Friday, June 28, 2013

Why Sport Matters

Editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us? Mark Perryman argues why the Left should take sport seriously.

Of course how fast an individual can run, how far they can chuck an object, how high they can jump hardly matters at all in the greater scheme of global justice and human rights. But that isn’t what is being claimed on behalf of sport here. Rather it is the grand emotional narrative sport can help construct, arguably in the early twenty-first century more effectively and more internationally, than any single other cultural pursuit. Apart from the most miserabalist, or socially isolated, section of the Left that is surely something we can all agree upon, whether we like it or not. With the possible exception of web 2.0. no other cultural form comes close to sport in terms of its global appeal. But then who apart from the geekiest of the Geeks is going to cheer on Apple vs Microsoft in the way millions cheered on London 2012’s Super Saturday of Grandstanding athletics.

There is a certain version of one-dimensional Marxism that can on occasion decry anything meaningful to be derived from the masses’ enjoyment of sport. It’s as if those of us who do the cheering have handed in any consciousness we might have at the turnstiles, or those of us who do the training leave the same at the bottom of the changing room locker along with the smelly socks and half-eaten energy bars. Before the Games were even over the Socialist Workers Party in their Party Notes for members declared :

Whatever brief effect the Olympics have, it won’t last. Team GB medals won’t be much of a consolation when news of crisis, cuts, job losses and pay curbs return to the front of people’s consciousness. And the ‘we are now all multiculturalists’ line peddled by the Sun (!) etc will soon look ridiculous as scapegoating and whipping up of division returns. Meanwhile, struggle continues. See below for this week’s strikes and protests.” 

Or for a more sophisticated variant, Marc Perelman’s short book Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague. “In the pestilential environment oozing out of sport, the question arises: what can critical theory come up with today against sport now it has become the visible face of every society? The only possible critical response is a firm assertion: there should be no sport.” This is a pseudo-radicalism of do-nothingness, of disengagement with the popular for fear of getting ideological hands dirty. It creates a vacuum, which others of a reactionary, and worst, bent, will fill with greedy readiness. Keeping politics out of sport, the pastime will remain unchanged, for the worse.

Back in the 1980s the Bennite Left was a transformative force within Labour. Allied to a new version of municipal socialism, Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council in particular, a politics began to take shape on Labour’s fringes that sought to take popular culture seriously , including sport. Garry Whannel was one of those who at the time set out the reasons. In his pioneering book, Blowing the Whistle, Garry suggested a five point manifesto.

First, the need to take all aspects of social life seriously, especially popular cultural forms like sport.

Second, recognise that sport contributes to the way people see the world, engage and offer alternatives.

Third, physical well-being, health and fitness are important to human development. Socialism should be a way of making a healthier life possible for all.

Fourth, play in some form will be an important element of a more fulfilling society.

Fifth, leisure will become an increasingly politicised issue, battles will be fought over who has leisure time, how it is spent and how it is provided for.

Garry set out the context he and others were up against: “Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.”  

The pressure from within the Left to take popular culture seriously could be traced back to the First New Left. One of the figures most closely identified with this period, Stuart Hall, set out in an autobiographical essay why such a focus was so important:

“First, because it was in the cultural and ideological domain that social change appeared to be making itself most dramatically visible. Second, because the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society. Third, because the discourse of culture seemed to us fundamentally necessary to any language in which socialism could be described.”

Hall offered this position as representing a fundamental challenge to how politics was traditionally defined, by Left and Right alike.

“In these different ways the New Left launched an assault on the narrow definition of ‘politics’ and tried to project in its place an ‘expanded definition of the political.’  The logic implied by our position was that these ‘hidden dimension’ had to be represented within the discourses of ‘the political’ and that ordinary people could and should organise where they were, around issues of immediate experience; begin to articulate their dissatisfactions in an existential language and build an agitation from that point.”

