Nothing to lose but our chains
Sunday, 17 December 2017 15:30

Nothing to lose but our chains

Published in Sport

Looking for a communistic sports event to take part in? As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for advancing to communism on two wheels.

Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere.

OK Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road, though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon, there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.

For those who take an interest in the competitive side Le Tour will be on television for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées.

That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV – both live and highlights packages are free to air on ITV4.

And secondly this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start – the stages too – but never the ending, that will always be Paris.  Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders! And of course lined up along the route in their hundreds of thousands are the fans, none paying even a cent – or nowadays a Euro – for the privilege.

Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money on, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. It’s a sporting event not for the few but for the many – pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike.

Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. It’s particularly  awkward for British cycling fans because the spotlight will fall mainly on Team Sky, on rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford.  Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad, this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.

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Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub?  A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose. 

It’s true that at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, and maybe it’s true that middle-aged men who should know better are investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it, rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most highly paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this. Still the class enemy on two wheels represents only a tiny fraction of cycling’s growing popularity. 

Likewise with the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom.

It may be a a factor, but it’s not the total explanation that the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. Other more important reasons are implementation of socialist and green policies like increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers, and austerity staycation culture. These things help explain cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention the likelihood of it growing more popular under a genuinely cycle-loving socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal which is unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicines or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons, hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation.

I think it was Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Undersecretary of Justice in Allende's Marxist government, who said this: 'Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.' So I’ll conclude with a quick mention of just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in – the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside, but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct, via equalising participation.  There are staggered starts over varying distances, so nobody knows who the winners are – or crucially, the losers either.

For some people, it’s racing against their own individual clock, but for everyone it’s a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. And more often than not, participants are raising money for a good cause. The same prize, wherever you finish – what could be more politically progressive than that?

Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, he must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains……

Thanks to Hugh Tisdale for both images. The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ Cycling T-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.

A recent protest in Rio de Janeiro
Sunday, 17 December 2017 15:30

More of a marathon than a sprint

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman offers an exhaustive reading selection for a sizzling summer of sport.

Exhaustive? Exhausting more like! The never-ending summer of sport from Euro 2016, the British Grand Prix, English rugby down under, Test Match cricket, Le Tour, Wimbledon fortnight , Rio 2016 and then before you know it the football season has started. It was ever thus, the sport has just got bigger that’s all, if not always better.

To help navigate our way through the cause and effect of the highs and the lows, there’s no better place to start than John Leonard’s Fair Game, an easy-to-read history of the clash between politics and sport. To take a more philosophical approach means engaging with competition vs participation, another one of those big match this versus that binary opposition which serve more to obscure than inform.

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Losing It by the superlative Simon Barnes teaches us more than we will ever need to know about the joys of not being on the winning side. But the sharpest divide in sporting culture has nothing to do with winners and losers but gender. Can you name a single sporting culture which isn’t fundamentally shaped by gender relations? Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play is a popular read on this complex but essential subject, an absolute must-read for the future of sport, any sport.

Once every four years the Summer Olympics are so huge that for two or three weeks they both block out almost all other sport - and plenty more besides - while providing a platform for sports that otherwise hardly ever get a look in. The latter is arguably one of the few remaining redeeming features of the Olympic ideal, well covered by Dave Zirin’s fully updated Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. It deals with both the Olympics and football’s World Cup, and their impact on Brazil in 2014 and 2016.

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Of course most of these failings are not new. Jules Boykoff's Power Games is a political history of the Games which explains the scale of the failure both historically and theoretically via the highly original concept of ‘celebration capitalism’. During Rio this will be our favourite read between the breathlessly exciting sporting action on the TV.

Ordinarily the combination of a European Championships and the fiftieth anniversary of ’66 would have turned 2016 into a footballing summer. But for the English, after Iceland 2 Poundland 1, no chance of that! Peter Chapman’s exercise in nostalgia Out Of Time reminds us of a year when for England, almost anything seemed possible, on and off the pitch, 1966.

