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Capitalism and Sport, edited by Michael Lavalette

Capitalism and Sport, edited by Michael Lavalette

Title: Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play
Authors: Simon Basketter, Paul Blackledge, Adrian Budd, Sue Caldwell, Jo Cardwell, Lionel Cliffe, Tony Collins, Estelle Cooch, Jonathan Dart, Gareth Edwards, Keith Flett, John Foot, Rita Gough, Peter Hain, Christian Høgsberjg, Vassilios Ioakimidis, CLR James, Michael Lavalette (editor), Phil Mac Giolla Bháin, Hassan Mahamdallie, Peter Marsden, Eamonn McCann, Peter Millward, Ken Olende, Sylvia Pankhurst, Hazel Potter, George Poulton, Denis Pye, Dave Renton, Brian Richardson, Sadie Robinson, Ron Senchak, Roddy Slorach, Andrew Stone, Dave Swanson, Phil Turner, and Dave Zirin
Publisher: Bookmarks Publications
Year: 2013
Pages: 280
Order: Bookmarks
What it is: A collection of essays that consider the interplay between people, politics and sport, covering a range of games from football to cricket and cycling to athletics, as well as boxing and tennis.
Strengths: An entertaining and thought-provoking mix of politics and sport.
Weaknesses: Your views on socialism will colour what you read.

Cycling and capitalism have long gone hand in hand. Bicycles created by businessmen created, in turn, a whole industry, which in its turn created a sport as a way of promoting the products of that industry. Bike and equipment manufacturers created races: the Michelin brothers in Clermont-Ferrand the Course Michelin, Peugeot the Tour de Frances des Independents. They also supported the races created by the media which fed off the cycling industry: when Atala discovered that Bianchi were set to launch a Tour of Italy with the Corriere della Sera they took the idea to La Gazzetta dello Sport and helped create the Giro d'Italia. In other races manufacturers simply sponsored prizes - the Hutchinson tyre company were the first sponsors of a climbing competition in the Tour de France.

Militarism - and its brother-in-arms nationalism - has also got a long association with cycling as a sport. When Pierre Giffard created Paris-Brest-Paris he firmly associated the race with France's recovery from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. And that recovery from defeat was also a strong influence on Henri Desgrange and the vision he developed for the sport of cycling, his giants of the road offering inspiration to a generation whose muscles were wasting away in indolence.

Cycling, then, has never been a pure sport, a sport purely about sport. And socialists haven't always been fans of it. John Foot, in his history of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare!, notes that while the bicycle itself was championed by Italian socialists - who saw it as offering freedom to the working classes and as a weapon in the class war - cycle sport was frowned upon as being "a powerful way of diverting the attention of the workers and of young people in general from an understanding of social problems and the importance of political and social organisation."

For this reason alone, then, I was curious see what - if anything - the socialists behind Capitalism and Sport would have to say about cycling. Before getting into that, some membership cards should probably be placed on the table. My father was active in the (Irish) Labour party (during the era of Frank Cluskey) and I was raised in a Jim Larkin-worshipping household. I am, at heart and by choice, a socialist. Which may mean that I am somewhat predisposed toward some of the positions put forward in the essays that make up this book (but doesn't stop me from being somewhat irked by some of the positions taken).

So, the essays themselves. This being a British book it is no surprise that football (soccer) and cricket feature prominently. This being a socialist book it may surprise some to see tennis feature at all (strawberries and Pimms just doesn't seem very socialist). And the very fact that cycling normally gets short shrift when compared to other sports makes the inclusion of not one but five essays dealing with it a very pleasant surprise. (Other sports covered include rugby league, athletics and boxing.)

The book opens with three essays about sport in a capitalist society which lay out the argument that modern sport is a capitalist invention, a weapon in the class war. This can certainly be argued as being the manner in which modern sport developed in the UK, with roots in the Industrial Revolution, but how true it is of sport in other countries I don't know. My own (limited) understanding is that elsewhere in Europe the rising tide of nationalism and its brother-in-arms militarism played a greater role than the captains of industry: in countries that had conscript armies sport was a way of preparing the soldiers of tomorrow for combat (and, in an age of European empires, combat was an inevitability). But even there, I suppose, a convincing case can be made linking capitalism and nationalism/militarism, arguing they are cut from the same cloth.

There then follow a number of essays discussing the globalisation of sport and sport as an industry itself. Within football (soccer), the UK rights to televise the English Premier League are worth about £3 billion over three years, while the international rights are valued at £2 billion for the same period. That's just one league in a global sport and worth comparing with the €40-50 million that ASO is thought to earn annually from the Tour de France's TV revenues. Cycling's (glacially slow) drift toward globalisation is discussed (missing out the point that at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries the real stars of the sport raced on three continents: Europe, the US and Australia - there's nothing new in cycling, not even globalisation). The creation of cricketainment by the Indian Premier League - franchises for the few, even greater wealth for the already wealthy - is also discussed as is the role being played by Rupert Murdoch in sport.

Perhaps the most interesting essay in this section comes from Dave Renton and concerns the rise of fun runs, from mega marathons down to your local charity run. In the UK this is dated to the 1970s and the Sunday Times' National Fun Run. Mars got in on the game, promoting their confectionary as the perfect mid-race snack. And then of course there was Nike, the company that built itself on the jogging boom. For cycling fans, what's interesting to think about when considering the manner in which fun runs have been commercialised is the manner in which cyclo sportives are today the domain of the enterprising sports entrepreneur. Some of the largest race organisers rely on them in order to turn a profit while at the bottom of the food chain every wide-boy with a pair of bicycle clips has plans to organise one, with one of Team GB's Olympic heroes or heroines tied in to drum up support. What happened in running is today happening in cycling, even the grassroots is being commoditised.

