The Sporting Spirit by George Orwell.

Dynamo Moscow, 1945.

In the autumn of 1945 just after the Second World War the Moscow Dynamo football team toured Britain and played some of the leading British clubs (Chelsea, for example, at Stamford Bridge). A few months later in December of that year Orwell published The Sporting Spirit (in the Tribune, 14th December 1945) and sums up his thoughts. It begins,
Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before.
Even the newspapers have been unable to conceal the fact that at least two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling. At the Arsenal match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start. And then there was the controversy, typical of our nationalistic age, about the composition of the Arsenal team. Was it really an all-England team, as claimed by the Russians, or merely a league team, as claimed by the British? And did the Dynamos end their tour abruptly in order to avoid playing an all-England team? As usual, everyone answers these questions according to his political predilections. Not quite everyone, however. I noted with interest, as an instance of the vicious passions that football provokes, that the sporting correspondent of the russophile News Chronicle took the anti-Russian line and maintained that Arsenal was not an all-England team. No doubt the controversy will continue to echo for years in the footnotes of history books. Meanwhile the result of the Dynamos' tour, in so far as it has had any result, will have been to create fresh animosity on both sides.
It is inevitable, Orwell suggests, for, at best, ill will to be directed to the other side: sport is by its very nature competitive and he goes on to add,
People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don't intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and “rattling” opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
That is the gist of this very small but very interesting essay (it can be read in full here). I'm not wildly in to sport it must be said, and my experience is often limited to the infamous derby matches of my local team Newcastle against the rivals Sunderland (to say these can get a little violent is an understatement). But I do think Orwell is a tad harsh here: "vast crowds and rousing savage passions" are indeed aroused, but even in one of the most bitterest rivalries in the country (Newcastle and Sunderland) there is the odd touching moment, Sunderland fans raising £13,000 to remember  the Newcastle supporters lost on the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, for example, or when football fans came together in support of Bradley Lowery who died aged just six years old. Sport can bring out the very worst in people, but it can bring out the best on occasion. Even so, when Orwell links sport to a kind of nationalism, I do see his point. I think it all depends on the personality of the fan in question and I wouldn't necessarily go as far as to say "sport is frankly mimic warfare"! Still, a great read.

And that was my 47th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next time: Easter by August Strindberg.

Comments

  1. the points that occurred to me while reading the excerpt were covered by you in your subsequent "postage"... i used to believe sport was based on a spirit of fair play, but modern history has changed that... maybe the twentieth c. with it's wars and economic disasters changed social mores for the worse... not suprising...

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    1. I agree there's a vicious streak. I can't get into watching sports or even playing team sports, which is why I'm holding off a little on my judgement. Some of the football derbies here (the aforementioned Newcastle and Sunderland) have put me off for life (that said some of the Sunderland fan's behaviour when Newcastle was relegated a season ago made me pleased to see Sunderland might be in for a double relegation! See, it brings out spite... :)

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  2. OK, ignorant Americans need help here. What on earth does it mean to say that Arsenal is an all-England team vs. a league team?

    A few weeks ago, I went to the local Big Game -- the yearly (American) football match betweenour town's two high schools. I hadn't been to a game in years and was there because my kid is now in the marching band, but I was sitting there watching the opening ceremonies and thinking it was *exactly* like an old tournament. Sir Lancelot would have been right at home. There's all this pageantry, flags and tokens showing which side you're on, and we all scream and shout while watching young men do their best to pound each other into the ground, to the accompaniment of lots of trumpets. It really was a sublimated mock war.

    I am pretty sure the reason our side lost was because the other school's flags were, frankly, a lot fancier and nicer. Every time your team makes a good play or gets a point, these kids run up and down the sideline with this giant flags in the school colors, see, and ours were on the sad side.

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    1. Actually I'm not sure what he means! Either the players were all English, or at least they represented the 'best of English football' as they say, or maybe a load of them were in the England team, which would suggest they are the absolute best in the country. A league team like Arsenal is in the Premier League and they play other league teams, but that's not to say they necessarily play internationally. I'll ask my boyfriend when he's about and I'll tell you what he said :)

      "ours were on the sad side" made me chuckle :) And I agree, there's a nice bit of pageantry to it all.

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