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Saturday, 10 July 2010

George Orwell: The Sporting Spirit

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Johann Cruyff (on ball), Berti Vogts (left), The Netherlands vs. Germany, World Cup final, 16 July 1974: photo by Rainer Mittelstädt (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

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 virtue.

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Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal (white shirt) duels with Anderson of Manchester United, 16 February, 2008: photo by George Flood

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.

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Austrian forward Rubin Okotie tries to score on Congo goalkeeper Destin Onka, 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: photo by Nick Wiebe

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.

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Lokomotiv Leipzig fans before their team's encounter with Dynamo Schweinn in the FBGB-Pokal in 1990: photo by Ralf Pätzold, 14 April 1990 (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

George Orwell: The Sporting Spirit, from Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, 1950


Radish King said...

I sat on a blanket under my cherry tree last night listening to a baseball game on the radio because I love baseball with my whole heart and because at one time I think it was pure I think it was a pure religion. I still love it but I don't go to as many games as I used to because fear any kind of crowd mentality and because banks and insurance companies now own the green fields. I agree with Orwell that it is the spectators who bring the blood but I used to be such a jock. Ballet and Aikido and track and softball (our factory team was The Wingnuts). Maybe I don't have a right to comment one way or another.

TC said...

The equivocations and ambiguities that sprout up like fever rashes from the increasingly intensive strategic marketing of these ball games makes them difficult to enjoy wholeheartedly any more. I was from as far back as I can remember enveloped in a cloud of games real and imaginary, the finite kind of games that have winners and losers as well as the imagination kind of games that are infinite as dreams and have no winners and losers, or anyway at least allow a little better perspective on the losing. As I'm pretty much past the game playing phase it's now back more and more into the imagining of something. Cultural history. Though Orwell's hard and severe voice on this is difficult to ignore.

Baseball which I once adored now a ghost town for me, a ruined and empty habitation. Haunted house, like Henry Darger's apartment.

The past ten years I have had a bit of an imaginative investment, very much on the quiet, in world football, which interests me as a pageant and spectacle and global vocabulary as well as an art form. But again there's nothing about that game that I could point to in rebuttal of Orwell's arguments. Of course he's a tremendous killjoy, like someone who has not heard of fun, but the tough voice rings harshly true on this business of sublimated or displaced aggression.

Radish King said...

Sometimes I go watch the Aquasox, a minor league team just a little north of here in Everett. It is small and friendly and brings back the pure. Orwell is a killjoy that made me laugh!

Oh I would love to see your painting of Darger in Darger's room and maybe later I will make my own once I go there.

. said...

There is a cloud that hovers now. It sits there though we so want to ignore it. Yet once played, whether on an urban street or lush autumn field, a primal course renders us helpless at times, helpless in the sense that I for one need to celebrate or mourn each war....just a bag of wind, and a metaphor for life.

John B-R said...

I watch a lot of futbol. And football. Sports: It is an utterly corrupt spectacle. And I love every minute of it, including the corruption.

Last summer we went to see Barca play the LA Galaxy and tho the game was a joke and parking and prices were insane if was majorly enjoyable. I especially enjoyed that icon of icons Beckham hitting a 40-yarder on a set play.... what's the point of having no fun? Oh, I guess I could ask Simone Weil, but hey, I'm not that good a erson (neither was she really, she had a lot of problems, but still ...)

I only love baseball in person. I remember Bob Gibson fondly, and it never bothered me at all when he'd uh how say this delicately, move a batter a little off the plate. Even when he hit him.

TC said...


I'll probably bequeath that big Darger's apartment painting to you!

Have you ever read Ball Four, Jim Bouton's account of his time with the errrr...stwhile Seattle Pilots? It's a total howl. Very few books have ever made losing sound fun/ny.


Absolutely, a metaphor for life. (But some people "don't like metaphors", I've been told -- ??)


Well, look at it this way: have you ever heard anybody use the phrase, "Bend it like Weil"?

Marylinn Kelly said...

My first time watching World Cup matches. Is it possible to find pleasure in the skill and spectacle - and the planet paying attention to South Africa as it goes on - and not betray our principles? There is so little left which doesn't belong to big business.

TC said...


Good questions for sure. FIFA, which owns international football, is no less a big business than any of the other global megacorporations. To avoid the branding signals -- McDonald's, Coca Cola, Adidas & c. -- one would have to be watching with one's hands over one's eyes. And on the level of the games, this World Cup was extremely anomalous. Someone(s) made a pretty penny off selling those blaring horns to the spectators, and the horns, tooted relentlessly without regard to what was going on, rendered the whole tournament very hard on the nervous system. And Adidas made and sold to FIFA a new ball for the tournament, the Jabulani; the ball proved faulty, often swerving and floating in air much like a beachball; this made for some ridiculous-looking shots, as players had a hard time adapting. And in the end, though Saturday's third-place match between Germany and Uruguay (a small nation which provided perhaps the largest pleasure of the tournament, to my eyes) was a lovely, free-flowing, heart-stopping affair, the Sunday final was very hard to enjoy because the inferior Dutch team attempted to equalize the inequity in skill by fouling incessantly, hoping to bring things down to penalty kicks (always a very irresolute form of resolution).