It was an analysis that Hall translated into a programme of political action governed by “a recognition of the proliferation of the potential sites of social conflict and the constituencies for change.” In the mid to late 1950s this was truly groundbreaking stuff, leading directly to the emergence of Cultural Studies as an academic discipline. By the mid-1980s the kind of politics Hall was proposing was being applied in a wide variety of ways, one of which was via the kind of writing on sport Garry Whannel and others were beginning to develop and popularise. Collaborating with his co-editor, fellow academic Alan Tomlinson, in 1984 Garry co-edited the collection, Five Ring Circus, a critique by a diverse group of left-wing writers and activists of the forthcoming Los Angeles Olympics, widely recognised as the Games which accelerated the process of commercialisation into all that the Olympics have now become.

Today, reading Hall’s prescriptions and Whannel’s analysis, makes the modern disconnect in Left politics very clear. The remaking of the political that in their different ways Garry and Stuart both advocated has become almost entirely marginalised. The radical modernisation of the Left that by the mid-1980s their position began to represent was replaced by the conservative modernisation of Blairite Labour from the mid-1990s onwards. Neo-Liberalism rules, free-market globalisation treated as if it was a force of nature, the managerial and the technocratic the only way things could be run, focus groups replacing any kind of model of change from below. What this amounted to was the privatisation of idealism, arguably new Labour’s most profound achievement, ending any hope that for things to get better they needed to be different too. Instead we are left with a rising popular disengagement with all that the Westminster bubble represents.

One year on from London 2012 the failure to fulfil the three core pledges is obvious. No sustainable jobs increase, no socio-economic transformation of London’s East End and perhaps most damning of all next to no significant increase in levels of participation in sport. In reviewing these failures a serious Left needs to combine critique with an understanding of what a better sport culture would look like. This requires an appreciation that while sport is socially constructed at the same time it has a liberatory potential, leisure, recreation and participation a vital part of any good society and that the corporate domination of sport for many is their most vivid and meaningful experience of commodification. London 2012’s legacy for the Left? A recognition that for some of us, sport is politics.

London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others. Available as a pre-publication, exclusive Mark Steel signed edition, £2 off, just £12.99, and post-free from here.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Footballers Who Spoke Out For Palestine

Below is a letter, written in November 2012, signed by more than 50 professional footballers including Chelsea's Eden Hazard and Demba Ba, Arsenal's Abou Diaby and Newcastle United's Cheikh Tioté. In it they express their solidarity with the Palestinian people and criticise UEFA for allowing to Israel to host the European Under-21 Championship which began yesterday.

"We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom. The latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, resulting in the death of over a hundred civilians, was yet another stain on the world's conscience.

We are informed that on 10 November 2012 the Israeli army bombed a sports stadium in Gaza, resulting in the death of four young people playing football, Mohamed Harara and Ahmed Harara, 16 and 17 years old; Matar Rahman and Ahmed Al Dirdissawi, 18 years old.
We are also informed that since February 2012 two footballers with the club Al Amari, Omar Rowis, 23, and Mohammed Nemer, 22, have been detained in Israel without charge or trial.

It is unacceptable that children are killed while they play football. Israel hosting the UEFA Under-21 European Championship, in these circumstances, will be seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.

Despite the recent ceasefire, Palestinians are still forced to endure a desperate existence under occupation, they must be protected by the international community. All people have the right to a life of dignity, freedom and security. We hope that a just settlement will finally emerge."

