Building a popular, progressive sporting culture
Monday, 18 October 2021 10:09

Building a popular, progressive sporting culture

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman has been reading up on the sport we’ve lost, and what sport might become, as what seems like a never-ending lockdown gradually eases

Way back when, during the first lockdown, March ’20, Jonathan Liew wrote a brilliant column on small sport vs big sport. What Jonathan meant by ‘big sport’ was what we watch, for the lucky few as fans in person, for most on the TV. And ‘small sport’? What we do, a jog, a bike ride, a workout session via Youtube, an open water dip. Can be done on our own, non-competitive, little or no kit required, cheap, and in theory open to just about all. It is ‘small sport’ that has persisted through the pandemic while ‘big sport’ has been cancelled, postponed, threatened with financial oblivion, struggled on in a much-reduced version.   

1 The age of fitness

As a handbook for these curious conditions and whatever might follow few will better Jürgen Martschukat’s timely The Age of Fitness.  His pioneering argument is that the obsession with individual performance via such ‘small’ sport is emblematic of, a product of, neoliberalism. Competition, individualism and commodification certainly all play their part.  But does the potential exist for a sporting counterculture?  I would argue it absolutely does – but first we have to understand sport that cannot be reduced to a simple binary opposition, big bad sport vs small good sport. This book brilliantly provides the framework for just that necessary insight.

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics are pencilled in to mark big sport’s return with a  vengeance this summer. Postponed from 2020, the sensible move would have been to keep to the quadrennial Olympic cycle and defer instead to 2024. But commercial interests and lucrative broadcasting rights outweigh any such good sense in the hands of conservative sports administrators. ‘The Games Must Go On’ becomes the mantra, and the latest edition of Understanding the Olympics by  John Horne and Garry Whannel is the best possible explanation of where this unwelcome alliance of commerce, broadcasters and conservative officialdom with big sport has come from.  

That isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy about the Olympics, or as I put it in the title of my own book for London 2012 ‘Why the Olympics  Aren’t Good For Us, and How They Can Be’, countervailing tendencies exist. Gender is one such way in which what the Olympics represents is challenged, and Jean Williams’ pioneering Britain’s Olympic Women is of the ‘hidden from history’ feminist tradition of uncovering those whom otherwise would be forgotten.

From the first games of the twentieth century via the early postwar and Cold War games to the 1980s and the impact of professionalism Jean Williams tells the story, including  athlete Audrey Brown at the Nazi Olympics of ’36, swimmer Margaret Wellington at the ’48 austerity games, equestrian Pat Smythe and the 1952 Cold War games, and so many more to leave readers questioning why we hadn’t we heard her story before? Uncovering such a story and many others of women Olympians is, eventually, a happy ending.

Bullying, abuse and drugs

The big fear is that the modern pressure to succeed at the highest level has no such positive conclusion, instead bullying, abuse and drugs in the chase for gold. Where might this end? The Medal Factory by Kenny Pryde achieves the difficult task of reminding readers of the collective joy and national pride as Team GB’s cyclist swept the medals board while not ducking the dark side of the coaching and competitive culture that lay behind all that success.  A revealing read.        

Pandemic sport, either watching it on the TV or doing it ourselves, has offered many a relief from the horrific daily updates on ever-rising death rates. A snatched moment of normality, win, lose, or draw, the chance to dream. Ian Ridley’s The Breath of Sadness was written before Covid yet its incredibly emotional trail around country cricket as a journey through the loss and grief of losing his relatively young wife at the age of 56 to a lethal cancer is sadly very much a book of the current moment. 

2 Where Theres a will

Where There’s a Will by Emily Chappell shares a similar theme, sport versus grief, in Emily’s case the distraction of endurance sport, ultra distance cycle racing.  But also the inspiration sport can provide to help untangle the tangled emotions of death for the living – why them, why not me?  

Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike approaches this emotional role of sport from a different angle , an instant classic when originally published in France , now translated into English, this is a story of the bike as companion, purveyor of agony and ecstasy, the perfect vehicle for a two-wheeled two fingers to everything the pandemic has thrown at us.

Meanwhile in ’20 what ‘big sport’ lost was the sense of being there, in the stands,  down the pub, watching with mates, and for the lucky victorious crowd, celebrating too. Few missed the latter more than Liverpool fans, a first domestic league championship since the old First Division title of 89-90. Anthony Quinn’s Klopp is testament to all that Liverpool achieved in this most unusual of seasons and the manager arguably uniquely well-placed to make this long-awaited achievement possible. 

Liverpool’s era of nearly-but-not-quite coincided with a failure to find a successful managerial culture to follow the immensely successful ‘bootroom’ era of  Shankly and Paisley era, and to a lesser extent Evans and Dalglish too. Man Utd found the same in the wake of both Busby and Ferguson, and now at Arsenal too, after the Wenger years. While Arsène’s autobiography My Life in Red and White isn’t exactly a ‘kiss and tell’ – few football autobiographies are that revealing – there is more than sufficient insight to reveal what Wenger brought to Arsenal and the scale of the problem in coming anywhere close to replacing his contribution. 