A perhaps less obvious year to choose to revisit with such English optimistic intent is 1996. But this was the year of England’s Euro 96, Britpop (actually English pop) and new Labour on the eve of a General Election landslide, including a majority of English seats. When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons and When We Were Lions from Paul Rees both cover this epic tournament with one eye on the politics and culture of the time too. For thirtysomethings and older, a really great read about something England have failed to do this century - make it to a tournament semi-final!

Taking a longer historical view is Colin Shindler’s Four Lions which imaginatively chronicles English footballing history via the life, career and times of four England captains: Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Gary Lineker and David Beckham.

Taking a more conventional approach to all things post ’66, Henry Winter in Fifty Years of Hurt records with the finest of insights all that has gone wrong, and the reasons why, since that singular golden moment five decades ago. The paperback edition will make even more painful reading mind no doubt, with the defeat to Iceland tacked on and the dawning of the age of Big Sam as England supremo.

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For a variety of studies of the modern game, the edited collection by Ellis Cashmore and Kevin Dixon Studying Football provides some academic explanations which are both rich in detail and deep in understanding. But my top choice to pack for the new season’s away trip reading has to be And The Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany.

I first read this superb book as a review copy a year ago, but then it was promptly withdrawn because of the Hillsborough Inquest. This is a book that begins and ends with Hillsborough, and in between deals with the mess modern English football has become. Delayed because of the Inquest and the legal restrictions of the legal proceedings on such a book, twelve months later it is if anything an even more powerful and compelling read.

Without the Ashes cricket struggles to get much of a look-in even during the summer months, selling off the live TV coverage to Sky has reduced wider public interest still further. Emma John’s Following On is therefore a timely reminder of cricket’s appeal, even when it’s not actually very well played.

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Football of course has been dominant for so long now in English sporting culture it is hard to imagine other models for how to consume sport, and a five-day Test Match is perhaps the most incongruous alternative imaginable.

My favourite other way to consume sport is cycling. Decentralised, free to watch, pan-European, and on terrestrial TV, thousands ride the course to reach their best roadside vantage point, and the Brits always win - well almost always.

I’m talking of course about Le Tour. The classic account of this most famous of cycling contests, Geoffrey Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race, has recently been republished, a superb mix of cultural history and sporting commentary.

And a novel to expand our understanding of what it takes to ride this greatest of all races? From Dutch author Bert Wagendorp comes Ventoux, the story of a group of friends who decide to ride to the summit of this most iconic of climbs and the effect the effort has on all of their lives.

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The Science of the Tour de France by James Witts takes a more practical approach. In spellbindng detail along with magnificent photography and graphics the author carefully explains what it takes to ride this most punishing of races spread over almost an entire month of varied and arduous competition. And there is probably no rider better equipped to put that experience into words than David Millar, and he does precisely that in his very fine new book The Racer.

What is special about cycling is the connection between competition and participation, what other sport can you use as a means to get to work, do the shopping, a family day out? Team Sky rider and Team GB Olympian sketches out precisely those connections in his amusing yet informative book The World of Cycling According to G.

The most basic sporting test however of human endurance remains running. Arguably the one truly universal global sport, requiring no equipment, no facilities, any body shape, and for the lucky few a route out of poverty too.

Richard Askwith has established himself as one of the best writers on the sport, Today We Die A Little is Richard’s biography of one of the greatest long-distance runners of all time, Emil Zatopek, which reveals both what it takes physically to take one’s body beyond the limits of human endurance, but also the political context of 1950s Eastern Europe which drove Zátopek to run.

But there’s one feat Zátopek failed to achieve, nor any runner before or after him either - breaking two hours for the marathon. Ed Casear’s Two Hours combines investigative journalism, sports science and athletic travelogue to find out whether this near-mythical barrier might ever be broken.

And my sports book of the quarter? There is only really one choice. Not content with writing a peerless global history of football in The Ball is Round, and a riveting account of all that is wrong with English football in The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt has now written the definitive and best history of the Olympics, The Games.

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What David does so effortlessly well as a sportswriter is combine hard won facts and tales with original opinion and ideas, to construct both a story and an alternative. This is the must-have book, to go with those late nights and early mornings watching the Rio Olympics - and long after too.

 

Note: No links in this review to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from tax dodgers please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.