Sport can't give us a good society

Posted: Mon, 25 Jun 2012 15:10

England have crashed out of Euro 2012, unsurprisingly on penalties. But that was only the hors d'oeuvre in a gargantuan summer feast of sport, with London 2012 providing the substantial main course.

For the UK, this London 2012 is not just a sporting occasion. It's also about national morale, it's a major business venture, the 'regeneration games', the chance to 'inspire a generation' etc etc. Our international reputation is staked on its success. London 2012 is a symbol of the way that sport and major tournaments are, literally, more than a game. Sport is not only back page but front page material, and it's in the business pages and social affairs columns too.

To paraphrase Lord Turner on the banking industry, sport has become 'socially useful'. But as is so often the case, rhetoric moved beyond reality. If you listen to some, the Olympics will deliver a major boost to Britain at a time of economic uncertainty. Yet no recent Olympic Games has produced proven significant economic benefits to the host city or country. Chinese commentators have described the effects of the huge investment in the Beijing Games as negligible. Eight years after the Athens 2004 Games, twenty-one of the twenty-two Olympic venues remain abandoned. The Sydney Olympics tripled its budget and the former Chief Planner for the Sydney Games has said that the host city should have focused more broadly on a legacy programme for the Olympics site and that "Sydney is now paying the price". Why should London be any different?

Of course, you could see the projected £9.3 billion spend as a sport-flavoured economic stimulus. Lots have figures on consumer spending and tourism have been bandied around, as well as the obvious effect of public spending on a major infrastructure programme (construction jobs for example). These demonstrate positive economic impacts. But once you factor in the impacts on London's "ordinary" economy and the costs which will never be factored into any official budget, plus the fact that the infrastructure spending is focused on a small part of London, the economic case becomes more dubious. Whatever the input/output figures, London 2012 will most likely be 'extractive'.

Ultimately, the issue here is not just a cost benefit analysis of sport mega-events. Rather, it is the pervasive assumption that sport should have to do some kind of useful work to justify itself. This is the protestant work ethic writ large across our culture. It must make us better people, it should bring about peace in conflict, it should make societies fitter and healthier. But across a range of themes, under-delivery follows over-promise.

There is hard evidence to suggest, for instance, that participation in sport can be associated not with moral improvement, but with anti-social outcomes. And in spite of inflated rhetoric around sport as tool for peacemaking (there is a UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace) it can also clearly offer a patina for abuses of power – one need look no further than the furore over the this year's Bahraini Grand Prix to see that. The Government's sport participation agenda – one of the nation's key weapons in the war on obesity – has had only very limited success, in spite of hundreds of millions of pounds of public investment. Only seven million (or just 16.3%) adults in England are reportedly active (participating in sport three times a week for 30 minutes at moderate intensity) in 2010-11, down marginally on 2008-09 figures. Seventeen of the twenty-one governing bodies in receipt of this money saw a decrease in once-a-week participation in the past four years.

It's tempting to think that we're not pulling the right levers, or to argue that sport policy needs to change. We should avoid that temptation. What we need is a deeper appreciation of what sport is and what it can (and can't) do. Philosophers of sport have rightly complained when societies have tried to twist sport to ulterior motives, be that economic growth, moral improvement, or a healthy society. Its affective power makes it appealing for politicians, and easier to believe inflated claims. But its effective power, its power to achieve things, is much more limited than we like to think.

The Jesuit scholar, James V Schall, once suggested that sport is meaningful but unnecessary – an answer to the question "What do we do when all else, all the necessary things, are done?" Sport has become a victim of a category error of counting that which should be in the domain of leisure as belonging to the domain of 'work'. In so doing, all we succeed in is making sport less fun than it should be.

Paul Bickley, Theos

Theos and Sport Think Tank's new report Give us our Ball Back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good is available here.

Tags: Give us our ball back, sport


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