Play up and Play the Game

I have a friend who cannot understand why anyone watches organised sport – or rather why anyone follows particular sports. Using Football as an example, his contention is that no one ever seems to win ‘Football’, it just goes on and on with no conclusion and, whilst I absolutely do not share his general antipathy towards the sport, in this regard he is actually on to something.

I should state right now that I love sport. All my life I have keenly enjoyed both the participation in and the observation of many varied sporting events. Looking back through my personal sporting escapades, chronologically charting them would go something like; Football, Cricket, Rounders, Badminton, Tennis, Rugby, Basketball, Darts, Golf, Cycling, Running, Climbing. This list and its order merely charts my initial exposure to the particular discipline, there are many sports that I have returned to throughout my life and of those there is only climbing in which I haven’t competed against other people.

I don’t know if I have an all-time favourite participatory sport. Over the years I have had an on-off relationship with tennis or football due to changing circumstances. Many sports have been dropped completely and others, golf and running for example, have become more of an occasional pastime or hobby. Some sports ‘purists’ would no doubt like to point out the elephant on the list – darts. Do not let the naysayers out there try to convince you that darts is not a sport. It is the king of sports.

I probably played the game of darts earlier in my life than the list above suggests though at that time it was most definitely merely a game. We will have had a dart board in the garage at home and my brothers and I would have played round the board a game that consists of hitting the numbers 1-20 consecutively before concluding by throwing a dart into the bullseye at the centre of the board. It was only when I old enough to resume playing at the local pub that I realised how much different this sport was when compared to the game we played as children.

Playing darts with my mates in the pub was among the best experiences of my early adult life. It was serious, you wanted to win, but it was also just so much fun. If you were a decent ‘chucker’ you inevitably got invited to play for the team and this duly happened to me. It would be unfair to suggest that this was where the element of fun was entirely lost but the seriousness with which pub darts teams treat their sport is amongst the most intense I have experienced. Match night seems like any other in the pub, you have a few drinks and throw a few darts to warm up. Then you hear the words ‘Game On’ and the whole place falls silent. All eyes are on you. You were quite relaxed, you were throwing well, but suddenly all that has gone along with your legs and, more importantly, any semblance of darts ability you thought you had. You do eventually get used to it but nothing quite prepares you for that first time.

The world of professional darts is now a huge commercial success but it took a long time for it to become so popular. It was essentially run as an amateur organisation with professional participants. The players still drank pints while they played in competitions that were sponsored by cigarette companies. It was not a healthy image and was largely ignored or dismissed as a game played by overweight blokes with a drink problem. In fairness that wasn’t far from the truth. However, there were some visionaries in the game who were able to transform its image and convince the newly created Sky Sports that it would be worthwhile broadcasting it to the growing number of subscribers. It helped that luminaries like the Cambridge educated Sid Waddell waxed so lyrically in commentary of the matches. His depiction of the action as a sort of gladiatorial encounter between two titans struck a chord and soon the likes of Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow and the remarkable Phill ‘The Power’ Taylor were household names.

The introduction of satellite television in the UK generated a whole new market for televised sport and the main broadcaster, the aforementioned Sky, had a number of channels dedicated to showing not just the darts but other sports – cricket, golf, rugby and, undeniably the most popular of them all, football.

Football has for as long as I can remember been an absolute passion of mine. I was brought up to support Manchester City along with my father and my 2 older brothers. When we could we would go to watch them and for a number of years held season tickets, a mark of commitment for a follower of their favourite team. The first 45 years or so of my City fandom were filled with many highs in the early years followed by significantly more lengthy and extremely testing lows. The club had something of a reputation for being ‘everyones’ second favourite team. The reason for this was a blend of entertaining and enjoyable football combined with some of the most ludicrous and ridiculous antics perpetrated both on and off the field of play. It was said by Joe Royle, a former manager, that if there were a ‘cup for cock-ups’ City would win it almost every year. In stark contrast, however, the past ten years have been a succession of triumph after triumph. We have won almost every trophy possible. We have the best manager, a squad of hugely talented players. The stadium is spectacular and the half-time Balti pies taste great. As fans we could really want for nothing more. But, if all of that was taken away from us tomorrow and we were back to the boom and bust years that characterised our club throughout much of its illustrious history, I, and most of my fellow supporters, would take it. We have experienced winning and losing and still we show up.

This really is the key to football and to sport more generally. You play the game and one side wins whilst the other loses. Then the week after you play another team and, again, there is a winner and there is a loser. And at the end of the season, when all the teams have played one another twice, the one with the most points will be declared to have won the league. Everyone involved with the winning side celebrate and then, almost immediately, they will stop and start looking forward to how they might go about doing it all over again. Therein lies the truth in what my friend thought about sport and the reality of its continued practice. No team wins everything, no team loses everything. For the supporter and follower the results are always significant but, at the same time, ultimately inconsequential.

Some years ago there was an initiative in the UK to alter the way in which children competed in their annual sports day events. The theory was that winning and losing in the egg and spoon race didn’t matter and, moreover, if you came last this would condemn the loser to a period of untold misery and shame. They wanted everyone to win and feel a sense of achievement in so doing. Of course this failed to take hold and for good reason. The sports ground is the ideal place for these children to understand what it is like to win or lose. The result will have little bearing on their future and will probably help them deal with situations they might encounter in later life where the stakes are very much higher.

The mistake these school leaders made in attempting to smooth out the traumatising effect of success and failure was in choosing sport as the activity in which to try it. Had they attempted to tackle the way in which we constantly examine children against a specific and almost exclusively academic set of criteria, it would deny society the opportunity to use those results to convey privilege on the already privileged whilst condemning those that don’t measure up to a life of real misery, shame and deprivation. We might, just might, then end up with a society that isn’t structured around winning and losing. That doesn’t favour those that get a better start, better on-going support and, ultimately, a better life.

Contrary to much public discourse and an increasingly prevalent political approach to governing, life should not be a game in which there are winners and losers. Generally, we are not here to compete with one another – there really, really is enough to go around and my advice to those who need to feel that we are is to this weekend:

  1. Find a sport.
  2. Pick a team.
  3. Revel in their victories and wallow in their defeats.

For the rest of the week, drop the idea that we are all locked in competition – leave that to the sportsmen and women – concentrate instead on being supportive of one another, on being cheerleaders for good causes and on ensuring that society provides a level playing field for all.