Fun and Games, or an Orwellian vision of our sporting future?

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The Independent Online

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. On Wednesday night, when England were 60 minutes into their World Cup qualifier, I switched channels to see how Chesney Hawkes would do in a floodlit water-ski competition. I know. I am not proud. But I suspect I was not alone.

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. On Wednesday night, when England were 60 minutes into their World Cup qualifier, I switched channels to see how Chesney Hawkes would do in a floodlit water-ski competition. I know. I am not proud. But I suspect I was not alone.

Channel 4's The Games has tempted sports fans over to the dark side: an arena where talent, hard work and excellence are replaced by humiliation, tears and profound levels of self-delusion. But dressing physical farce in the trappings of a major championship leaves us helpless to resist its familiar symbols. We are a sophisticated audience. Show us a man in a suit beside two others in sports casual; place all three before a large window with a coffee table in the foreground (to hide distracting hairy ankles) and we know we're watching sport.

The language is the same too. When Red Dwarf's Craig Charles said of the Bread actor Jonathon Morris "we were the two old codgers battling it out", I had to check it wasn't John Toshack and Walter Smith in confab.

It is the gusto with which every person has bought into The Games that is most indoctrinating. If reality threatens to surface - as in the gymnastics, when the comedian Mel Giedroyc boasted that she was responsible for "the world's first slow-motion replay of a forward roll" - there is always another celeb to uphold the façade.

And yet The Games may be more than a reality show bereft of reality. It might be providing an Orwellian glimpse of what lies ahead. In a "Gamesian" future, British sport will be honed into digestible chunks providing a visceral thrill between ad breaks (think the NBA and the NFL). The instantly gratifying TV fare that compresses six months' worth of weight loss or house renovation into 10 handy minutes might be producing a country ill-equipped for a whole hour and a half of football. It is hard to imagine the Playstation generation settling for 45 long minutes in which the highlight is David Beckham's lost shoe.

Azerbaijan took 51 minutes to tire and allow Steven Gerrard to capitalise. Games viewers had to wait only 57 seconds for Giedroyc and the singer Lisa Maffia to swim two lengths. Raised to expect more from those on TV, sports fans will not be content with a protagonist's cliché-ridden post-match interview. Hawkes's late-night phone-call to his brother was as important to The Games as his earlier prostrate performance on the ice-rink. The tears he shed may one day be echoed by those of the England captain: a man whose contract will include televising the call he makes to his wife after a match.

Schadenfreude will play a leading role in our Gamesian future. It sits menacingly beneath the surface of the 60-minute programme, like the cameras in the diving pool waiting for Morris's bottom to be bared. Of course, when Beckham and Sven Goran Eriksson were caught with their pants down, the nation rejoiced. And Jose Mourinho's recent knuckle-rapping inspired a certain national glee. But in the future, the Chelsea manager won't be disciplined by a spineless Uefa. Instead, Champions' League points would be docked by a voting public and then he would be tied to a ducking stool and be able to win the points back for every minute spent under water.

How we will laugh at the way in which substance once took precedence over style!

We won't bother any more with tiresome rules that make the desired result so difficult to achieve. We need only look at David Gill's recent comments to see that they are outdated. The Manchester United chief executive's suggestion that Champions' League qualifying be seeded to help the "bigger" clubs reach the latter rounds were met with derision. But the success of The Games suggests he was on to something. Kirsty Gallagher won the gymnastics although her performance was clearly inferior to that of the less tabloid-friendly Anna Walker. And when Philip Olivier's omnipotence at the top of the table became apparent they changed the scoring system.

Pre-empting sport of the future, The Games is unswervingly committed to the individual. As each primary-coloured celeb bursts into the arena (clapping the crowd like real sportsmen do), we focus on their lonely plight. Team sports can lead to camaraderie, which is so much less engaging than conflict, and they are living on borrowed time.

And that includes football. The producers of The Games have revealed that football is much less interesting than we all thought. No football match has ever caused me to laugh as hard as when the singer Kevin Simms was introduced to the crowd at Ice Sheffield. Dressed in black, and on 17in blades, the "coolest" Gamester had barely raised his hands to clap them right back when he disappeared from view, having landed on his arse in front of more than two million people.

In the future, the action itself will be secondary to the emotion surrounding it. The women's hurdles may have been billed as important, but the real value lay in Walker crying when she fell over one. You see: Paula Radcliffe wasn't a quitter - she was ahead of her time.

But the way the "girls" (including a 43-year-old mother of twins, Walker) have responded to the competition bodes ill for the future of women's sport. Every event culminates in a big girly hug and every victor must first profess that "winning doesn't matter", and it could have been "anyone's on the day". When Gallagher finally admitted, "I'm competitive...", she quickly qualified it: "... at the moment." The Gamesian vision is a world in which women hide their competitive instincts behind lashings of mascara and strained smiles.

But then this kind of sport will do away with the tiresome need for physical fitness. When Hawkes underwent his physiology test at the British Olympic Medical Centre in preparation for the show, one Olympian spotted the lung capacity results. "What is it?" he asked seriously. "A cat? A dog?"

When our descendants sit down to watch the live stream of the England team house at a long-off World Cup, remind them it all started with The Games. The granting of official sport status to darts seemed to be ridiculous. Now it looks portentous.

Adrian Chiles is away.