Ed Warner - The Joy of Sport

Posted: Fri, 12 May 2023 11:16

Ed Warner - The Joy of Sport

"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part." Really, Baron? That's so nineteenth century! I'd love to hear the thoughts of a time-traveller Pierre de Coubertin in the Stade de France at Paris 2024, or perhaps in the stands at a Premier League football match or ringside at a heavyweight title bout. Fight well, sure, but conquering is essential. Isn't it?

Over the past few weeks I've taken a few governing bodies to task in Sport inc.Readership numbers have soared, which might indicate fans like a bit of controversy, or perhaps more positively that they care about the way the sports they love are run. I'm conscious that I might have fallen into a sewer of criticism, so this week I'd like to wallow in the joy of sport.

At the Euro 23 Wheelchair Rugby champs last weekend, a roving interviewer on our event presentation team stuck her mic into a gaggle of schoolkids who'd been on a coach for hours across Wales to get to the Principality Stadium. One youngster declared it to be "the best school trip I've ever been on." She and her class mates had watched a rather one-sided group match in which both team had kept the hits coming right up to the final whistle, in spite of the gap between them. No letting up, whether conquering or conquered.

It may be a well-worn cliché, but I do subscribe to the view that sport is unscripted theatre. Spectacle, razzle-dazzle, high and low emotion, a storyline, all bound by its physical staging, but crucially with unexpected plot twists and an unknown ending. You can come away from the show and give a one- or five-star review, but the next performance may be the exact reverse. Be sure, though, that evident commitment from the actors is necessary for your enjoyment.

The Harlem Globetrotters were also in town in Cardiff last weekend. True sport? I think we can agree not. No jeopardy.

Theatre loves a villain, whether Shakespearian or pantomime. And so too sport. It's all very well to believe that when the great scorer comes he won't care whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. Does this, though, allow a spectator to revel in the misbehaviour of sporting actors and still get through the Pearly Gates themselves?

Did you rush to watch clips of Aleksandar Mitrović laying hands on the ref, the mankad inflicted by India's Deepti Sharma on the England women's cricket team, or further back Mike Tyson's bite of Evander Holyfield's ear?

All of these acts derive from the urge to conquer, an urge that lies deep within the human spirit, dormant for many, but boiling like a lava field inside the greatest sportspeople and those that burn to join their ranks. This urge is heightened by the spoils on offer to the victorious.

De Coubertin created an essentially amateur enterprise with his first Olympics of the modern era in 1896, but he was imitating the games of the Ancient Greeks where the winning athletes were not just garlanded but enjoyed life-changing riches. Almost three millennia later, the essence of the Games reflects its origins. Fame and fortune are the prizes on offer.

I've no problem with that. Money brings glamour. It enables higher production values. Jeopardy is intensified, and with it temptation. The theatre is elevated. Sport often struggles to contain the fallout from the cash washing round it, and the inequalities it creates. But give me this as a problem to manage any day; just surround me with people who have the nouse, creativity and determination to see that enough of the riches are sequestered for investment in the fabric of the sporting system, thereby ensuring its longevity. Tomorrow's superstars need to start somewhere, after all.

Drama of the week? For me, the denouement of the regular EFL season. In particular, Cambridge United's great escape from relegation, a final day win clawing the U's out of the drop zone they had occupied for the whole of 2023 - the board loyally (and unfashionably) sticking with manager Mark Bonner throughout. Try scripting that! Watch the U's escape here

Governing bodies have to do the dull regulatory stuff. But they must also foster an environment in which glorious stages are set for amazing athletes to perform phenomenal sporting feats. Do it themselves, or get out of the way and let others build the theatres, hire the actors and sell the stories of their performances. And if governing bodies get in the way, screw things up, or try and take credit for themselves where it is not due, then yes they open themselves to criticism.

You can of course find intense sporting enjoyment far away from the grandest stages, where money is not at stake, simply pride and a sating - however temporary - of the urge to conquer. That conquering may even be of your own demons. The Blair-era 'stickers for all' belief in non-competitive school sport never sat easily with me. But I understand why everyone gets a medal for completing the London Marathon, and why hundreds of thousands line the streets to watch them 'win' one.

Fight well then. Play the game the right way. But fight and play to conquer. That way I'll be sure to keep watching.

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Tags: Featured, Legacy, Olympics, Policy, Sport, Sport for development, community sport, school sport


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