BOOK OF THE WEEK: Rare blooms flourish in garden of jargon

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The Independent Online
Moving the Goalposts

A history of sport and society since 1945

By Martin Polley (Routledge, hardback pounds 40, paperback, pounds 12.99)

Apart, perhaps, from soap opera, sport is probably the most popular national cultural form (apart from the Teletubbies, of course) - I speak as someone who once had a relationship break up after a bitter row over whether Pele was as important as Mozart. And the study of sport these days goes far beyond match reports and the occasional reflective piece in the papers. There are 400 courses on Sports History currently taught in this country, Martin Polley tells us, and a look through the bibliography at the back of (not to be confused with the excellent book on football by Ed Horton, reviewed recently here), provide some splendid examples of the explosion of historical and critical literature - try Sport, Men and the Gender Order: critical feminist perspectives for size, or The Global Arena: athletic talent migration in an interdependent world, or even Sport, Politics and the Working Class: organised labour and sport in interwar Britain.

We are in a third age of sport, Polley tells us: "after the traditional and the industrial comes the post-industrial". When the war ended, the old world was just about intact and Britain still had a semblance of Empire, but society was beginning to come to terms with the cataclysmic changes coursing through it at every level. And just as society has changed, so sport, inevitably, has changed with it. As Polley says, sport not just a reflection of society, it is a dynamic part, affecting and being affected by it.

Accordingly, it is impossible either to view Britain's post-war history without taking sport into account, or to look at sport in isolation from the wider forces that shape it. As Polley puts it, "such intrinsic and extrinsic features of organised sport as their rules and rituals, the time and place at which they are played, and the social, ethnic and gender profiles of of the players, spectators, administrators and patrons are not recreated on a daily basis: they are inherited from the past, including the immediate past." This theme runs through well-wrought chapters on such issues as commerce, the state, race, gender and national identity.

This is billed as a book to satisfy both academics and laymen. In fact, serious students of sport will probably get the most out of a book that bills itself as "a thematic work of synthesis". It has a dry feel to it, full of "models" and "historiographical observations" and "starting points for critical thought". There is some gorgeous jargon, such as the reference to Critcher's analysis of footballers' changing lifestyles and status, "from the `traditional/located' of Stanley Matthews to the `superstar/dislocated' of George Best, via the `transitional/mobile' of Bobby Charlton and the `incorporated/embourgeoised' of Alan Ball." I always knew that was the problem with old Bourgeois Bally. We learn, too, that They Think It's All Over is a "deconstructionist imitator" of A Question Of Sport. Yeah, I knew that.

A book pumped full of interesting material, then - the Appendix and Notes make it a superb informational springboard - but approach with trepidation if you like your sportswriting bright and breezy.