Signed by:
Gael Angoula, Bastia Sporting Club (France)
Karim Ait-Fana, Montpellier HSC (France)
Demba Ba, Newcastle United (UK)
Abdoulaye Baldé, AC Lumezzane (Italia)
Chahir Belghazouani, AC Ajaccio (France)
Leon Best, Blackburn Rovers Football Club (UK)
Ryad Boudebouz, Football Club Sochaux Montbéliard (France)
Yacine Brahimi, Granada Football Club (Spain)
Jonathan Bru, Melbourne Victory (Australia)
Aatif Chahechouche, Sivasspor Kulübü (Turkey)
Pascal Chimbonda, Doncaster Rovers Football Club (UK)
Papiss Cissé, Newcastle United (UK)
Omar Daf, Football Club Sochaux Montbéliard (France)
Issiar Dia, Lekhwiya (Qatar)
Abou Diaby, Arsenal Football Club (UK)
Alou Diarra, West Ham (UK)
Samba Diakité, Queens Park Rangers (UK)
Pape Diop, West Ham United (UK)
Abdoulaye Doucouré, Stade Rennais Football Club (France)
Ibrahim Duplus, Football Club Sochaux Montbéliard (France)
Soudani El-Arabi Hilal, Vitoria Sport Club Guimares (Portugal)
Jires Kembo Ekoko, Al Ain Football Club (United Arab Emirates)
Nathan Ellington, Ipswich Town Football Club (UK)
Doudou Jacques Faty, Sivassport Kulübü (Turkey)
Ricardo Faty, AC Ajaccio (France)
Chris Gadi, US Boulogne (France)
Remi Gomis, FC Valenciennes (France)
Florent Hanin, SC Braga (Portugal)
Eden Hazard, Chelsea Football Club (UK)
Diomansy Kamara, Eskisehispor Kulübü (Turkey)
Frédéric Kanouté, Beijing Guoan (China)
Djamal Mahamat, Sporting Braga (Portugal)
Kader Manganne, Al Hilal Riyad Football Club (Saudi Arabia)
Sylvain Marveaux, Newcastle United (UK)
Nicolas Maurice-Belay, FC Girondins de Bordeaux (France)
Cheikh M’bengué, Toulouse Football Club (France)
Jérémy Menez, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (France)
Laurent Nardol, Chartres Football Club (France)
Mahamadou N’diaye, Vitoria Sport Club Guimares (Portugal)
Mamadou Niang, Al-Sadd SC (Qatar)
Mbaye Niang, SM Caen (France)
Fabrice Numeric, FK Slovan Duslo Sala (Slovakia)
Billel Omrani, Olympique de Marseille (France)
Lamine Sané, FC Girondins de Bordeaux (France)
Mamady Sidibé, Stoke City Football Club (UK)
Momo Sissoko, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (France)
Cheikh Tioté, Newcastle United (UK)
AdamaTraoré, Melbourne Victory (Australia)
Armand Traoré, Queen Park Rangers FC (UK)
Djimi Traore, (Mali)
Moussa Sow, Fenerbahçe Spor Kulübü (Turkey)
Hassan Yebda, Granada Football Club (Spain)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Euro 2013 Film of Palestinian Football

In the autumn of 2011 Philosophy Football met Honey Thalijeh, then captain of the Palestine Women's Football team. Inspired by what she told us about what football meant to her country we promised that when Euro 2013 opened in Israel we would be in Palestine. 

From 5-18 June Israel hosts the second biggest international team tournament in European football, the Euro 2013 Under 21's Championship. It’s the biggest international sporting event ever held in Israel. And England have a decent chance of winning.
But on the other side of the wall Israel built football is played and watched in Palestine under the most abnormal of conditions. Massive restrictions of movement, 24 hour surveillance and illegal settlements and land grabs, yet on the football pitch, as recognised by FIFA, Palestine plays football as a nation.
Throughout the tournament Israel will do everything it can to keep attention away from football on the Palestinian side of the wall. Our film, shot over the pat few days will help to break this silence. On Tuesday it was premiered in Ramallah at the HQ of the Palestine Olympic Association and simultaneously released on YouTube. 
Today Philosophy Football also launches our Palestine Football Supporters Club T-shirt for a game with no borders, no walls. JUST £17.99 - £5 OFF - For the opening week of the Tournament, usual price £22.99. Sizes S-XXL and womens fitted. Available from here.
The shirt has been produced to popularise the cause of Palestinian football.  Sales will fund this first film and future initiatives of this sort.

Rethinking Track and Field

This is a guest post by Ian Stone. It originally appeared on David Renton's lives;running blog

In 2002, an Italian Publishing company called SEP Editrice posthumously published Professor Alphonse Juilland’s book  Rethinking track and field; The future of the world’s oldest sport. One of the more striking things about it; aside from it having a foreword written by then newly-installed President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Lamine Diack, was that it was a statistics work written with the verve of a true athletics fan who had participated in the sport for many years, and indeed achieved World records in the sport as a veteran athlete. Juilland’s book is an oddity because it advances an egalitarian basis for the future of athletic competition which ostensibly has a socialist flavour to it. Yet Julliand was a mass of contradictions. According to his memorial resolution from Stanford University, he did not believe in science or reason, yet his interest in statistics suggests that he had at least a fascination with concrete facts.

