Constable, £19.99, 605pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World, By Mihir Bose

 

One day, during the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, the American player Glenn Cowan missed his team bus back to the hotel. A Chinese player invited him to theirs. They gave him as a gift a silk-screen print of the Huangshan mountains; the next day he gave them a T-shirt with the words to "Let It Be". Within months Henry Kissinger was in Beijing, and inside a year Richard Nixon was meeting Mao Zedong.

As Vladimir Putin could tell you, sport has many functions beyond personal fulfilment. The Russian leader's camera-friendly embrace of such rugged pursuits as judo, skiing, canoeing and ice hockey helps cement him in the minds of the people as the hard man to guide them through tough times. His sporting zeal might have found approval with Thomas Hughes, whose Tom Brown's Schooldays Mihir Bose credits as organised sport's big bang.

His thesis is that the Corinthian, character-building model of sport, outlined by Hughes and founded on the muscular Christianity preached by the real-life Rugby headmaster, Thomas Arnold, was then exported round the world – haphazardly, by dint of the Empire, and in a more organised fashion through the work of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was inspired by the English way of sport to revive the Olympic Games.

But just as religious messages become twisted over time, so the ethos of fair play and amateurism was swamped by the demands of money, politics and power. Hughes's vision was essentially personal; for de Coubertin it was a way of nation speaking unto nation. And his vision was realised – but soured by Mammon.

It's perhaps a truism, but sport is a microcosm of society. Greed? Check. Corruption, megalomania, violence and drugs? All present and correct. Bose tells a story in which most of the basest elements of human nature are in constant attendance. He takes things from de Coubertin on to the rapid globalisation of sport through its evolution into cash cow and state puppet.

The totalitarian leaders, unsurprisingly, were the first to put sport explicitly at the service of the state. When you're out watching the forthcoming Olympic torch relay, you'll be participating in a tradition initiated by Goebbels for the 1936 Games. But though Germany scored a huge propaganda victory with the Berlin Olympics, it never had the chance properly to co-opt sport to the Nazi cause.

It was the communist sporting machine that truly made an art and science of using sport for ulterior motives; of transmitting values across borders. Bose writes well about the vast East German set-up, which spotted talent young. There was a system of rewards and punishments: one of the incentives was the right to have a teddy bear. In the free world there were more momentous rewards for sporting success: West Germany's unexpected victory in the 1954 football World Cup final, and South Africa's 1995 win in the rugby union version, set the seal on both as nations fit to take their place on the world stage.

I was surprised Bose didn't spend more time on the formation of the FA Premier League, surely one of the most egregious collisions of sport and naked capitalism. But there are plenty of other examples of sport selling its soul: the empire-building of Horst Dassler, head of Adidas; the Indian conquest of modern cricket; the grotesque shenanigans of IOC and Fifa mandarins (which contrast sharply with good old socialist America, which administers its sports with impeccable egalitarianism).

There's lots of nice detail, such as the reaction to listening to football on the radio of Winifred Holtby, feminist intellectual and novelist: "I was excited. I had not, I have not to this day, the remotest notion of what they were all doing. But I know I was excited." If anything there's too much detail, but the message is clear: the Corinthian ideal is pretty much dead. On the jacket, Bose is described as India's CLR James. That's pushing it. But he has written a readable account of sport's tortuous journey from simple hobby to global behemoth.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us