By John Williams, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Leicester.
Even naysayers would probably accept that it has been an extraordinary couple of weeks for sport in the British Isles. Firstly, we had the Londoners from Chelsea defeating the previously imperious FC Barcelona in the Champion’s League football semi-final, and in the most unlikely fashion after going two goals behind and having a man sent off in the Nou Camp. Then it was Manchester City winning the Premier League title – the club’s first league triumph since 1968 – but only by torturing the club’s fans to the very last. City scored two goals, in added time, to defeat Queens Park Rangers and snatch the title on goal difference from global neighbours Manchester United. As an amusing addendum to a historic moment, City were later forced to use CCTV footage to track a 17-year-old after this likely lad snaffled the match ball during a delirious pitch invasion, no doubt with dreams of an e-bay auction to follow.
Then we had what the, never knowingly undersold, Sky Sports insisted on describing as ‘destiny day’ for sport: Saturday 19 May 2012. Squeezed in here on the satellite TV schedules was the Lords Test match (v West Indies); the Premier League promotion play-off match ( West Ham seeing off Blackpool at Wembley); the Heineken European Cup final in rugby (an all-Irish bun-fight this one, between Ulster v Leinster at Twickenham); and the day was topped off with the evening Champions League final in Munich. This was Chelsea (again), this time beating hosts Bayern Munich, on penalties in the Germans’ home stadium, after another never-say-die, nail-biting and backs to the wall display of indefatigable resilience and guts: and dollops of good fortune.
One could find a lot to praise in all these contests, features indeed that sum up some of sport’s very best qualities. The skill and technical ability of those involved; the courage and fortitude shown by the players, sometimes under extreme duress; the heroic performance of individuals, but also the teamwork, spirit and trust shown in each other by team-mates when things looked lost; the emotional commitment and resolve of supporters to follow their clubs and to cheer them to the rafters, even when prospects seemed at their bleakest; the sportsmanship generally shown throughout and which binds fans, officials and players; and not least the sheer drama and theatre involved in the sort of unscripted sporting text that can draw in even the most initially sceptical of watchers. This was compulsive viewing for many of us. It also made reality television and fictional broadcasts seem, well, frankly rather drab and predictable by comparison. In my house we were glued to the Champions League final, even rather than the Scandinavian excellence of The Bridge.
But for all its magic and charm, much late-modern sport also has its own severe structural problems. These are difficulties which are not easily masked, even by such mind-bending happenings on the field. Firstly, the dominance of a single sport, football, in many of these stories is telling. It would be difficult to imagine the same type of hype and emotional investment in this country around, say, hockey or basketball – though the city of Leicester actually shows excellence in both of these more ‘minor’ sports. In much of Europe football is still king, swallowing up its rivals and typically jamming the airways.
Secondly, the exclusive focus here on men’s sport. It is not that women don’t watch these masculine contests, they do, and in growing numbers. But you would be hard pressed to notice, for example, that the European Cup final for women’s football also took place in this same week (Lyon beat Frankfurt 2-0 in Munich, thanks for asking), and that the women’s rugby union European Cup was being staged in Italy. Or that on the same weekend as the ‘day of destiny’, the English Netball Superleague finals were staged at SportHouse in Barking – Manchester’s Northern Thunder drowning out Surrey Storm in a fiercely contested final, 57-55. To be fair, Sky Sports carried live coverage of the netball, but there was no question of it being included in its ‘destiny’ roster of must see sporting clashes. Netball is clearly not the right stuff.
Thirdly – and connected to the marginalisation of female sport - I have talked so far as if the economics of sport and its markets are somehow eclipsed by its other qualities. The truth of the matter is that money talks in late-modern sport, and as never before. So the real ‘story’ of the Premier League play-off match, for example, was as much about how it is now the most valuable single fixture in the world of sport – reputedly worth £90 million to the winners, West Ham – as it was about the sporting rewards for all concerned. And the triumph of Manchester City was hardly a rags to success tale of valiant poor neighbours and underdogs finally getting it right: City are currently the richest club in world football, recently bolstered by Arab money and ambition in ways which make its own put-upon fans dizzy and confused with the prospect of success. Chelsea FC, of course, have been heavily bankrolled by the Russian money of Roman Abramovich: over £1 billion ‘invested’ in the last nine years. Even the Irish rugby clubs have been accused of buying their success in the European game, by eschewing salary caps and importing expensive foreign stars.
So football, men and money dominate global sport and typically squeeze out other options. Welcome, then, to a freshening blast from the London Olympic Games of 2012. The Olympics, at least briefly, will challenge some of the established rules of global sport. Firstly, football is a highly marginal sport in the Olympics, subordinate to athletes, rowing, gymnastics and even the ‘sporto-tainment ‘ IOC inventions of beach volleyball and synchronised swimming, events designed specifically to ensure the Games continues to extend its global TV market share.
Secondly, during the Olympic Games, as a nation we will even begin to get a little more interested in women’s sport, and in particular sportswomen. It is as if the national interest we have in the Games somehow subverts some of those old gender hierarchies. So we will be as consumed by the summer fortunes of swimmer Rebecca Adlington, cyclist Victoria Pendleton and athlete Jessica Ennis as we will by any male performance in sport (Though watch out for how gender plays in their media coverage in Britain, and note that Saudi Arabia will bring no female athletes to London). We may even learn to love the GB women’s hockey squad – a number of Leicester women are involved here and they have chances. Social class however is another matter. As Education Secretary Michael Gove pointed out recently, half of GB’s gold medal winners last time were privately educated, but only 7% of children attend public schools. Olympic staples such as rowing, sailing and equestrianism are not exactly sports available to all in the UK public sector.
And money? Well, okay, there are some real issues here. Over £9 billion of public money spent for a couple of weeks of sporting entertainment, mainly in the more prosperous South East in the middle of an economic crisis: more than £80 million spent on an opening ceremony of a few hours that has no sport in it! It doesn’t look good does it? Greece hosting the Games in 2004 now looks like a vanity act of considerable deceit and denial, especially as much of what the Greek government built back in 2004 remains rusting and unused. Moreover, so tight are the IOC regulations over matters of branding and sponsorship that it is hard to see how many small businesses here might generate income from Olympic activities, while the bloated multi-national partners of the IOC will get their usual global exposure.
The UK powers that be will explain, of course, that hosting the Games and its extraordinary security net, costly facilities, corporate guests and priority car lanes is actually about greater equality for all, regeneration and ‘legacy’: especially about inspiring young people from the lower classes and all around the UK to get off their backsides and sofas and participate in sport. The Olympic facilities here will be used or recycled, and there will be lasting benefits. But with sport a low priority in UK schooling and general facilities for local sport not a strong point, this will be a very hard act to deliver.
The evidence from previous Games suggests that this sort of virtuous outcome is always hoped for, but it is seldom achieved. Perhaps, instead, we should just blank out the cost, sit back and enjoy the Games. And cheer on the women in sports we never usually see (I’m off to watch the water polo 5th & 6th place final. But surely, this cannot actually be a ‘final’ and isn’t this sport rather cruel on the horses?). Because as soon as the Olympics leave town, it will be the football season once more…..
John Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester. He currently teaches on the sociology of sport and the sociology of deviance. His research interests include: the sociology of football and football fan culture; sport and inequality; sports identities and spectator behaviour.