Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Playing Political Games With Sport

I have a guilty secret. One I have shared with very few people. And today I bare my ashamed soul to the world. I was a huge fan of Bob Monkhouse. Oh come on! Who wasn’t? The man was a comedy genius, producing one-liners like an athlete produces sweat, or the International Olympic Committee produces corruption and scandal. Of course his undoubted gold medal winning gag was: “When I was a child I told people that I wanted to be a comedian and they just laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.” He also did a fine line in puns – people who know me will be well aware that this is a particular comedic genre of which I am quite the connoisseur. The one piece of word play that springs readily to mind is his definition of politics: “Poly means many, tics are blood sucking creatures. That about says it all.”

Certainly we can now look forward to the assembled establishment politicians sucking all the pleasure out of sport for the next couple of weeks. Whenever a British athlete turns in a truly Olympian performance you can expect Dave or Boris or Nick to be sidling up to them like the unpopular person at a party trying get in on a conversation. They’ll grin inanely, wave their flags and no doubt witter on endlessly about a country united by sporting achievement. When it comes to seeking a little popularity it would be fair to say that politicians see sport as war minus the shooting.

Where sport is concerned the ruling class historically have changed course more often than a driver with a faulty satnav. Edward III and Henry VIII both banned certain sports during their reigns deeming them detrimental to the war effort. Then along came the Puritans and banned just about everything (except cricket!). The idea of poor people playing and having fun, especially in large and potentially dangerous numbers, was just too much to stomach.

The development of capitalism was more effective than any diktat at curtailing the sporting pleasures of the rowdy mob. Enclosures took away the open spaces; factories sapped the time and energy of the new working class. Denied the opportunities to play, workers were transformed into spectators as soon as they had money to spare. But sport was and is popular with large amounts of people. As such people in power have long associated themselves with it in order to carry favour with populations and electorates.

In the 1720s Frederick Louis arrived from Hannover to take his, ahem, rightful position as the Prince of Wales. Keen to ingratiate himself with the English he developed a passion for cricket. For more than twenty years he patronised and played the game, badly by all accounts. He died in 1751 from a burst abscess in his lung, which, legend tells us, was the result of being struck by a cricket ball.

Jump forward 250 years and we witness Tony Blair playing the same game but without any of the delicious and fatal irony. Already attempting to ride the wave of Cool Britannia hype, Tony jumped on the bandwagon of football frenzy playing keepy-uppies with Kevin Keegan like an embarrassing dad at a wedding reception. Then in an eerie portent of things to come he combined cringe-worthiness with outright bullshit, proclaiming his love of Newcastle United, and reportedly saying that he sat behind the goal at St James’ Park watching Jackie Milburn play. Not bad since Milburn retired when Blair was only four years old and that at that time there were no seats. Two lies in a single sentence? Who’d have thunk it?

And on to today. Who can forget Boris riding into the closing ceremony of the Beijing Games in 2008 on top of a double decker bus? The blonde buffoon then went on to wax lyrical about the triumphs of ‘wiff-waff’ helping to cement his status as the most loved and harmless upper-class twonk that ever there was. Except this is nothing like the truth. The man is a vicious class warrior of the old school, a Tory wolf in a rambling sheep’s clothing. For Boris the Olympics isn’t a festival of sport, it’s a PR opportunity. Ditto Dave. Cameron has appeared at all kinds of sporting events over the past year, desperate to be associated with anything even mildly successful. This time last year he took time out from his busy schedule of organising exemplary sentences for people nicking bottles of water during the riots to spend an afternoon at the Oval watching the cricket. When Jonathan Agnew gently enquired whether the PM thought a test match was the best place to be, Cameron responded that he had had a busy morning talking to Barak Obama on the phone…

For centuries – ever since Poor Fred - the ruling class have tried to turn the people’s games into the ruler’s tools. The fun and excitement of sport is manipulated, twisted and spun as politicians bask in the reflected glory of sportsmen and women. Expect more of the same as the summer of flag waving draws to its conclusion. But it need not be this way. Does anyone have any cricket balls?