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George Orwell > The Sporting Spirit > Essay

The Sporting Spirit


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.

And how could it be otherwise? I am always amazed when I hear people
saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only
the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or
cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even
if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for
instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred,
one could deduce it from general principles.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to
win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On
the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local
patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and
exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you
feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the
most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even
in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport
is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour
of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the
spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these
absurd contests, and seriously believe--at any rate for short
periods--that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national

Even a leisurely game like cricket, demanding grace rather than strength,
can cause much ill-will, as we saw in the controversy over body-line
bowling and over the rough tactics of the Australian team that visited
England in 1921. Football, a game in which everyone gets hurt and every
nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners, is far
worse. Worst of all is boxing. One of the most horrible sights in the
world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed
audience. But a boxing audience is always disgusting, and the behaviour
of the women, in particular, is such that the army, I believe, does not
allow them to attend its contests. At any rate, two or three years ago,
when Home Guards and regular troops were holding a boxing tournament, I
was placed on guard at the door of the hall, with orders to keep the
women out.

In England, the obsession with sport is bad enough, but even fiercer
passions are aroused in young countries where games playing and
nationalism are both recent developments. In countries like India or
Burma, it is necessary at football matches to have strong cordons of
police to keep the crowd from invading the field. In Burma, I have seen
the supporters of one side break through the police and disable the
goalkeeper of the opposing side at a critical moment. The first big
football match that was played in Spain about fifteen years ago led to an
uncontrollable riot. As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused,
the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes.
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.

Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football
field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the
nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern
cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin,
but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman
times and the nineteenth century. Even in the English public schools the
games cult did not start till the later part of the last century. Dr
Arnold, generally regarded as the founder of the modern public school,
looked on games as simply a waste of time. Then, chiefly in England and
the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity,
capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the
infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently
combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There
cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of
nationalism--that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying
oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of
competitive prestige. Also, organised games are more likely to flourish
in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or
at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative
labour. In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of
his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees,
riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such
as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must
indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one's physical
strength or for one's sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in
London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium:
in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much
physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause
of group hatreds.

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world
at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of
football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and
British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be
watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. I do not, of course,
suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry;
big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes
that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by
sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do
battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides
that whichever nation is defeated will "lose face".

I hope, therefore, that we shan't follow up the visit of the Dynamos by
sending a British team to the USSR. If we must do so, then let us
send a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten and cannot be claimed
to represent Britain as a whole. There are quite enough real causes of
trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to
kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.

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