January 16, 2012 3:04 am

The rise and fall of the sporting spirit

A story of the evolution of modern sport reminds us that there was once a time when winning and making money was not everything

The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World, by Mihir Bose, Constable, 320 pages, RRP£18.99

 

In 1886 the young French nobleman Pierre de Coubertin made his customary pilgrimage to Rugby School in England. He wandered around the playing fields, and ended up in the chapel where Rugby’s famous headmaster Thomas Arnold is buried. Quite wrongly, Coubertin imagined that Arnold had invented the “sporting spirit”: the notion that sport turns athletes into gentlemen who believe in fair play. Coubertin eventually created the modern Olympic Games in the hope of spreading this spirit around the world.

Today the sporting spirit is almost as dead as Arnold. Sport is popular as never before but at the top level the talk is now of victories and profits. Mihir Bose has covered the sports-politics-business nexus for almost 30 years. His hugely ambitious new book examines “not only how sport has become big business but also how this change has altered the original concept of sporting spirit”.

The spirit was invented by an English novelist. In 1857 Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays, inspired by his own time at Arnold’s Rugby. In the novel, pupils play games for love and for the greater glory of the collective. They grow into English gentlemen under Arnold’s benevolent gaze.

The real-life Arnold had no interest in sport. Nonetheless, Hughes’s novel became a bestseller. It reached Coubertin, who thought the sporting spirit was just what France needed.

Mr Bose attempts with some success to tell the entire history of modern sport. From his account it is possible to distil three periods. The first, the Arnold-Coubertin era, runs until about the 1930s. Expatriate Britons serving the empire spread their games to foreigners, usually without meaning to. They played sport for fun, and foreigners – even when barred from sport by Britons – copied them and their Arnoldian creed. The Young Men’s Christian Association, whose instructors invented basketball and volleyball, spread the sporting spirit with more intent. Some of the most admired sportsmen of this first period were upper-class amateurs who played for love. The governing bodies were run like private gentlemen’s clubs. Winning wasn’t everything.

The second historical period is sporting nationalism. Once Coubertin’s Olympics took off, and international sport grew, countries sought prestige by winning sports matches. Benito Mussolini probably pioneered sporting nationalism, but most countries followed. Of course this was the opposite of what Coubertin had intended: he thought sport would create international brotherhood between gentlemen everywhere.

The third era of commercialism began in the 1970s, as sport took off on television. Media magnates such as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, and sporting entrepreneurs such as Horst Dassler of Adidas and Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, didn’t care about nationalism or the Arnoldian spirit. They cared about sport’s big audiences. TV turned sport into a global industry.

Inevitably the athletes themselves wanted some of this new money. British athletes at the 1948 Olympics had played for just a free pair of Y-front underpants. But later Olympians, tennis players and eventually rugby players shed their amateur status. Today the last amateur redoubt is US college sport, a billion-dollar enterprise whose rulers recite Arnoldian pieties as an excuse for not paying their workers. As more money came into sport, and the rewards for winning grew, winning became more important. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” as the American football coach Vince Lombardi summed up the ethos. Today, Arnoldian rhetoric is used chiefly to market sports to gullible consumers.

The loudest trumpeter of Arnoldian rhetoric today is Sepp Blatter, president of the global football authority Fifa. He calls football “a school for life”, and Fifa “the football family”. Fifa still runs itself like a private gentlemen’s club.

All this would be fine except that it isn’t 1857 anymore. Fifa now takes in billions of dollars. It is not always clear where the money goes. Here is the central dilemma that Mr Bose outlines: sporting spirit versus filthy lucre. At sport’s highest level, lucre will surely win. Soon nobody will even pretend any more that sport builds character. Even in recreational sport, the Arnoldian ethos is now under pressure from hotheaded parents yelling Lombardian slogans at their children.

Mr Bose’s research is wide and deep, and his prose bright and clear. Usually his stories are more telling than his ideas, but he has wonderfully illuminated the rise and fall of the sporting spirit since a novelist invented it out of nothing.

The writer is an FT columnist

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