Putting sport back in its box


Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too much of the Olympics, but this week’s Moral Maze topic has me in a muddle. We are to debate the moral value of sport and despite being something of a sports moron – the other day I voluntarily watched dressage – I find myself on the sceptical side of the argument.

Any generalisation is belied by the vast range of competitive activity. There is little in common either in terms of culture or values between my experience of being a veteran cross country runner for Belgrave Harriers and following my sons as they pursue their ambitions to be football pros.

The world of amateur distance running is egalitarian and friendly, with runners of all abilities discussing their times over a piece of cake and a cuppa. Football by contrast can be a nasty, aggressive business in which at all levels winning now (forget the long term) and individual advancement seems to be everything. Whilst I have chatted happily and without embarrassment to runners who represent their country, elite footballers are a distant breed who generally only mix with ordinary mortals as part of a structured process of outreach.

As for the moral claims made for sport, the evidence seems pretty shaky, particularly if we try to distinguish the specific benefits from the wider value which research suggests comes from any form of structured sociability. Sure, sport is better than hanging around on street corners but is it better than artistic activity, community volunteering or religious worship?

In terms of the morals of sport itself there are memorable times when ‘playing the game’ is more important than ‘winning the game’. Here is one nice example  Being fascinated by complexity in social relations, I also loved the women’s cycling on Sunday in which the three cyclists who broke away had to practise trust and exercise strong tacit agreement in order to stay ahead as a group, all the time knowing that sooner or later they would be in all out competition.

But – and here again – football is the most egregious offender, the general feel of professional sport is that winning and getting rich are more important than pride in craft or the Corinthian spirit.

Ultimately (although imperfectly) sport has the strengths and weaknesses of an extreme meritocracy. Ability wins out over privilege but there is a merciless division of the spoils between the triumphant winner and the forgotten also-ran. Both the brutalisation of sport and the leaching of its winner takes all values into wider society are symbolised by the way ‘loser’ has become a generic term of abuse.

Another problem with meritocracy lies in the question ‘who decides the basis for merit’. It is precisely because sport can generate extreme inequalities of outcome based, first, on relatively minor differences of performance and, second, on the basis of specific attributes of questionable wider value (exactly how useful are most Olympic skills outside competition) that it is important to keep the whole thing in perspective. But this we have failed to do, not only in the high and rising profile of sport in society, not only in the massive rewards given to the lucky few, but also in the tendency to attribute wider character strengths to people who happen to be very good at a particular game.

Participating in amateur sport can be great. It can improve our health, provide the basis for new friendships and encourage us to set and meet personal challenges. Watching sport too can bring people together and there are certainly worse forms of escapism. With so much going for it, the supporters of sport as an activity and a recipient of public and private beneficence should be much more wary of making wider claims about impact on character, on the relevance of sporting ethics to wider society or assuming that people who happen to good at hitting objects with sticks or even getting horses to walk sideways are exemplary role models.

Mind you, having said all this I can’t help suspecting I would be taking a very different stance if team GB hadn’t so far been such a wash out !

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