Playing games

IssueOctober 2005
Comment by Peter Nicholls

“The sand of the desert is sodden red The gatling' s jammed and the colonel dead The river of death has brimmed its banks...This they all with a joyful mind Bear through life like a torch in flame And, falling, fling to the hosts behind `Play up! play up! and play the game!'"
Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) Vitai Lampada.

"Sport is an unfailing cause ofill-will [and] international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred"
George Orwell (1945) The Sporting Spirit.

"In] pre-industrial societies that shun war...combative sports are rare or non-existent."
Robert Hinde (2003) in R Hinde & J Rotblat, War No More.

The Olympic Committee's decision to award the 2012 games to London was a surprise. All UK papers from the Sun celebrated it in red-top style with pictures of frenzied celebrations in London and Singapore and almost no critical balance, as if the UK had just won a long and bitter war. Why?

General issues

The Greek city-states were interested in philosophy, sports, hunting and war. The marathon celebrates a battle, games imitate fights, and field sports prepare for hunting and fighting. The Olympic movement, founded at the end of 19th century during a period of intense national competition, attempted to channel hatreds and rivalries and thereby avoid wars. It failed--look at the 20th century.

The Olympic movement is now intensely commercialised,and the corrupting influence of both drugs and drugs testing have enmeshed both users and non-users in a web of doubt. But prestige in winning is immense and there is now financial value to the individual winner. Sports medicine and science programmes are a growth economy in universities and medical schools. The intense nationalism of the Olympic anthems, parades and medals lists illustrates Orwell's comments. The Olympic ceremonial (pace Newbolt) is both warlike and cultish. And there are sociobiological linkages between violent sports and militarism (cf. Robert Hinde). The languages of war and of sport overlap.

International issues

The London 2012 victory was achieved at French expense. Paris was favoured both within the committee and the widerworld for most of vote run-up.

The French President, Jacques Chirac, was the leader of the official international opposition to the US-UK 2003 war against Iraq. Remember Ahmed Ben Bella in Hyde Park, a man who had real reason to mistrust the French government, crying "Vive La France". Leadership comes at a price, even for French Presidents. The referendum defeat on the European Constitution, largely the work of ex-President Giscard D'Estaing, was a further blow.

After the 1996 French nuclear weapons tests I did not think that I should ever feel sorry for Chirac. But Paris 2012 was his chance of picking something symbolic from the debris.

Local issues

The irrationality of celebrating something that will involve twoweeks of running, jumping and standing still in seven years'time--when most of the present protagonists will have retired, isobviou s. The unpleasantness of jubilation is evident when it is at someone else's expense. It exemplifies Orwell's comment on the "lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige". A brief future event is cheered and defended as the driving force for regeneration of a slum. The absurdity of such vast spending when far smaller focussed funding could regenerate a much wider area is kept from view.

Finding hopeful threads?

Apart from the moral problems, the technical problems, the French humiliation and the unpleasant rejoicing, is there a reason why this is happening now? If there is, is it just negative or does it contain an opportunity for other political actions--even nuclear disarmament?

There is social unease and not just because of terrorism. The US-UK alliance in Iraq palls after two years of instability. We are alienated from EU colleagues. Attempts to make moves independent of the US on the Israel-Palestine question are snubbed. Is any British influence left? Do we hanker after Britain past, and thus more defence spending, on weapons both usable and unusable, or are new thoughts possible? I am pessimistic, but others may find hopeful threads.