7 October, 2012Issue 20.1Politics & SocietySocial PolicySport

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The Imperialism of PE

Houman Barekat

BritishMarc Perelman
Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague
Verso Books, May 2012
144 pages
ISBN 978-1844678594


The 105 members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must be feeling pretty good right now. The London Games were an unqualified success—a triumph for the sponsors, the organisers, and the hundreds of volunteers who made them happen, not to mention for the British public, whose rapturous enthusiasm lit up the event. But the IOC has not always had such an easy ride. As Marc Perelman reminds us in the opening chapter of Barbaric Sport, the organisation has had a chequered history, often struggling to reconcile its loosely defined commitment to sporting values with the exigencies of a world that is anything but sporting. Over the years, the IOC has shown a discomforting propensity to compromise its principles in the name of pragmatism or sporting neutrality. Most recently, the award of the 2008 Games to Beijing gave an Olympic seal of approval to an authoritarian regime well known for its appalling record on human rights and censorship.

There is, perhaps, no alternative. If the IOC were to pursue a policy of excluding unsavoury regimes, the games might all too easily turn into a political weapon for a US-led Western clique, thus further undermining their credibility. Nevertheless, the IOC’s record remains problematic, and its integrity open to question. The Beijing Games of 2008 followed in the footsteps of Moscow 1980 and Berlin 1936—on each occasion, the unique prestige of the games helped to legitimise and normalise a tyranny. But these ethical questions are merely a point of departure. What really fascinates Perelman is the sheer size and scale of the unstoppable juggernaut of sport. Beijing was turned upside down, a million residents forcibly displaced as part of its transformation into an Olympic city, and millions of migrant labourers were brought to work in degrading and dangerous conditions. How did sport get so big and what does it mean?

It was the Roman poet Juvenal who first coined the phrase panem et circenses to denote the decadence of a populace that had abdicated civic and political engagement in return for “bread and circuses”. The phrase is generally associated with the period of social stagnation that precipitated the decline of the Roman Republic. In today’s climate of recession, political disengagement, and voter apathy, the diversionary function of the mass spectacle deserves to be critically examined. Perelman is by no means the first commentator to interrogate the relationship between sport and politics: at the turn of the last century, the liberal economist J. A. Hobson warned that the burgeoning professional sports scene threatened to provide a cultural counterpart to a rising tide of jingoism in British political culture. Hobson saw, both in the armchair sports fan and in cheerleading jingo, “the lust of the spectator, unpurged by personal effort”. His comments were remarkably prescient: conscript and volunteer armies would come to be supplanted by professional armies and amateur sports marginalised by professional ones. Sport, like war, would become a specialist’s business. Indeed, there are fascinating parallels between Perelman’s observations about the dehumanisation of professional athletes—regimented, sexually repressed and programmed to win at all costs—and the brutalisation of soldiers as described in Hobson’s Imperialism (1903). Both entail the fundamental instrumentalisation of a human being, with all the dangers and pitfalls which that brings.

Perelman does not like sports. He is not bemoaning the demise of an amateur sporting culture or the excessive commercialisation of sport. Barbaric Sport rails against sport in general as “the steamroller of decadent modernity”. Perhaps it is true that the dog-eat-dog spirit of sporting competition mimics, and arguably reinforces, the pernicious individualist ethos of neoliberalism. But one would have thought that any cogent critique of sports would at least accept certain basic givens: that the intelligent application of physical strength and skill is a sine qua non of human existence; that in helping to develop strength and skill, as well imbuing the ethics of discipline, teamwork, and respect, sport serves a highly beneficial social function.

Not so here. In a discursive framework that positions itself only slightly to the left of Mr Bean, Barbaric Sport pummels the reader with bald, sweeping assertions unsubstantiated by supporting evidence. Sport’s health benefits, widely acknowledged by medical science, are filed under “alleged virtues”. We are informed that art is “being supplanted by sport in the role of sole creative activity”, that athletics requires “no sustained reasoning, conceptual logic [or] careful strategy”, and that sport “has occupied everyday life completely”. Given the book’s vaguely Marxian timbre, there is surprisingly little in the way of serious materialist enquiry—no examination, for example, of the role of commercial advertising as a motive force behind the globalisation of sport. Is sport really expanding under its own steam in the way Perelman suggests? Or is its expansion not merely an offshoot of big business?