All those negatives aside, I must also say that over the past five weeks I have, as always during World Cup time, found myself having many interesting conversations with total strangers, from many countries, about the proceedings. Football is a truly international language, and it is a property neither of the corporations nor of the rich. This common vocabulary allows one to get to know people from all over the world whom one might otherwise never have encountered. I always find it refreshing to look at world affairs -- and after all, games, as Orwell so tellingly argues in this essay, are really a reflection of world affairs, "writ small" -- from a perspective outside that of Americans. It helps to remind me that the world exists, that there are many different kinds of people in it, with many different views of things, but that in the end there are some common things about which we may speak. It's not the games so much as the speaking with one another that matters to me.

Thanks very much for stopping by, and I hope the next time you watch a world football match, there is a bit less aggravation and a bit more joy involved.

Not of course that there is not, at this moment, a great deal of joy in the hearts of the people of Spain, and for them I feel happy.

Curtis Roberts said...

Kill-joy though Orwell may be, his suggestion in the final paragraph of the post is an arresting one that sparks some interesting movie plot ideas. A friend who is currently in Barcelona sent me some exciting and joyful photos of post-victory street scenes, which were nice to see. However, I spent yesterday with a Dutch friend who is now terribly sad.

Curtis Faville said...

I despise soccer. I did a post against its spread into America, and got the predictable rash of scathing attacks from the dunderheads who want soccer to cover the earth like a scourge.

I am purely partisan with regard to American sports, which I find define our character. Baseball, in particular, mirrors our sensibility regarding skill, opportunity, patience, youth, strength, daring, etc. Football is more clearly an expression of violence and brutality. Basketball is a great sport, but it's morphed into a kind of ghetto melee--the players are too tall, and the rules are all broken--double-dribble, hand-checking, dunking, blocking, relentless hustle--all that stuff was never conceived by its designers.

Soccer, as I explained it, deprives the players of the use of their hands and arms. What stupid mind would create a sport for humans that thwarted their uniqueness as beings? Why not blind chess?

The world hysteria over soccer is ruining our native sports. Baseball diamonds being ripped up for soccer fields. Kids running around in circles on the grass.

Orwell is quite right, of course. But all sports aren't about national partisanship. You can identify a city with a team, and route for its success without becoming a toad. Soccer, on the other hand, seems to breed hysteria. Fans killing each other.

The rhythm of soccer seems a kind of dread aimlessness, the lack of scoring encouraging a kind of artificial frustration that is only partly relieved by a goal.

Keep it out of America--we have such better pursuits, we don't need it.

TC said...


I remember being interested as a child in observing the older men in an Italian-American neighborhood near where I grew up engaging in games of bocchi, which they clearly regarded as the most civilized and rewarding sport on earth.

These are sempiternal cultural things, I think, pretty much beyond our temporary mortal judgment.

TC said...


(And that last comment was directed to Curtis F., this one to Curtis Roberts),

Yes, over the past five weeks I've been encountering and hearing from people from all over the earth who take the sport seriously and relate it in their personal histories to many memories and feelings.

What I find curious is the fact that those people who love and enjoy world football (I refuse to use the word soccer, which to me carries an indelible ring of "stupid"), while they may well be bored to tears by American sports, don't seem to feel a need to ridicule and condemn what they can much more politely and easily simply ignore and pass over.

As to Orwell, I think it's safe to say he was not the sporting type. And that too I can understand.

Curtis Faville said...


Middle- and upper-middle class Americans--especially the parents--think soccer is so chic, so foreign and au courant they want to lead the way. They're tired of baseball and basketball and football and tennis (so passe!), just as they'll quickly become tired of soccer.

But soccer doesn't teach kids anything. They don't understand the strategy of positioning and coordination, and most of the kids' games I see, they're either just standing around idly or literally sort of half-running from place to place, sometimes literally in circles.

You say these things are beyond our cultural judgment. But indigenous sport isn't an unconscious act. I see nothing wrong with Brazilians and South Africans and Dutch getting all hugger-mugger about it. It's their birthright. Soccer has always been a kind of poor sister to the more intriguing competitions invented in Britain and America.

I don't see why Americans should be expected to give up our own national games, in favor of an inferior enterprise from abroad. This trend towards "globalization"--a bogus promotion if there ever was one--expressed as soccer hysteria in the media, I really find offensive. We've managed to be competitive in the Olympic Games every four years, without adopting these skills as a sort of messianic religion. If a few prep schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania want to pay for it, I say fine. But expecting and/or demanding that kids across the country, in every city and town, be required to do it strikes me as really dumb.

But people are dumb. They'll do anything they're told to do.

TC said...

Curtis, maybe I've been a bit distracted lately, and I don't follow the American mainstream media at all, but I did not know there was a conspiracy afoot to impose "soccer" upon American youth Big Brother-style.

"Soccer has always been a kind of poor sister to the more intriguing competitions invented in Britain and America."

Football (i.e. what you and those you are offended by call "soccer") was "invented" in Britain.

What's with all this War of the Sports anyway?

One of the few things I find diverting is the sport of football well-played, which has a rhythm and artistry of its own, and can be experienced for 45 to 50 minutes at a time without the interruptive advertising that makes watching "American" sports virtually unendurable.

If you don't enjoy that, maybe you aren't open to it. That's your business. To each his own.

Elmo St. Rose said...

Orwell got totalitarianism right
more than anyone else

sport is better than war

American football, a true post
industrial sport soaks up the
human need perhaps to go to
war...this the nuclear age.

Perhaps if some of fanatics
in the world had played contact
sports in youth they wouldn't
fantasize as much about life
in a heaven before blowing
themselves up along with a lot
of other people

like the boxers say

"everybody got a plan until they've
been hit"

TC said...

The boxers definitely have that right.