Julliand was not a physiologist, or a statistician, although his work on athletics points to an appreciable grasp of both. An introduction to his personal archive in the Stanford University Department of Special Collections and University Archives provides a neat summary of his life and work. He was born in 1922 in Bucharest, where he took his first degree in the 1940s, obtaining a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1951.He taught language, literature, linguistics and philosophy in France, Canada and the US, teaching at Washington, Pennsylvania , Columbia, and taught at Stanford from 1961-2000, where he died in his room on campus. He is regarded as ‘an international pioneer in his studies of the application of structural  methods in historical linguistics and in linguistic structural theory, gaining acclaim as one of the first linguists to analyse language using quantitative methods using computers.’ He wrote the first structuralist history of French pronunciation and the first inverse dictionary of the French language.
The story of how Julliand became an athlete himself is related by Julliand’s long term friend and the eventual editor of Rethinking track and field, William D. Gairdner in the Editor’s foreword to Rethinking. When Gairdner was a 24 year old runner, he visited the Stanford University track where the then forty-something Professor was being timed by his wife training for middle distance. The Professor and Gairdner became friends, and one day Juilland revealed one of his great ambitions was to run a sub-six minute mile. A deal was struck; the Professor would school Gairdner in academia in exchange for a rigorous training regime that would see the aspirant veteran athlete achieve his dream. It worked; the Professor agreed to quit cigarettes, dropped about 35 pounds and within a year had got down to an impressive 5:59.8.

However, Juilland had not yet found his calling athletics-wise. By chance, when ‘slogging through a lamentable two-mile race’ he found himself to be a talented sprinter. A member of his training group had been instructed to go on the track and encourage him across the line, and the prof had used the intervention as competition to the extent where Juilland ‘came flying down the final straightaway at a very high speed, with impeccable form, having left the struggling youngster-and all the spectators-in a state of utter disbelief’. Juilland began to call Gairdner ‘Frankenstein’ and himself ‘the monster’. His sprint times, from the off, were extraordinary for an athlete of any age-and he began winning masters races in earnest. He ran 10.6 for 100 yards at age 49, and the 200m in 23.6 and 400m in 56.3 the same year:
‘…his records stood for decades and he would periodically return to training, lose the weight he had gained all over again, and display his amazing talent. I have a photo of him age 64 in my study. He is grinning in his beguiling way, pipe in mouth, after winning a masters 200m race in 26.46’.
Rethinking track and field itself has numerous innovative suggestions, drawn from his experiences as a fan and participant in athletics, on how the sport might be improved. The first chapter, for instance, looks on how old events might be improved. A brace of suggestions are made on how to improve the jumping events, such as holding boardless long and triple jumps, where the distance would be measured from wherever the take-off point was rather than from behind a board, the argument being that the use of boards has led to some enormous fouls being nullified, when there was nothing intrinsically wrong with these jumps. Indeed, he cites at length the case of Carl Lewis’ legendary foul jump at Indianapolis in 1982, which some observers felt was over 30’ (9.14m), yet no mark was found in the board plasticene (the determining factor in issuing a foul jump) leading to it being rendered null and void. This jump would have easily been a world record had Julliand’s suggestion been in effect. The use of laser beams to measure the exact height cleared in the high jump and pole vault is also suggested, as sometimes athletes will clear the bar by as much as three or four inches with their best jump, or up to around a foot in the pole vault. Laser technology could also be employed as a way of determining false starts, it is suggested, rather than having the arbitrary rule in place that the athlete is penalised if they move faster than 0.1 after the gun has sounded.

