Sport in Society: Review of Benjamin Markovits, Ashes Writer in Residence at Durham Book Festival

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Image courtesy of Sum_of_Marc, via Flickr

The American author Benjamin Markovits was writer in residence during the first Ashes test at Durham County Cricket Club. In his appearance at Durham Book Festival, reviewed here by Niall Hodson, Markovits pondered how Britain’s increasing success in sport mirrors wider changes in society since Thatcher.

The current issue of The London Review of Books features an article by Benjamin Markovits – novelist, lecturer, former basketballer – who had the pleasant job of being writer in residence at Durham County Cricket Club’s first Ashes test. Of course, Markovits was not quite the only writer in residence; for a week, the Club’s Riverside Ground was teeming with journalists and correspondents.

In a way everyone at a test match is in residence; even those without a press pass. If you want to watch the full match, the ground is going to be your home for best part of a week, and frankly the tickets are so expensive that you might as well consider yourself to be paying rent. On the upside, you can get comfortable, ensconced. Read the newspaper. Listen to Test Match Special. Get slowly, assuredly, drunk and drift into a romantic reverie about England, to a soundtrack of birds cooing and the dull crack of leather on willow.

“British sport is perpetually in a state of faded grandeur, looking back to an impossibly perfect golden age when Britain was the best at everything, and did things the right way

This is not, admittedly, my own experience of watching cricket. In fact, it probably doesn’t have a lot to do with most people’s experience of watching cricket. But we happily absorb or meld our own experiences into a hazy romantic vision of English cricket that none of us have ever truly seen or experienced, and which perhaps never existed. This sort of nostalgia pervades all British sport; it is perpetually in a state of faded grandeur, looking back to an impossibly perfect golden age when Britain was the best at everything, and did things the right way. It is easy to understand why: it allows both boastful pride at historic superiority, and material for contemporary moaning. Of late, however, the material for moaning has been getting rather sparse. For around a decade, the British have been casting aside years of failure, and winning things: in rugby, in cycling, in golf, and indeed in cricket, where at Durham this summer England won the Ashes for the third series in a row.

With the triumph at Durham seemingly belonging to a wider-scale turnaround in British sporting fortunes, Markovits’s residency prompted him to write not just about the cricket, but about the various forces which seem to have recast British sporting success. And as such, his talk at this year’s Durham Book Festival was (happily) an informal and wide-ranging discussion of British sporting success in both its national and international contexts.

Unsurprisingly, the London Olympics were central to this story. Emerging from months of wrangling and grumbling, the Olympics kicked off with an opening ceremony that blind-sided almost every commentator: it was bright, positive, an almost arrogant fanfare of Britishness. Even more out of character, it was, as the New Yorker put it, “an unusually straightforward declaration of British confidence.” And in the weeks that followed, this confidence was rewarded with a weighty (and, in the modern era, unprecedented) medal haul: 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze.

Where did this success come from? As Markovits pointed out, several commentators connected Britain’s sporting resurgence to the influence of Margaret Thatcher, and the “competitive individualism” of Britain in the 1980s and ‘90s; the changes in the world of sport may simply reflect wider changes in British society in recent decades. Markovits proceeded to weave an easy narrative through the complex process of professionalization and commercialization that has transformed the landscape of British sport. It is a story in which certain figures loomed large: amongst them Sir Clive Woodward, Lord Coe, Sir Dave Brailsford, all of whom brought strategies from the business sphere to their respective sporting arena. Their various ennoblements speak to an aggrandized world of executive officers, “Elite Performance” managers, and centres of ”National Excellence”; a far cry from the amateur halcyon days of the popular consciousness.

This period of sustained success has only emphasized the discord between the (public) perception and (business) reality of British sport. Supporters have been left behind by commercial juggernauts that chase money, markets and targets, and have little regard for the popular culture from which they emerged. This is perhaps the aspect of contemporary British sport that is most glaringly and negatively Thatcherite: the corporate disregard of communities and community institutions. The commercialization of British sport has been aggressive and fast, and as Markovits rightly points out in his LRB article, has surpassed the ”Americanisation” of which it is often accused:

If Britain, or at least British sporting culture, is becoming more business-like, and in that sense Americanised, there is one important respect in which it still lags far behind the US. American sports tend to be run in an un-American way. The ‘premier’ leagues of baseball, American football and basketball practise (to different degrees) a kind of socialism: they share revenues, cap salaries and reward failure (by giving the worst performing clubs first pick in the annual draft of college players), all in order to foster a competitive balance between clubs. Americans may be obsessed with winning, but they also believe in a level playing field. No American league would tolerate the imbalance in the Premiership. It’s not a sport in America if everybody doesn’t have a real chance of winning.

The inequality in British sports seems a grim mirror of the inequality in British society. Worse still, the rise of Big Sport has made pronounced the many problems within British sporting culture: bigotry, greed, and the endless pursuit of targets.

So there is perhaps in this period of success more room than ever for moaning about British sport; the golden age might not be as distant as we thought.

dbf-logoDurham Book Festival is the North East’s biggest annual celebration of books. Although it has now ended, the Festival team would love to have your feedback and comments on this year’s events. A number of other reviews and features relating to DBF 2013 are also available on READ.


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