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Life & Letters

The Big Lie of Sport

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The notion that sport makes gentlemen out of men and promotes fair play is spin doctoring. A Victorian novelist called Thomas Hughes started it with Tom Brown’s Schooldays, says Mihir Bose

Sports may be big business but sport did not start as a business. It started with the noble idea of improving human beings. This spirit of the game was unexpectedly illustrated in last summer’s Trent Bridge Test. The Indians, having run out the English batsman Ian Bell, withdrew their appeal. Not because Bell was not properly out, but because they felt appealing was against the spirit of the game, Bell having strayed out of his crease thinking play had stopped for tea.

I doubt if Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian captain, has heard of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, let alone read it. Yet, that Victorian novel forms the starting point of how modern sport developed. The novel emerged at the height of the Victorian era. What is more, it came even before the laws of most sports that we play had been codified. So, sport acquired a philosophy before the actual rules.

The novel, written by a man called Thomas Hughes, presented his headmaster at Rugby, Thomas Arnold, as a sporting guru who had preached that sport could shape society for its greater good, that it could reach out beyond playing fields to turn us into morally better beings. This was Victorian spin- doctoring. The real life Arnold, a man of religion who liked flogging his students, had no interest in sport. His only physical activity was walking.

But Hughes needed to make this argument because he was writing at a time when sport in England was shunned. For the previous two centuries, sport had all but been outlawed after it had become a pawn in the battle between the monarch and Parliament controlled by Puritans. For them, sport meant betting, swearing, drinking, dancing and men and women thrown together. Against this background, Hughes sought not only to make sport acceptable, but to elevate it into a guiding philosophy for the British nation.

Hughes’ idea may not have taken wing but for a Frenchman, Pierre Coubertin. He was captivated by Hughes’ novel, came to England, and decided he would became an evangelist and take Arnold’s philosophy of sport, as presented by Hughes, round the world. The fact that Arnold had said nothing about sport, far from deterring Coubertin, worked to his advantage. There are constant disputes over what Jesus Christ or Muhammad, or other great religious leaders, said during their lifetimes. But nobody could accuse Coubertin of inventing things or putting words in Arnold’s mouth. No guru has had such a disciple, no faith has ever had such an evangelist.

Coubertin quickly recruited the help of powerful men. In England, he persuaded William Ewart Gladstone, then Prime Minister, not only to approve Arnold’s advocacy of sport but consider it central to the British Empire. Armed with that, Coubertin returned to his homeland to spread this English message of sport. There he faced a big problem: the German gymnastic movement founded by Frederich Ludwig Jahn. Known as the Turnvater, this movement involved physical training, which included the use of rings, the pommel horse and parallel bars. The Germans viewed with great distrust the English emphasis on sporting competitions, and results, and the setting of records. The Germans saw English- style sporting clubs as expressions of unhealthy egotism. There were many French admirers of the German system, an admiration increased by the Franco- Prussian War. The Prussians had crushed the French in Metz and Sedan, occupied Paris, and had the Kaiser crowned in Versailles as Emperor of the new German state. The French, debating how they could recover, wondered whether they should accept the German gymnastic system.

But Coubertin, having grown up with the agony of Sedan, did not want to copy the methods of the conqueror of France. It took time and many artful manoeuvres before he could get the French to accept the English system. Eventually, he succeeded, and it was then that he unveiled his plan to revive the old Greek Olympics, presenting it as essential to the progress of mankind. As he put it: “The revival of the Olympic Games on bases, and in conditions suited to the needs of modern life would bring the representatives of the nations of the world face- to-face every four years, and it may be thought that their peaceful and chivalrous contests would constitute the best of Internationalisms.”

Others had tried to revive the old Greek Olympics, but Coubertin succeeded because he cleverly got a Congress he organised in Paris to choose Athens as the venue for the first modern Olympics. Greece, as now, was bankrupt and the government did not want the Games. But Coubertin shrewdly allied himself with Crown Prince Constantine. He was aware that the Greek state, which in 1896 was to celebrate its 75th birthday, had a monarchy imported from abroad— Germany. The royal family wanted to establish itself, and for the Crown Prince, the Olympics revival was a useful tool. Sufficient private money was found for Athens to stage the first modern Olympics in 1896.

However, the Greeks ignored Couber- tin and almost took the Games away from him. The next two Olympics were even greater disasters. Coubertin tied the Paris Games to the Fifth Universal Exposition, and such was the lack of organisation that it had some of the most bizarre moments of the modern Olympics. The 1896 discus champion threw all his three throws into the crowd. Some of the competitors did not even know they were at the Olympics.

The 1904 Games were moved from Chicago to St Louis at the last minute on the request of President Teddy Roosevelt, who was also President of the US Olympic Committee. This was done to make them part of the World’s Fair being held to celebrate the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase. Eighty- five per cent of the competitors were from the States, the US won 84 per cent of all medals, and the marathon was won by Fred Lorz, who left the stadium first and returned first. Then it was revealed that for part of the way, he had taken a lift in a car.

The Games also had ‘anthropology’ days, during which competitions mimicking the Olympics were held for Blacks, American Indians, African pygmies, Patagonians, Ainus from Japan and even Turks and Syrians.

The Olympics that have followed have had many problems, but they have survived and sport has prospered because both Hughes and Coubertin had big ideas. Hughes’ big idea, that sport develops character and playing it makes you not only fitter but a different, better person, lies behind every modern commercial attempt to use sport and athletes to sell stuff. It underpins the relationship of all participants and spectators with sport.

Coubertin’s big idea was that in the public realm sport could transmit values within and between nations through international competition. This lies behind every political attempt to use sport and athletes as a mark of national or local identity, to promote public policy and advance the careers of individual politicians.

Mihir Bose is a journalist based in London and author of The Spirit of the Game, published this year. For details, log on to mihirbose.com