These first two sections of Capitalism and Sport are, perhaps, the book's weak points, it being hard to discern what - if any - argument is being put forward. At times some of the authors make you feel guilty for giving a damn about sport, for being a fellow traveller with our capitalist oppressors. Jon Dart makes the points that "defending sport often sees one pigeonholed as a dupe who is guilty of not exercising sufficiently critical analysis" and that "sport is customarily viewed by the left in terms of its ideological and socio-political meaning." But, as he argues, sport should be capable of being enjoyed independent of political analysis, for "its potential for beauty and inspiration." On this latter point Lavalette and his contributors do a sterling job in Capitalism and Sport, the fifth section of the book showing sport at its best with essays about inspirational individuals and groups for whom sport is more than a mere game.

Muhammad Ali's 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell is recalled. That fell shortly after Ali had changed his name from Cassius Clay but Terrell insisted on calling Ali Clay, to which Ali responded by saying he was "going to whup him until he addresses me by my proper name." During the bout almost every punch Ali delivered came with the cry "What's my name? What's my name? What's my name, fool?" That is seen here as saying "something very important about the nature of society, racism, rebellion and resistance."

Elsewhere there's a story about Arthur Wharton, thought to be Britain's first black professional footballer, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, around the time Major Taylor was in his prime in cycling (coincidentally, Wharton himself was also a competent cyclist). Some in the UK have established the Arthur Wharton Foundation, which is similar in its aims to the inspiration the Major Taylor Foundation seeks to provide in the US.

Those two particular stories follow on from the book's fourth section which looks at sporting divisions (class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation all feature here), with one of the contributors (Denis Pye) talking about the Clarion Cycle Club in the UK, a cycling-and-social club that grew out of the Socialist newspaper The Clarion. This essay is supported by a 1931 article written by the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who rode with the Clarion. In another article, on sexism in sport, Jo Cardwell references Nicole Cooke and the criticism she made of cycling in her retirement speech (and the implicit criticism of British Cycling supremo Brian Cookson, who as head of the UCI's road commission said there was "no case" for a minimum wage for women despite there being one for men).

Perhaps the best essay in this section - and one which deals with sexism - comes from Peter Marsden and concerns the women's football team from the Dick, Kerr munitions factory in Preston, who annoyed the Football Association so much that they issued an edict banning all ladies' teams from all FA grounds (a ban which lasted from 1921 through to 1969). Regardless of the FA, the Dick, Kerr Ladies played on, their last game coming in 1965.

Cycling also features in the book's third section, which looks at sporting Gods that failed, Lance Armstrong here being the cycling God who fell to earth. Another God examined here is the Scottish football club Rangers, whose failure provides a lesson all should pay heed to. Hillsborough is the other notable failure discussed both here and elsewhere in the book, it also featuring in the sixth and penultimate section which looks at the way sport has been used as a weapon of resistance.

Some of the stories in this section - on resistance - simply show how fans can exist within a capitalist sporting world without selling their souls. The England and Wales cricket team's supporters, the Barmy Army, are offered as a good example of what can be done (and also what should be avoided), as are the ultras (the tifosi of football), FC United and others. The best essay here comes from the Labour MP Peter Hain, who writes about the development of the sporting embargo on apartheid-era South Africa, with some funny - but nonetheless effective - examples of the militant action that greeted visiting South African rugby and cricket teams in the UK in the early 1970s (in one instance, a young woman was booked into the same hotel as the Springboks in London, and she gummed up their door locks, delaying them leaving the hotel on match day). It is hard to imagine today how such a simple campaign helped overturn apartheid, but it played its part in that victory.

The sporting embargo on South Africa - coupled with the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympic boycotts - created a backlash which led many to argue that sport and politics should not be mixed. However, even Lord Killanin, the Irishman who once headed up the International Olympic Committee, noted that "sport is intertwined with politics" before going on to argue that "sport must not be used for political purposes" (which, given that he had come to power just after Munich and retired just after Moscow is not all that surprising) But sport, of course, has a long history of being used for political purposes. Especially high-level geo-political purposes. Orwell's claim that sport is war minus the shooting is not entirely inaccurate, not when you consider how the five-ring circus of the Olympic Games served as the frontline of the Cold War from 1952 onwards.

Even at lower levels, sport is clearly a political tool, is wielded as a political weapon. In his 2001 collection of essays, Le Sport Contre les Peuples, the French philosopher Robert Redeker argued that the very depoliticisation of sport is meant to stop us questioning the march of capitalism around the globe, even when it is going on under our noses within the realm of sport. Recognising this, and returning politics to the sporting sphere, maybe it will be possible to reshape sport and reduce the impact of some of capitalism's excess, make sport more fair, for all (even within cycling it's worth noting that the capitalist team owners have shown socialist tendencies when it comes to demanding race organisers share TV revenues with them). Sport is flawed and even though we can love it despite its flaws we should still have the right to call for those flaws to be fixed. We don't simply have to accept sport as it is served up to us.

Capitalism and Sport does not close with a call to action for us to man the barricades and reclaim sport for the masses, free it from the capitalists' grasp. Rather Lavalette and his fellow contributors, through their choice of topics and positions, are attempting to fuel a debate that socialists need to engage themselves in, and not simply dismiss sport as a tool of the oppressor. If sport can be a political weapon for those on the right, why shouldn't it equally be a political weapon for those on the left?