It is quite normal to feel alienated and even unsettled by large-scale sporting spectacles. But why take it out on the people who happen to enjoy them? Barbaric Sport is laced with contempt for “the spectating mass”, “the coagulated mass”, “the fused mass” of spectators whose howling Perelman likens to that of “a bunch of small babies left in the room for a while”. More generally, the many hundreds of thousands of people who watch sport, or participate in it at a grassroots level, are lumped into a single category of undifferentiated “masses”. It is a nod, perhaps, to a now obsolete political lexicon which posited “the masses” (the workers) against “the classes” (the ruling class), but in today’s language the word carries a distinctively pejorative connotation, evoking the mindless automatism of drones. The implicit and insulting assumption is that a person is lost to humanity at the moment when he or she enters a stadium or turns on a TV to watch a game of football. Given the emancipatory radical politics which underpin Perleman’s polemic, this formulation is highly problematic. The point was succinctly made by the critic Raymond Williams in an essay on George Orwell’s 1984. Williams’s stinging rebuke offers an important corrective against leftist misanthropy:

It needs to be said, however bitterly, that if the tyranny of 1984 ever finally comes, one of the major elements of the ideological preparation will have been just this way of seeing “the masses” […] the eighty-five percent who are proles. And nobody who belongs to this majority or who knows them as people will give a damn whether the figure on the other side of the street sees them as animals to be subjected or as unthinking creatures out of whose mighty loins the future will come.

The late Eric Hobsbawm, whom Perelman quotes approvingly at a number of points, understood mass culture with a generosity of which Perelman appears incapable as he bemoans the “cretinization” of “the masses” at the hands of sport. These pathetic masses “can never live fulfilling lives” because they are too busy filling stadia. Is this strident polemic or a punch in the face for decency and rational discourse? Even the victims of the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters are just so much fodder for Perelman’s crass hyperbole, as victims of what he calls a “death pandemic” of sports-related violence.

At the heart of Perelman’s considerable disaffection lies a jaded disillusionment with the current generation of young people and a yearning nostalgia for the leftist activism of the 1960s. He asks: “Does today’s youth still embody that once-powerful force of anti-capitalist struggle?” Perelman is worried that “today’s youth” is being depoliticised by what he calls “brain-rotting new technologies” (MP3s and smartphones), abandoning its traditional role as a bastion of radical counter-culture. This is an essentially counter-factual premise. In fact, the traditional anti-authoritarianism of youth has historically been subtle and mediated, operating at the margins. The mainstream radicalism of the 1960s, a singular and highly contingent thing, was an exception, not the rule. If today’s youth finds itself “rejecting any utopia that does not seem expedient or directly bankable”, that is because it has, by and large, always done so. Perelman and other acolytes of the 1968 nostalgia industry seem to have considerable difficulty in grasping this point. The sooner they get over it, the sooner they might get over themselves.

Barbaric Sport is unlikely to win many people over. Aside from being substantively ludicrous, the book’s paranoiac register, redolent of the worst dystopian fiction, will grate on all but the most patient reader. One suspects, in any event, that cultish obscurity would suit the author just fine. In its blend of intelligence and massive, asinine hyperbole, Perelman’s book recalls the infamous pamphlet published by the feminist Valerie Solanis in 1967, the Manifesto of the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). Solanis’s tract declared that: “The male is a biological accident […] a walking abortion”, calling on all “civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females […] to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system […] and destroy the male sex”. Like the SCUM Manifesto, Barbaric Sport, with its concluding imperative—italicised, for added urgency—that “there should be no sport“, is best enjoyed in a spirit of irreverent satire.

Houman Barekat is a London-based writer and editor of Review 31. He is co-editor, with Mike Gonzalez, of Arms and the People: Popular Movements and the Military from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, forthcoming from Pluto Press.