The Spirit of the Game, By Mihir Bose

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The Independent Culture

Those critical of modern society are fond of harking back to supposed golden pasts. Pre-industrial Merrie England and the imagined court of King Arthur have both been extolled as utopias.

Now Mihir Bose has chosen the Victorian era of Tom Brown's Schooldays as the sporting equivalent. His argument seems to be that Britain, and specifically England's public schools, championed the virtues of good sportsmanship, fair play and pluck, then exported them around the world. But in the 20th century this Corinthian ideal was steadily subverted by greed, commercialisation, politics and the cult of celebrity, leading to a morally bankrupt sporting present.

As a journalist, Bose has been at the heart of the action for many years, a fact he is happy to remind us of in chapters such as "Sunday morning coffee with Mandela". His charting of modern sport's evolution lies at the heart of this book, and is comprehensive, perceptive, well-informed – and often depressing. He leads us through totalitarianism, television and the influence of gambling with a sure hand. Yet his love of past practices causes him to make some curious statements, such as: "The removal of [cricket's] distinction between gentlemen and players is even today resented by many in England." Many? I don't think so. And he heartily approves of the American way of sport, though that country has led the world in treating sport as packaged-for-TV big business. As to the question "What shall we do with sport?" Bose can but wring his hands, saying: "There is... no simple solution to its many problems." Yet he has done a tremendous job of explaining why the question needs asking.