New book on sport pulls no punches

Issue: 142

Alice Clark

Michael Lavalette (ed), Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play (Bookmarks, 2013), £9.99

Modern sport is often criticised by socialists for reflecting, or worse, perpetuating aspects of capitalist culture. While there are chapters in Capitalism and Sport that discuss the problematic elements of commercialised sport, there are others that seek to counteract it with examples of how sport has been used as a political tool to challenge oppression. This book should give food for thought to any socialist who dismisses modern sport as straightforward and not worthy of any positive recognition. The book is a collection of essays by various contributors categorised into sections that discuss different aspects of sport within society. This review touches on just a few of these chapters to offer a broad overview of the aims of the book.

Sport is often criticised as being a tool to strengthen the dominant ideology in Western capitalist society, promoting nationalism and competition and dividing workers. Jon Dart contests the position that it is a “modern-day opiate” (p31). It is, however, difficult to deny this side of modern sport. It is true that during the 19th century sport became codified and commodified. With this, it became an ideological tool for the ruling classes. Team sport, largely associated with masculinity, started to be used in public schools to instil qualities in young boys such as leadership, bravery and teamwork.

But to dismiss sport entirely based on this is to suggest that all sports fans are incapable of critical analysis and unaware of sport’s role within capitalism. Adrian Budd suggests that it is possible to enjoy sport while realising its problems and limitations by “maintaining a critical distance from it” (p36). Further, the dismissal of sport creates a cultural hierarchy whereby some cultural activities, such as music and art, are more worthy of our time and attention than others. This begs the question, who gets to decide what is worthy and what is not; is it right for socialists to denounce sport as a worthwhile pastime? Jon Dart is quite right in asserting that “to dismiss sport, its participants and fans is patronising”.

Criticisms of sport often focus on the actions of a few sports performers and fans, as if this is somehow indicative of the entire sports culture. But as Michael Lavalette points out in the introduction to the book, we would not “dismiss all dance and ballet because Simone Clarke was a member of the BNP while she was Prima Ballerina of the English National Ballet [or] argue that structural Marxism raised no points of interest because Althusser strangled his wife” (p17).

Adrian Budd argues that sport can reconnect us to our bodies and thus lead to a less alienated sense of self (p36). This of course can be seen to contradict the alienation experienced by professional athletes. The highly competitive nature of elite sport arguably removes the pleasure of playing. The focus is entirely on the win at the end. In this way it is comparable to production and a similar kind of alienation can be experienced. The difference is that, in the case of sportspeople, “the tools of their trade are often their own bodies” (p38).

Another issue tackled in the book is the uneven relations between men and women within sport. Historically, sport has been largely inaccessible for women. This is due to discourses of biological inferiority inextricably wrapped up in capitalist patriarchal ideology. These discourses were legitimated and made objective through medical knowledge, and were so prevalent that they became part of common sense consciousness. In the 19th century middle class girls were allowed a level of participation in sport in public schools. Sometimes the exercise they took part in was quite “masculine”, activities such as rope climbing and basketball. This could seem quite radical for the time, but it was justified through health discourses, such as sport being essential to maintaining a healthy mind and intellectual development. This is in addition to competitive sports being crucial to preparing middle and upper class girls for roles in the top positions of society. The entry of middle class girls into sport went hand in hand with their increased participation in higher education. They were transcending gender boundaries both mentally and physically.

Sport for working class children, however, was very different. Rather than using competitive sports to prepare children for top positions, state schools in the 19th century used Swedish gymnastics to exert ruling class hegemony through the control and discipline of the body. Working class boys were physically trained either for a life in the military or industry, while girls were trained for a life of domesticity.

Jo Cardwell argues that we have a long way to go before we are rid of the historical conceptions of masculinity and femininity within sport. Although we have clearly progressed since the 19th century, female sport at a competitive level is hugely under-represented and seen as inferior. Further, the separation of women and men’s competitions, with reduced difficulty in the women’s categories, demonstrates that we are yet to move away from discourses of biological inferiority. As Cardwell points out, in the case of badminton where men play to 15 sets when women only play to 11, “it would be absolutely ludicrous to suggest that women couldn’t endure four more points” (p110).

It is clear that the sports industry is integral to maintaining ruling class hegemony, with the discourses around gender providing just one example of how it is a mirror of capitalist society. On the other hand, it is occasionally also used as a site for resistance, as it can give a platform to people who otherwise would not have that sort of exposure. Also sport in its purest form can offer an escape from the drudgery of day to day life, while providing obvious physical and mental health benefits. It could be useful for socialists to consider how sport can be used in a constructive way. Gareth Edwards offers a few possibilities for how sport could be restructured in a socialist society, by looking at the debates on sport in post-revolutionary Russia. One group, the Proletkult, condemned sport entirely in its current form: “It saw the ideology of capitalism woven in to the fabric of sport” (p252). New forms of play would have to be found, with a basis in “mass participation and cooperation” (p243). The hygenists, on the other hand, advocated non-competitive sport such as swimming and gymnastics as a way to stay fit and healthy, while condemning sports such as football, weightlifting and boxing.

However, the Bolsheviks maintained that it was not for the party to decide the “best system of sports” (p255). Rather, it would be for the people to discuss and decide and to make up their own sports and games. It is relatively simple to foresee what sport would not be under socialism, but less straightforward to decide what it would be. The competitive and nationalistic nature of sport would undoubtedly be removed, but the new format of play could only assert itself after the revolution.

This book offers an accessible entry into the study of sport in society. The essay format with different contributions and perspectives on sport culminates to make a manageable but comprehensive read. It is a good starting point for anyone struggling with the inherent contradictions of sport within capitalism. Other literature on the sociology of sport should be used alongside this book, if you want to gain a deeper understanding of any of the issues tackled. For example there are other books that go into more depth about how gender relations in sport continue to be constructed. Because the book is a collection of short essays, none of them offer too much of an in-depth analysis. However, what is refreshing about this book is that it offers an unapologetic socialist perspective on several of the debates surrounding sport in society. Because of this, it can give socialists a way to contextualise further literature on sport in society.