In the same chapter, Julliand asserts that the best ever instrinsic high jump, relative to the efficacy of dynamic shifting of ‘payload’ i.e. weight is actually not that of Javier Sotomayor, world record holder with 2.45m, but Werner Gunthor (pictured left), the 130kg world class shot putter, with an impressive 2.00m, prompting the strange thought that Gunthor is a world record holder, but not at his ‘best’ event! In (chapter 3, Juilland develops this theme. The chapter is entitled ‘Physical attributes, performance, and the democracy of sport.’ In a section entitled ‘should flyweights throw against the heavyweights?’ Julliand draws on the example of Paralympic sport, where athletes with similar physical attributes are pitted against each other, so as to equalise the event and create a ‘level playing field’. Conversely, in the Shot Putt events, it is true to say that some athletes are advantaged by their size-height creates greater leverage, and weight exacts more propulsive force behind the Shot. On the basis of factoring in information from a huge selection of athletes profiles, Julliand discovers that Dan O’Brien, the former world record holder at the decathlon, can be regarded as pound-for-pound the greatest ever Shot putter.

An intriguing set of juxtapositions are proffered as to possible new athletics events- eg high throwing, long vaulting. ’Change areas’ in relays are suggested as dispensable and a 3 leg 100m relay is proposed, where each athlete would run 133.33m. A 500m oval track is proposed, as is the idea of running clockwise round the track-and having separate records for anti-clockwise and clockwise runs. Julliand also devises a complex system of determining ‘the ten best  (i.e. World)record holders ever, whether female or male’ incorporating factors such as the total percentage by which they improved the marks they broke, and the total duration of their records. On this basis Bob Beamon’s incredible 8.90m Long Jump comes out on top, but there are 4 women in the top ten.

Juilland’s interrogation of performances across time (the disadvantages of cinder tracks and a time formula for measuring their effects are also addressed) and across genders gives us a truer picture of extraordinary performances, one where they can be appreciated fully on their own merit. Some of his ideas on how to develop athletics extend this possibility. His athletics odyssey well into old age-he was still competing when he died aged 77-are also a source of inspiration. Yet Juilland’s conservative politics remain a source of frustration, and we see that in the introduction of Rethinking entitled ‘Track and field on trial: an acrimonious debate with myself’ he simultaneously advocates developments in track and field for the enrichment of the spectator and to preserve [Track and Field’s] ‘market share’.

The spectre of athletics as a highly monetised event removes it from its constituency – namely those who want to participate for the pure fun of it. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of pleasure to be had from watching the best athletes compete. But this experirence is becoming rare. Many of the athletics finals were unaffordable for most people at the 2012 Olympic Games. Many fans experienced the disappointment of not being able to go because corporate sponsors had taken seats but, as the TV cameras then revealed, didn’t take them up. There were a tiny amount of free events-the Marathon was one; but those who paid extra were permitted to see video screens showing the parts of the race it was not possible to see up close i.e. most of it. Also, of course, money dictated that the Games had to be in a certain place; much to the annoyance of several thousand eastenders who had to move as a result.

The Conservative Government meanwhile continue to slash school sports budgets for state schools, and thereby limit the majority of people’s ability to participate in sport. The success of the Paralympics is being used as an exemplar to show people being able to overcome physical adversity. Yet people are being refused benefits when they are seriously ill, or in some cases, dying. More than a debt reduction exercise, the austerity drive is the manifestation of an intolerance of the poor, the sick and disabled. Writing on athletics has to be politically conscious of this, and to be subtly aware of the ways in which oppositions of physical strength/weakness were artificially posed by the far right in the past, and will posit again if they are given the chance. Economic Conservatism is a gift for racist, sexist and anti-disabled groups such as the BNP and EDL as it encourages their survivalist mentality and adds to the ranks of the alienated and disenfranchised. Juilland’s writings are imaginative and contentious. It is just incredibly disappointing that he ultimately falls back into an economic conservatism that negates his suggestions as nothing more than considerations for the advancement of the athletics ‘market’. Ultimately Juilland tries to break out of paradigms only to find that for all his imagination, he cannot conceive of a society outside Capitalism, the all–encompassing paradigm that negates our dreams the moment they are born