For that missing element in a decent football book, the confessional, Rob Steen has this down to his customary fine writer’s art with The Mavericks. Originally published in 1994, now reissued and updated, Rob’s book goes behind the changing room door to reveal the backstory of a generation of 1970s flair players whose ability to entertain on, and off the pitch, was much more about their lawlessness and free spirit than sticking to the plan and playing for the team.

Harry Pearson’s Far Corner, subtitled ‘a mazy dribble through North-East football’ was also first published in 1994. Rather unexpectedly, almost three decades later, Harry’s written a follow-up called The Farther Corner, this time subtitled ‘a sentimental return to North-East football.’ Of course sentimentalism in and of itself is not enough, although any book that takes in the clubs Newcastle Benfield, Pontefract Collieries, Seaham Red Star  and plenty more where they came from will help convince that it is an emotion not to be lightly dismissed in a time of such chronic uncertainty.  

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters

For an appreciation of all that we have missed for the past year, and a reminder of both from where our football clubs came from and mod£rn football’s insatiable desire to consume the traditions they helped generate, the books of Daniel Gray are an essential pleasure. Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, telling the story of what Daniel dubbed ‘England’s football provinces’ – or in other words life outside the big city clubs – was the first of what has become a quartet.

The latest Extra Time adds a further 50 (50!) ‘eternal’ delights of  mod£rn football  to the 50 he’d uncovered previously in Saturday 3pm which just goes to show putting the £ into ‘modern’  cannot destroy everything we hold dear – well not yet.  In between producing these two finely optimistic books Daniel also managed to find ‘50 lost wonders of the beautiful game’ neatly summed up in the book’s title Black Boots and Football Pinks. Sadly there will be ample scope post-pandemic for a second volume of these losses too.

A visual memento of what a year not going to games has robbed us of us is superbly provided by British Football’s Greatest Grounds compiled by Mike Bayly. I have shelfloads of football photography books, all much treasured, but I was beginning to think the genre might be exhausted by now. Mike’s book confounds that assumption, with photos that give an all-round sense of the stadium located in its surroundings, and sharply observed essays to accompany the photos. As for ordering the must-see 100 grounds with my club Lewes FC’s Dripping Pan at number one, I couldn’t possibly comment! But the ‘100’ will have readers  arguing over the selection and  ranking for years to come, and that’s what I call a formula for a great book!  

In his book Because It’s Saturday Gavin Bell defiantly describes lower league football as the game’s ‘heartlands’ though even here the march of Mod£rn Football isn’t entirely absent. In which version of Orwellian Newspeak was the fourth division reinvented as ‘League Two’? For an insight into the commodification of the ability to stop, make and score goals, Daniel Geey’s Done Deal is both unrivalled and deeply unsettling.

7 Projecvt restart

When Coronavirus struck there were those in the game, as the saying goes, unwilling ‘to let a good crisis go to waste.’ The most extreme version of this became known as Project Restart, to entrench the wealth and power of the ‘big’ clubs at the expense of the rest of the Premiership. Jon Berry ingeniously subverts the phrase for the title of his book Project Restart  to describe the impact of twelve months’ worth of virus and lockdown on a sport that stretches from Sunday league to Premier league, and all points in between. And Berry concludes with the interesting question – when it’s all over, can football be part of making the post-pandemic world a better place? Let’s hope so.

Fan ownership

Long before the current crisis Jim Keoghan established himself as a chronicler of  how to turn such hope into reality. First came Punk Football, Jim’s spirited account of the rise of fan ownership, a hugely significant movement vital to a better football. Although as recent reversals at Swansea, Portsmouth and Wrexham  illustrate, the commitment even amongst fans to such a model, when a rich investor comes calling promising success on a plate,  remains fragile. 

The continuing need nevertheless for fan ownership is made via the title of Jim’s new book How to Run a Football Club – well it would be with the simple insertion of the word ‘not’. The argument made in this finest of reads is that whatever level football is enjoyed the ‘simple love of the sport’ should be paramount, but isn’t.  Fan ownership would inevitably mean scaling back the huge operating budgets of the behemoth clubs, and would that be such a bad thing? What precisely would we miss, and what would we gain?

Unlike the supporter ownership movement Football’s response to #BlackLivesMatter, however laudable, was characterised by a corporate version of social responsibility, in this case anti-racism almost entirely divorced from any kind of initiative that could be described as fan-led. When ‘taking a knee’ becomes an obligatory pre-match ritual rather than how it originated as an act of rebellion, it is increasingly doubtful this is a player-led response either.

3 Pitch resized

Two recent books explore an entirely different situation where sporting officialdom, players and many fans too pitched themselves against anti-racism. Geoff Brown and Christian Høgsberg’s short book Apartheid is Not a Game revisits the notorious 1969 South African Springboks’ rugby tour and South Africa’s 1970 cricket tour of Britain, and the successful efforts by mass protests, disruption and sabotage to stop them. Pitch Battles by Peter Hain, one of the key organisers of those protests and his co-author, South African scholar and activist André Odendaal, connects sport’s boycotts and protests vital role in the anti-apartheid movement to a wider struggle for an anti-racist sporting culture, bringing the story up to date with both present-day South Africa, lockdown and #BlackLivesMatter. A superb read for resistance and change in ’21. 

