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Ed Smith

Has sport ever had it so good?

The doomsayers may believe different, but sport is a more prominent part of our culture than ever, and fears of its decline are vastly exaggerated

Ed Smith
Ed Smith
AB de Villiers scored 55 runs off his last 13 deliveries, South Africa v West Indies, World Cup 2015, Group B, Sydney, February 27, 2015

Would you rather watch AB or go to the opera?  •  Getty Images

Doping, match-fixing, cover-ups, corruption: the story of sport in 2015 in a few words. Only, it isn't. The bigger story is expansion, brilliance and robustness. Each time you hear that sport is facing "an existential crisis", be thankful that sport's general health is so good that its crises are often existential rather than real (bankruptcy, marginality, irrelevance). Grappling with the meaning of life is a privilege only afforded to the living.
Reports of sport's imminent demise tend to omit something from their analysis, the vital thing: comparison. If we say something is in crisis or decline, the necessary implication is that it was once more secure and ascending. When was that, I wonder?
So let's compare sport today with two equivalent subjects: first, sport in the past; secondly, alternative modes of self-expression and entertainment in the present. How does modern sport hold up in comparison with, a) its former self and b) contemporary comparable industries?
Sport has always been prey to the accusation that it isn't what it once was. Just after the first rock was hurled playfully on the savannah, a tribal elder turned to his friend and sighed wearily, "These vulgarians aren't fit to lace the catapult pouches of the sports heroes of our childhood."
But when, exactly, was sport's golden age? Don't swallow the myth of the pure Victorian gentleman. Tiger Woods didn't invent fraudulent PR; WG Grace lined his pockets with lucrative endorsements while posing as an amateur. The Tour de France in its early days was probably even more drug-addled than in the nadir of the Lance Armstrong years.
Meanwhile sport's place in society today, its centrality within wider "culture", has never been more secure. Go back 70, 50, 30 years: sport's development has been remarkable. When Jack Johnson, the iconic heavyweight champion, died in 1946, he was initially buried in an unmarked grave. Imagine, in contrast, how Muhammad Ali's life will be celebrated when that moment comes. England's victory in the 1966 World Cup is held up as the apotheosis of English sporting ecstasy. One leading tabloid newspaper didn't even put it on the front page, favouring a minor royal birth as the top story.
Now consider the health and growth of sport from the perspective of its "rivals" (a highly imperfect concept, but useful in this instance). How would an outsider, from beyond the sporting bubble, sense the general trajectory of sport?
Perhaps ask a contemporary novelist, though he is probably too busy doing another job to pay the bills. And yet the novel was once a subject as widely discussed and debated as football is today. In the 19th century, reading was mass entertainment. The blockbuster novels of Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas and Leo Tolstoy were serialised in magazine instalments that were just as eagerly awaited as today's Champions League. And now? Athletes are lavished with money and fame, while leading novelists, with a tiny number of exceptions, must struggle to make ends meet.
Sporting scandal is ever-present. But that is not because sport is so rotten but because sport is bigger, grander and more diverse than ever - a giant target for exposés
If you can't find a writer, search out a classical musician. Sport's robustness compared with performances of "high culture" is embarrassingly lopsided. In London, perhaps the richest and swankiest city in the global economy, there is grave concern about the viability of its second opera house, the ENO. Orchestral players are being laid off. Perhaps London simply cannot fund two opera houses and one must adapt or fail? Yet London sustains five Premier League teams (three placed in the top five), not to mention several professional rugby and cricket teams.
The relative struggles of the arts gives me no pleasure at all. My father is a novelist and my mother is an art teacher; the arts are in my blood as much as sport. My purpose here is merely to describe rather than to judge or endorse.
Even pop music can't compete with sport. The Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than a pop star, was the first person to achieve 100 million Facebook "likes". Numbers alone do not, of course, measure influence. But Leonard Cohen, sensing the wind in 1988, argued that sportsmen were replacing the supremacy of his own tribe: "In the Sixties, music was the mode, the most important form of communication. I think today it's sports."
Given all this, why does it so often feel that sport is under attack, or even "on the brink"? Sport is an easy target. To those who work in rival spheres of entertainment, sport consumes a disproportionate share of the market. Meanwhile for sports fans who fell in love with a game many years ago, nostalgia seeps into comparisons with the present. And, of course, sporting scandal is ever-present. But that is not because sport is so rotten but because sport is bigger, grander and more diverse than ever - a giant target for exposés.
Bear in mind that early sports journalists were often partly funded by the professional teams they covered - the travel expenses of baseball reporters were picked up by the clubs. Many journalists saw themselves as evangelists spreading good news rather than investigative reporters. When the former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton published his diary Ball Four in 1970, it was greeted as a shocking exposé. Ballplayers drank beer! They chased women! The shock, the fall from grace! The real change here is not the nature of sport, it is the nature of what is deemed to be in the public interest.
So let me, at the risk of absurd over-simplification, dispense with the myth of sport's decline and fall and sketch the outline of sport's real position today. FIFA is a joke, athletics is under fire, and cricket has been on trial. But the sports themselves? Football's thuggish cloggers are basically extinct, instead Barcelona's diminutive pass-masters stand on top of the world. Violence in the stands, ever-present when I grew up in the 1980s, is retreating towards obscurity. Doping across many sports, alas, continues. But to what extent is cheating's visibility a tribute to the improved reporting rather than an indictment of declining morals?
None of this is meant as a defence of cheating or greed or vulgarity, still less corruption. I am the first to admit that, in the transition towards a global sporting economy, much has been lost - local flavours and distinctions, authentic community identification, a sense of perspective, the idea of sport as part of a healthy life rather than the whole thing. I, too, have moments of doubt about what we've lost. Size does not always bring quality, wealth is not value, prominence is not meaning.
These themes run through much of what I write. But I criticise from a position of luxury: I believe sport to be essentially robust, resilient and here to stay. If I was less optimistic, I might be more easily cowed into mere cheerleading.
Instead, I can lament the loss of some tributaries, swallowed up by the expanding river. But I thrill, more than ever, to the swell and sweep of the whole.
In 2015, I watched Leo Messi dribble, Novak Djokovic slide, AB de Villiers hit, and Dan Carter pass. Sports governance may be unfit for purpose, but what about the show? The stage sparkles, the fans applaud, the tills chime.
So I ask you, as we turn from reflecting on one sporting year to anticipating another, have we, honestly, ever had it so good?

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter