Thomas Sutcliffe: Sport needs a dance lesson

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The Independent Online

I have to confess to following the recent sports scandals in the Tour de France and cricket with a less than disinterested attitude. To say I am still scarred by the experience of compulsory sports at school would be over-melodramatic. There are a couple of very faint lesions on the knees – the legacy of some over-zealous tackling during an under-13 rugby session – but, apart from that, I can't really claim to be still carrying any injuries.

But I know from the faint and unseemly glow of vindication I feel when top-ranking sportsmen behave shabbily that an old resentment has been touched into life again. And that resentment concerns the durable folly – almost inescapable at a British boarding school of a certain era – that sports is a morally improving activity. That was frequently the justification for its enforcement, after all. Nobody was much scared of obesity back then and, although physical fitness was clearly a desirable goal in itself, it was morality that fixed team games in place – the notion that, on the playing field, you would learn about selflessness, team work and a code of fair play and mutual respect.

My own approach to team sports was simple. The more reading time they permitted the better I liked them. Cricket performed excellently in this regard, since my spells at the crease were usually very short indeed, due to a reluctance to expose any part of my body to the welted missile which was being hurled at it. The rest of the time could be spent happily on the sidelines with a book; and though fielding required more attention, to ensure that I wasn't struck by a lazily descending ball, even that allowed for a certain dreamy introspection.

Football was trickier, though goalkeeping made it possible to snatch time for a few pages when action shifted to the opposite end, and there would usually be a congenial conversationalist lurking back in defence. But I'm afraid rugby was a dead loss.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, what I learnt about team sports was that people could be very judgemental, even cruel, when you let the team down. Not that I disagreed with my team-mates' assessment of my abilities – I had absolutely no business being on the field in the first place – but it was tricky to convey that truth to an administration convinced of the morally uplifting power of sport.

So, reading accounts of top-level sledging, blood doping and drug-test dodging (there's an Olympic sport they haven't tried) I spent half my time wondering how these squalid revelations might be squared with the pieties of housemasters and gym-teachers and the other half trying to think whether the arts could offer anything to match their ignoble example. At school, art wasn't exactly discouraged, of course, but there was a faint feeling that it was an effete and self-indulgent way to spend your time, even when it was a communal affair.

And yet – precisely because competition isn't so central to the arts – it's not easy to think of equivalents for the apparently endemic immorality of top level sports. What would you offer as a cultural counterpart for the willingness of Premier League footballers to make the false accusation of a penalty-box dive? Or the flagrant hypocrisy of a cyclist who publicly denounces cheating on one day and is revealed to have been cheating himself on the next? What, in the field of theatre or fine art, would correspond to the vicious insults apparently routine at a Test Match wicket?

The business of drugs we might as well concede without a fight – various forms of intoxicant having been integrally involved in countless paintings, books and plays – though it's probably worth noting that virtually no serious artist now thinks of drugs as performance-enhancing. A Booker Prize runner-up is unlikely to complain that a rival has been boosting his or her chances with two bottles of vodka every day.

Elsewhere, though, it's much trickier to find equivalents for the underhandedness that are common in sport. True, several Hollywood stars have been notorious for upstaging their colleagues – Miriam Hopkins and Steve McQueen among others. And when top-level performance gets competitive -- as it did for a time between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi – then remarks can get heated. But even in that famous instance it turns out that the more vicious remarks were a media invention. Callas's notorious remark that comparing her with Tebaldi was like comparing "champagne with cognac... no, with Coca-Cola," was a misquote. A sycophantic hanger-on added the spiteful bit; Callas restricted herself to a phrase that implied equal value, different qualities. As sledging goes it barely counted, and it only confirms my suspicion that if schools want to promote fair play and collegiate spirit they should drop cricket and rugby and introduce compulsory ballet and drama classes.

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