Come on and do the conga

The desperate attempt to find examples of British sporting excellence means we're redefining what 'sport' means.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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This hasn’t been a vintage year for British sport. It’s been so poor that the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award included a cricketer who spent the first two Tests watching the Ashes from the pavilion, a Formula One racing driver who has only won one Grand Prix (ever), and a golfer who hasn’t won a single PGA tour title this year. The Beeb was so desperate to reward exemplars of British sporting prowess that it even dished out a special award to a comedy actor whose ‘achievement’ was to record the 23rd-fastest time for swimming the Channel.

In fact I would argue that none of this year’s SPOTY top three – showjumper Zara Phillips, golfer Darren Clarke and gymnast Beth Tweddle – should have been eligible for the award in the first place. Why? Because none of the events in which they compete is a proper sport.

Call me a cynic but it seems to me that the more inept we are at real sports the more elastic our definition of sport becomes. Last month, for example, the British government officially recognised chess as a sport. The Charities Act 2006 defines sport as ‘sports or games which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion’. Leaving aside the fact that sport is now seen as a branch of health promotion, the erosion of the distinction between mental and physical activity is significant. Gerry Walsh, president of the English Chess Federation was understandably delighted. ‘Hitherto, a degree of physical exertion has been required for something to be recognised as a sport,’ he said.

Actually, Britain isn’t alone in redefining chess as a sport. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised chess as a sport in 1999 and the game made its debut in this year’s Asian Games in Doha (along with the equally dubious event of bodybuilding). I’ve no doubt that chess is the ultimate test of ‘mental skill and exertion’, but a sport? Sorry, I beg to differ. If a competitive game that exercises the mind counts as a sport then University Challenge, Mastermind, Trivial Pursuits and the humble pub quiz should also be contenders for IOC recognition.

How then should we define sport? Firstly I would apply the tried and trusted elephant test: if it looks like an elephant and smells like an elephant it must be an elephant. Chess neither looks like a sport or smells like a sport ergo it cannot be a sport. Sport must smell of sweat. I’ve no doubt that chess champions’ armpits get a bit clammy during a gruelling competition but the essential scent of a sportsman is that heady mixture of sweat and Ralgex – eau de boot room – which only physical exertion can produce. So, my first defining principle is that sport must involve physical exertion.

Personally, I’d set the physical exertion bar quite high. I’m not talking about any old form of physical exertion here; I mean real muscle-pumping athleticism. Sweating alone isn’t enough. There was an interesting debate on Radio Five Live during their coverage of the SPOTY award ceremony about whether darts player Phil ‘the Power’ Taylor, was a proper sportsman. Presenter John Inverdale suggested that sweating was the litmus test of a real sport. However, as one of his guests pointed out, Andy ‘The Viking’ Fordham, the former British Darts Organisation world champion, perspires quite considerably while at the oche (and I wouldn’t wish to speculate about obesity-related night sweats). Fordham might smell like a sportsman but, let’s face it, he doesn’t look like one – he weighed over 30 stone when he became a contestant on Celebrity Fit Club.

To me darts, like snooker, is a pub game rather than a sport because it fails the athleticism test. I’d also exclude golf by that same token. I know that golfers incur plenty of injuries but the risk of harm does not itself confer sporting status on an activity. Around 1,000 people in Britain visit hospital after accidents involving Christmas trees. Does that mean that tree decorating should become an Olympic event? Of course not.

Golf is essentially a gentle form of exercise for pensioners. Last year, golf legend Jack Nicklaus received a tearful reception at St Andrews in his farewell British Open. He was 65 years old at the time. Now don’t get me wrong, golf is a game of great skill but an OAP still playing in prestige tournaments? That can’t be right. I’d be more inclined to regard golf as a sport if players sprinted across the course rather than ambled and lugged their golf clubs around themselves rather than getting a caddy to do it.

Unlike golf, gymnastics is an athletic activity. The problem, however, is that points are awarded for artistic merit. I don’t care how athletically demanding the event is, if you need a panel of judges to assess the execution of a particular move it ceases to be a sport. In a real sport the scoring system must be objective – a goal scored, a punch landed, distance thrown, the finishing line crossed. The scoring system for gymnastics and other Olympic events like figure skating, diving and synchronised swimming is too subjective; more like a ballroom dancing competition than a bone fide sport.

Sorry, Zara, but the artistic merit test also disqualifies three-day eventing from qualifying as a sport. The fact that eventing is exclusively populated by braying toffs (with the bizarre exception of showjumping rasta Oliver Skeete) has no bearing whatsoever on my opinion. The cross-country and showjumping bits are fine; it’s the dressage that’s the problem. Once again there’s a panel of judges and a subjective scoring system and that’s why it gets the thumbs down from me.

Are there any sports at which the British are good at these days? Given our relativistic ‘anything is a sport’ mentality, maybe we should pick something we’re good at and then reclassify it as a sport. We’re adept at finding excuses for holding a minute’s silence at sporting events. We’re great when it comes to losing at sports that we invented. And we positively excel at getting drunk and dancing the conga while we lose at sports that we invented. So, if a sedentary game like chess is now a sport, then I see no reason why these contemporary national pastimes shouldn’t be recognised by the IOC either.

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Topics Politics


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