May 27, 2017

QotD: When international sport replaced war between the Great Powers

Filed under: History, Quotations, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I do not know if there was a meeting, in about 1961, of a subcommittee of the Bilderberg Commission (itself a characteristic consequence of the Great Change) at which it was resolved that, what with Great Wars needing now to be things of the past, some harmless outlet now had to be found for all those nationalistic passions which until so very recently it had been necessary for Great Powers to keep permanently inflamed (in case they found themselves having a Great War), but which they now needed to extinguish (in case these passions started a Great War). Discuss. Having created nationalism, what were the Great Powers now going to do with it? One big answer: sport. Don’t have the hoi polloi wave their national flags and have big urban demonstrations and nationalistic ecstasies and lamentations in their newspapers and internet sites and city squares because of war. Let them indulge in these things because of sport.

As I say, maybe there was such a meeting and maybe there has never been such a meeting. But, if such a meeting had occurred, events would probably have unfolded, in sport, much as they actually have. What did definitely happen, I assert, is that the end of Great Wars, and the coming of the Great Peace, has left a war-shaped gap, so to speak, in all the cultures of the Great Powers. And one of the many things that has flowed into this gap, like molten metal into a mould, has been professional sport.

The “professional” bit is important. The former manager of the Liverpool football team Bill Shankly once famously said something like: “A lot of people say that football is a matter of life and death, but it’s a lot more important than that.” And one of the ways in which it is “more important than that” is that the most successful sportsmen, successful footballers especially, are now paid such huge sums of money, a lot more now even than in Shankly’s time.

Professional sport means more, especially to spectators, than mere sport does. If a game is “only a game”, then people simply don’t watch it in large numbers. They may participate in large numbers, but when it comes just to watching, too little is at stake, in an “only a game” game. But if what potential spectators are offered as entertainment is the public struggle to become one of the absolute best at whatever it is, and as an intrinsic part of that the struggle to be either averagely well-off or worse (because of having placed your bets on sport and lost), or super-rich, depending on how things play out during the next hour or two, then millions will pay to attend. And that sets a positive feedback loop in motion, of more money being paid by spectators (including television spectators) and hence even more money being paid to the contestants, and hence even more being at stake when the contestants have their contests. And whereas the careers of earlier generations of sportsmen, then very poorly paid indeed compared to their successors, were often interrupted and frequently terminated by Great Wars, now, there is no such upheaval on anyone’s horizon, either to wreck sporting careers or to put sport into anything resembling “perspective”, in other words to make it not seem like a matter of life and death.

So, is sport in any sense a matter of life and death, or even, as Shankly said, only partly in jest, more than that? For many years I was puzzled by the constant use of the adjective “gladiatorial”, with all its ancient Roman associations of fighting literally to the death, to describe modern sporting contests. But recently, the experience of giving a talk about the sort of stuff in this posting made me realise that this is not an unreasonable way to describe something like this Anglo-Australian set-to that will be starting in about half and hour, as I first write this.

Nor is it coincidence that the original version of gladiatorial sport emerged into prominence during that earlier Great Peace, the Pax Romana. That too was a Great Peace that happened at a time when smaller wars continued, these smaller wars or the threat of them being the means by which Rome’s Great Peace was continuously contrived.

Brian Micklethwait, “From the Great Peace … to the ordeal of Adam Lyth at the Oval cricket ground”, Samizdata, 2015-08-20.

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