Racism and English Football by Daniel Burdsey points to all the complex, but very necessary, challenges in developing such a response. Until these are faced a truly anti-racist football will remain as far away as it was before last year’s explosion of black resistance.  A fine and vital book – but academic publishers and authors who produce such invaluable books, why no cheap paperback edition?

8 St Pauli

What might a fans’ resistance movement look like, on race and the extreme  commodifying this most fabled of ‘people’s games’ look like? Three recent books provide an inkling. St Pauli: Another Football is Possible by Charles Viñas and Natxo Parra connects the history and development of this club as icon of resistance to a wider social movement of change rooted in fandom but not restricted by it.  

Football from below

In Ultras Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja Mintert describe a very particular fan culture that is in turns passionate, orchestrated and performative, global in appeal though to date English fandom has remained largely unaffected, unimpressed even. Digital Football Cultures  edited by Stefan Lawrence and Garry Crawford points to an experience of supporters which today is more genuinely international, following the game online, building fan communities, expressing a cultural ownership of club, team, and players, in a manner not always welcome. A football from below?  Possibly. 

Finding the answer to these questions isn’t easy, but to treat football with the seriousness it deserves means we have to at least try, and the conventions of both the game and politics barely equip us with the ideas and tools the task requires. As the co-founder of Philosophy Football, Stephen Mumford’s book Football: The Philosophy Behind the Game quite naturally appealed  to me. It didn’t disappoint with its stimulating mix of the game’s attractions, including beauty, chance, victory and the ideas we observe, but sometimes miss, in the course of ninety minutes. 

For those of a particular inclination David Goldblatt is the Eric Hobsbawm of football writing – just like the greatest of historians tracing of our society’s past to explain the presen,t David has done the same with football. His latest The Age of Football surveys a sport in the grip of neo-colonial power, the crisis of an institutionalised Europeanism, corruption and shifting power politics. In David’s hands context is all and makes for the very best of footballing reads.    

The unprecedented support for #BlackLivesMatter across the sporting establishment couldn’t be more different to how sport responded, if at all, to Colin Kaepernick’s original act, which was absolutely of anti-racist resistance.  And Colin wasn’t alone, as fellow pro American footballer and Superbowl winner Michael Bennett details in his sharply titled book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

This is a movement of protest, against injustice, opposition to racism and the way black communities are policed . How neatly all of this can co-exist with the most powerful forces in sport seeking to co-opt it remains to be seen.  A book that provides the kind of framework to help us not only anticipate such outcomes but shape them too is The Game is not a Game by Robert Scoop Jackson, who like Bennett and the peerless Dave Zirin all hail from the USA, and all three authors are published by the leftist book publisher Haymarket Books.  So here’s a question – why doesn’t a sports-obsessed culture like Britain’s produce very much committed leftist sports writing of this sort, published and produced by left-leaning British publishers in cheap, accessible and attractive formats? 

Tennis from below?

There are three examples of what is possible in this respect from three different British independent publishers, and on a sport we might not expect for such an endeavour. First off, from Pluto Press we have David Berry’s A People’s History of Tennis in which he traces the making of a sport beyond the Pimms, strawberries-and-cream set, constructed instead out of feminism, socialism and migration. ‘Tennis from below’, who’d have thought it? 

5 Racquet

Next up, from Repeater, same sport but a very different  approach. Racquet is a celebration of the sheer diversity  of tennis, edited by David Shaftel and Caitlin Thompson,and  consisting of articles from the magazine of  the same name. The downturn of the late twentieth century boom of tennis as a popular recreational sport, the roots of elitism in tennis versus race, gender and class on and off the court, the sexualising of Maria Sharapova – here is a range of politicised sports writing to enthuse and inspire others, whatever our sport.

My third example pushes at the boundaries of possibility. Self Made Hero has published Czech author Jan Novák’s graphic novel Zátopek, a pioneering combination of words by Jan with the comic-strip art of Jaromír 99 which creates a mix that both engages the modern reader and informs us of the achievements of one of the true athletic greats. It’s also about the kind of postwar East European  communism that framed his achievements on the track. Form and content are combined to produce a truly memorable read.

6 The Miracle

And my book of the Spring? The Miracle Pill by Peter Walker would be the ideal book any year as we emerge from Winter, spring into Spring and look forward to Summer. Combine this with the pressing desire by many to reassess their lifestyle choices after the best part of twelve months under one lockdown restriction or another, and Peter’s book is spot-on perfect. What makes this read really special is the argument that the sedentary position isn’t an individual choice but the product of social imperatives that diminish, ignore and do little to encourage an active life. The consequences are severe and costly but the alternatives are cheap and beneficial. It’s a progressive, popular, commonsense vision of building a better sporting culture. A miracle? I’m told they can happen.

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.