On the Decline of British Sport    
    Ronald Rickcord deplores the political and commercial influences on sport    

THE INCREASING INCURSION of politics and business into our national sports, particularly football and cricket, often has precisely the opposite effect to that which is presumably intended. As clubs and players become richer, so our former sporting prowess seemingly vanishes. It is perhaps trite to suggest that sport in Britain has become something of a political football, but it can hardly be denied that, as our monumentally incompetent politicians and well-heeled businessmen on the make become ever more involved in sporting matters, so our performance in world sport declines in proportion.

Over the years, politicians have done much to discourage sport in our schools. First, they sold off many school playing fields. Then they were responsible for the near-disappearance of sports from the school curricula. To make matters worse, many schools have adopted a regime in which sporting prowess is actively discouraged, this occurring through the eschewing of any form of competition, and doing away with prizes or giving them to those who "tried hard" rather than won. In one case of which I know, a boy who won three races on his school sports day was given only one prize because it was considered "unfair" to the others to give him all three!

The torpedoing of England's bid to host the 2006 soccer World Cup provides a typical example of the damaging effect that politicians are having on sport. Why on earth did Mr. Blair appoint the crude and garrulous Tony Banks as his "personal envoy" to mastermind the campaign for England to become the venue for the competition? Indeed, why earlier did Blair appoint Banks as Sports Minister? Surely he must have known that the choice of such a tactless and unreliable personage in charge of the campaign was almost certain to put the kibosh on any chances of England becoming the venue.

There is a possible reason for Blair's choice. Perhaps he saw the move as a convenient way of getting rid of Banks in his former job: his vulgarity and arrogance as Sports Minister was increasingly becoming an embarrassment to the Government. Blair used a similar method to rid himself of Frank Dobson, whose time in charge of the National Health Service was nothing less than a disaster. Whatever Mr. Blair's reasons may have been, it is quite evident that he had little care for England's prospects of securing the World Cup venue. What he is far more concerned with is the future of himself and his tatty Government.

Baneful influence

The 2006 World Cup fiasco highlights the baneful influence that political and commercial interests are having on sport generally. Financial considerations and greed play a very big part in sport today. This results, among other things, in the preponderance of foreign players in our leading soccer teams, and this influx of highly paid foreign players inevitably has a detrimental effect on the game both nationally and internationally, besides impeding the development of our home breed young players.

The commercialisation of cricket has led to the emrgence of the one day game - a euphemism for what we used to call "tip-and-run". This so-called "pyjama" cricket may be ideally suited for TV and for those with a limited attention span and knowledge of the game, but it is anathema to the real cricket enthusiast and is hardly the way to prepare players for the more demanding requirements of real test cricket. How long, I wonder, before first class cricket is replaced by "French"cricket? The scandal involving the for South African captain Hansie Cronje, found to have been taking bribes, is a typical of the malaise that is affecting cricket and other sports.

Bad behaviour on increase

As political and commercial interests increasingly influence sport, so sports seem to become more volatile and ill-tempered. We have all witnessed petulant £10,000-a-week footballers acting in that during my schooldays would have resulted in the application of the cane. When famous and admired sportsmen behave in such ways, is it any wonder some of the young and not-so-young spectators do likewise?

In the days of my youth participation in sport was regarded as a privilege, and watching it was a pleasure. In those days there was no "sledging" in cricket matches, and intentional and malicious foul play in football was a rarity.

Unlike the sports stars of today, the heroes of the past were poorly paid. They played for the love of the game and the honour of representing their country, if chosen. Their skill and enthusiasm spread to the rest of us who watched them, and we tried to emulate them, however unsuccessfully. Most of those sportsmen came from ordinary backgrounds, and I think that they would have scorned the highly publicised lifestyles of today's super-stars. Who can forget the great sportsmen of yesteryear? We remember with affection such heroes as C.B. Fry (a man of incredible versatility), Stanley Matthews, Raich Carter, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond, Frank Woolley, Sidney Wooderson - to name but a few. These men and their like were characters who never thought of themselves as being exceptional. Many of them had their sporting careers cut short by the world wars in which they served. Indeed, two of Englands greatest spin bowlers, Cohn Blythe and Hedley Verity, were killed in World Wars I and II respectively.

Thinking of those great sportsmen of the past puts me in mind of Francis Thompson's nostalgic and evocative poem entitled ‘At Lords’, written at the beginning of the last century. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote a few lines, the penultimate of which I have altered slightly for the purpose of this article:-

‘... and a ghostly batsman
Plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears
On a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers
Flicker to and fro:
Oh my Compton and my Edrich
Long ago!’

Alas, it is doubtful that we shall ever see their likes again. Would that today's sportsmen followed in their footsteps, without the interference of politicians or the seduction of filthy lucre! Is this too much to hope for?

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