The elusive soul at the heart of sport

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The Independent Online
W HAT shall it profit a sport if it should gain the whole world and lose its own soul? This is not quite how the question was put in the Gospel according to St Mark but since, because of Divine oversight, the Bible did not have a sports section, we ask to be forgiven our paraphrases.

Without doubt, there have been precious few times when such a question has been more apposite. Several of our sports have been riven with internal strife over money and power and the true nature of their being. Indeed, during the bitter wrangling with the clubs last week one Rugby Football Union representative uttered the anguished cry that rugby's soul was at stake.

Some would argue it is a cause for rejoicing that after so many years of wielding absolute and inflexible power the RFU should at last acknowledge the presence of a soul. There are signs, however, that a settlement is on the way and I like to think that the soul of rugby will not in any way be compromised and that the world can still be gained.

But English rugby has not been alone in its struggles with unfamiliar forces. Football and cricket are also caught up with inner conflicts that involve the very essence of their existences. The recent outcry against the price of admission to big football matches is not being easily deflected by glib explanations. The money pouring into the game from television and the potential earning capacity of pay-per-view ought to persuade the FA and the clubs to look more carefully at their ticket pricing structure.

The game cannot afford to alienate the live audience. A large part of its spirit and possibly its entire future is contained therein. Nothing dulls football like rows of empty seats. The game might end up having to hire spectators like Cecil B de Mille hired extras for his film extravaganzas. Chanting fans might command a higher fee for vocals plus sums for running-on parts.

Cricket could reach that stage long before football but a more immediate problem is contained in the present jostle for power that involves the charismatic but controversial figure of Ian Botham, who has been nominated for election as a Test selector.

Botham may have failed to grasp that nourishing a game's soul is not quite the same as being the life and soul of the party and the reservation - that for all his enthusiasm he may not be ideally suited to the task - has led a number of administrators to display a willingness to accept him only over their dead bodies.

They would not have been dissuaded from putting a mountain of corpses in his way by Botham's slanging match last week, via the pages of the Daily Mirror, with the former Australian captain Ian Chappell, who on Thursday called him a bully and liar and added that English cricket was crap.

Botham retaliated in Friday's edition by relating the tale of when he punched Chappell off a bar stool after he had insulted England in his presence. "Three times I told the loud-mouthed Aussie to shut-up - then I socked him," he explained.

An ability to flatten Australians would be a welcome addition to the CV of anyone applying for a position within the England set-up. Whether he'd be the breath of fresh air they need is another matter but I tend to agree with Warwickshire's Dennis Amiss, who came out in support of Botham's election last week.

If I were advising the great all-rounder, however, I would suggest that he remained on the outside, cranking up the criticism in speeches, articles and on-stage appearances with his good friend and supporter Allan Lamb. When you've described a selector as someone who can't go out beyond a 30-mile radius of London because he is usually too drunk to get back, it is a bit difficult to become one and still retain freedom of speech in that direction.

The fact that he is prepared to relinquish the joys, and the profit, of punditry, suggests that he is serious about his bid for a significant role and he has shamelessly used his position as team captain on BBC's Question of Sport to support his ambition. It is a pity that his opposite number, Bill Beaumont, has not been able similarly to foist himself on rugby's aristocracy. They've had need of him this past week or so.

The RFU want all the money that professionalism can bring but do not want to give any freedom to those who have to put their necks on the line to earn it. We trust they have enough cool farts among them to back off before it is too late.

Administrators are not the soul of any game. That honour belongs in various measures to players, spectators and the enthusiasts who run clubs. Between them, they comprise the world of sport and, to borrow a few words from Shelley, can be described as:

"... those happy souls Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom This world would smell like what it is - a tomb."

W HEN it comes to sporting soul, of course, the Olympic Games would claim to have the earthly franchise. You have only to look at the simmering problems of Atlanta to realise the mockery of that claim. As we move to within three months of the 1996 Olympics, the inevitable stories of incomplete arenas, collapsing stands, insufficient funding, legal disputes and fatal accidents are flooding back.

The Atlanta organisers are about pounds 130m short of meeting the costs of staging the event but they need not look to the International Olympic Committee for help. The IOC just appoint the host city and let them get on with it. They get their slice out of the gross.

Atlanta's only hope of breaking even is to sell more sponsorship but the five rings are already adorning items such as burglar alarms, air conditioning units and soap. They intend to keep selling sponsorship until the spectators start filing into the unfinished stadiums.

No doubt the argument is that the soul of the Olympics is to be found in the competitors themselves. I hope they are not all like Linford Christie who, on TV the other night, was still laughing about keeping everyone waiting while he decided whether or not to defend his title.

As the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, would no doubt have put it: "The glory lies not in the winning but in the sodding around before you take part."

T HE SOUL of rugby is to be found in no more concen- trated amount than among the Barbarians, who last weekend discharged their traditional Easter duty in South Wales. Their "tour" is now reduced to playing Cardiff on the Saturday and playing their odd form of golf at Glamorganshire on Sunday.

The Baa-Baas flew in players from France and Italy and as far away as Argentina to create a very attractive side and, although Cardiff did not favour them by fielding their first team, a crowd of 8,000 turned up. Few games in the sterile Heineken League can attract that number.

Unfortunately, the Baa-Baas suffered from the language barrier. When their captain, Kevin McKenzie, the Scottish hooker from Stirling County, was giving his pre-match talk when one of the Argentines turned to the French back row star Xavier Blond and whispered: "Why doesn't he speak in English?"