally and I mean locally.

 As part of a real Olympic legacy every park in London could have a full time warden at the same status as the trendy new community police officers. At no capital outlay, the local recreation grounds, hitherto no go areas, come back into community use.

Every housing estate could get a new sports and community centre, well equipped and well staffed with local people and with a budget sufficient to keep it going without the need to attract outside commercially attractive customers. A central tenet of the Thatcherite/Blairite/ Brownite decades is that everything must pay its way. Everything must make a profit. That is the logic that the boroughs have been forced to adopt in their leisure centres and the end results are obvious. Those that can afford £50 per hour to use the main hall move in, while the local youngsters remain on the street.  

One of the most dispiriting features of modern London is the fear for teenagers of wandering into the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong territory. Parts of London have become akin to a war-torn, broken society, where warlords savagely protect ‘their’ territory. In London today a youngster can lose their life by accidentally crossing a gang demarcation line. For too many youngsters, street gangs have become their de-facto family and they will, partly out of fear and partly out of misguided loyalty, commit horrendous tribal brutality on those that are deemed outsiders. This is the real underbelly of what Londoners likes to pride themselves as a twenty four hour modern global metropolis. If the Olympic legacy is to have any meaning at all it must touch this reality.

And for those with the money it is increasingly the soulless fake security of their electronically gated communities. If that is community I want no part of it.

 To make any type of difference we need to start with a sober assessment of what three decades of unbridled finance capitalism has done to our  communities and it won’t be a pretty picture.  How prophetic when Thatcher declared that society does not exist. She was a true spokesperson for the times. Capitalism in its corporate, global stage has no need of society, nor for that matter of church, family and nation; the three institutions that kept us all firmly in our place. All capitalism now requires is individual, atomised, and alienated consumers. Seven billion of them to be precise. Each of us cut off from each other, each engaged in mindless consumerism to lessen the existential void, each of us living and dying alone. It isn’t that bleak yet for all of us, but give the corporate beast its head and that is where it will take us. We are even offered new cathedrals for this new age, one in West London blandly called Westfields and another, its sister, currently being constructed somewhere near the Olympic site. So we have learnt nothing from the millennium debacle. From a corporate dome devoid of human content to two giant corporate shopping malls equally devoid of meaningful human life.

And if we are really lucky we’ll get another swath of West London blighted by concrete, pollution and noise on a gigantium scale, affectionately termed the Third Heathrow Runway. Olympic legacy? Don’t make me laugh.

The Dialectics of Sport

The central contradiction at the heart of sport is obvious enough. It is the human dialectic; ruthlessly individualistic, tribal and competitive on the one hand, sublimely humanistic and socially co-operative on the other. Sport relentlessly reflects both poles. Today sport is nothing but a dirty commodity where clubs and athletes are bought and sold like prize cattle. Cheating, match fixing, drug taking, ruthless commercialism and of course the ugly local tribalism and national triumphalism are all the daily fare of the sporting world. Yet almost bizarrely, sport simultaneously offers the opportunity of individual personal growth, local community cohesion and on the international stage, improved global harmony. At least we like to tell ourselves it is capable of pursuing such noble goals. Mixed amongst the blind human urge to conquer, comes strange pulses of altruism and genuine internationalism. And in true dialectical fashion, even when the basest of human motives are in full flow, the end result can still somehow serve to produce something quite different: to actually enhance human welfare and, if you will forgive the lapse into metaphysics, the human spirit.

The Olympic Movement is perhaps the very best example of this dialectical interplay of opposites whereby, despite all the human machinations of individual selfishness, corporate greed, institutional corruption and national hubris, something rather better still manages to emerge. Despite every conceivable corruption, the Olympics has this almost magical power to momentarily lift us out of our tribal mentality and see, albeit briefly, humans as a single tribe with a common purpose.  

Mass self-delusion on a global scale? Probably. Yet if enough people latch on to an idea for long enough and if that idea coincides with their own material needs, that big idea can, in fact, become a material force in itself.  From local sport to global sport. From global sport to global consciousness. From global consciousness to a world without tribes. The sporting dialectic marches on!   

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Copies of ‘The Meaning of Success’ are available from This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   
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