Socialist Worker

Why is sport so popular?

by John Molyneux
Issue No. 1806

OUR RULERS must hardly be able to believe their luck. A wholly accidental sequence of events-the death of the Queen Mother, the Jubilee and the World Cup-has produced week on week of patriotic flag waving (reinforced by a decidedly unaccidental intensification of the campaign against asylum seekers).

But of these jingoistic spectacles it is without doubt the World Cup that has had the strongest appeal to working class people, including sucking in a number of socialists who wouldn't dream of supporting Britain in a war. So why does sport strike such a deep chord and mean so much to many working people?

Broadly speaking, the answer is both simple and obvious. It is that sport provides people with moments of excitement, drama and passion that are largely denied them in their daily lives. Capitalism requires that most people spend a major part of their lives in work. Work is potentially creative, but capitalism ensures that for most people it is monotonous, stressful, exhausting and damaging to body and mind.

People who spend eight hours a day or more in a factory, office, school or hospital need the relief and release of the pub, the TV and sport. Physical expression

Capitalism also distorts home life and personal relations, so people often seek an escape from those areas too. In this respect sport is like the rest of the entertainment industry. But sport also has certain specific features that intensify its appeal. Sport celebrates physical skills and physical expression that are particularly denied in routine wage labour.

Sport involves 'real' people in 'real' time and is therefore much more unpredictable than any soap opera or Hollywood movie. This increases the drama and suspense. It also involves, in a way the mass media does not, significant grassroots participation, all the way down to the school playground and local park. This increases identification with the stars who make it.

Precisely because it is a strictly rule-governed activity, sport allows the triumph of the 'underdog', the disadvantaged and the oppressed far more often than occurs in the rest of society.

Hence many of the most glorious moments in sporting history, like Jesse Owens's four golds at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, or Muhammad Ali defying racist America, or the giant-killing cup run of the small club. The most important sports, above all football, lend themselves to active COLLECTIVE support-compare a football crowd, even in a pub, and a cinema audience-and this both connects to working class life and feeds into the idea of a team 'representing' a community, town or nation.

Unfortunately all these features of sport which explain why so many of us enjoy or even love it also explain why it can so easily be used for reactionary purposes. It is not just a question of overt racism and nationalism, but of class collaboration.

All the main sports gather together working class and middle class players and spectators under the authority of big business and the state as organisers and owners. This creates the illusion that 'we' are all united against similarly constructed rivals.

Socialists have no desire to isolate ourselves by being killjoys or spoilsports, but it does help if we understand what we are dealing with.


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Sat 29 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1806
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