The third and concluding part of this piece. (The first two parts are Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1) and Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2).)
Sport is not fiction – is sport real? – sport is not a spectacle
“You must be able to believe that what you are seeing is real” is, on the face of it, an odd thing to say about sport, and not something it would occur to anyone to say about other forms of entertainment. No-one complains, when watching a film, or reading a book, that it is not real1, although they might complain that the occurrences could not be real (that the plot is “far-fetched”) or that the illusion of reality is not credible (because the acting is “hammy” or the characters “one-dimensional”).
But think of the best match, or the best series, that you can remember (Headingley in 1981 or the 2005 Ashes, or whatever it might be) and ask yourself whether it would be of any interest to you if it were a work of fiction. I imagine that it would not, and that it would be precisely those features that made it exceptional in real life – the suspense, the dramatic turnarounds, the heroic individual performances – that made it banal as fiction.
Or try to think of a successful work of fiction (above a juvenile ‘Roy of the Rovers‘ level) which depends on the description of the course of a game for its narrative ; that is, where the narrative of the book coincides exactly with the narrative of a game. I don’t know of any, and I doubt whether it could be done, which it is not to say that a good novel could not be written about cricket, only that the interest of it would have to differ in kind from the interest that derives from reading an account of a real game. In fiction, anything can be made to happen ; the only thing that makes (say) Botham’s performance in 1981 interesting is that it really happened.
Or imagine that you were to discover that a match that you had enjoyed while you were watching it (not even a truly exceptional one with extraordinary happenings, but a moderately entertaining T20), had been entirely scripted in advance, so that the players had been actors (and actors sufficiently skilled and well-rehearsed to make their performance indistinguishable from reality). Even though the two games (the real game you thought you were watching and the fake) were identical in every other respect, would you then feel retrospectively cheated?
Is sport real?
So, if sport is not fiction, must it be real? It can be both too real and not real enough to be real sport.
“Field sports” (hunting, fishing and shooting), though undeniably real, are not real sports, in this sense, because game can be eaten and (so the argument goes) fox-hunting serves a useful purpose as a form of vermin control : real sport must be gratuitous, an end in itself. They also, of course, end in the death in some of the participants. On a similar, if diminished, note, Simon Barnes, in ‘The Meaning of Sport‘ claims that boxing is not a sport, because “Sport is a metaphor” and “Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel.”
Then again, there is bull-fighting, about which (in ‘What is Sport?’) Roland Barthes had this to say :
“Bullfighting is hardly a “sport,” and yet it is perhaps the model, the extreme of all sports, with its ceremonial elegance, its strict rules of combat, the powerful strength of the adversary and the skill and courage of the man who fights. All our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is not true theatre, for here the deaths staged are real.”
and Ernest Hemingway this, in ‘Death in the Afternoon‘
“The formal bullfight is a tragedy, not a sport, and the bull is certain to be killed … You would think, then, that it would make of bullfighting a true sport, rather than merely a tragic spectacle, if bulls that had been in the ring were allowed to reappear.”
Like a child that contrives to appear at both ends of the back row in a long-exposure school photograph by sprinting from one end to the other, bull-fighting (for Barthes) both is and is not a sport. For Barthes it cannot be real theatre, because it ends in real-life death. For Hemingway it is tragic theatre rather than real sport because the outcome is fixed (the bull, even if it wins the bout, will still die). It is too real to be sport, or fiction, and both writers use the same term (“spectacle”) to describe this not-sport, non-fiction (the heading (“Espectaculos”) (neither sports nor arts) under which the liberal Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ publishes its bull-fighting reviews).
Sport is not a spectacle
If bull-fighting is too real to be sport, then, at the other extreme, “professional2” wrestling is too unreal, but it, too, is a spectacle, according to Barthes :
“There are people who think wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromache. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight ; this is of no interest.
… The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees … Extrapolated, fair wrestling could only lead to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport.”
There is, as usual, an element of mischief about this, but there is nothing to suggest that he is not genuine in his preference for a sport which is staged, fictional, a form of theatre, intelligible in terms outside itself. In short, he is not a sportsman, or a sports-lover at all.
Since ‘Mythologies’ was written, the word “spectacle” has escaped from its ordinary language bounds, acquired a life of its own, and has, in some circles, acquired an almost theological significance, as a kind of omnipresent, miasmic force by which “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation3” and every hope of an authentic experience is thwarted by the appearance of an inauthentic doppelgänger. I have difficulties with this theory, but it has many virtues as an accurate description of the psychological effect of an electronically mediated world, and it seems to me to have a particular application to sport.
Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.
So, to return to my original taxonomy of match-fixing, the first and third types are experienced as such serious offences against sport because they reduce sport to one thing that it is not – fiction – and have the potential to expose apparent miracles as conjuring tricks. They are, at least, though, recognisable as “cancers” and, as such, attempts can be made to remove them. The eighth and ninth types are not only not generally diagnosed as “cancers” but seen as a sign of health. But they too, more insidiously, have the power to rob sport of its authenticity and reduce it to something else it cannot be – a spectacle.
“The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees …”
And now, I’ll hand you back to Charlie Dagnall …
1In fact, there are plenty of people (mostly men) who say that they don’t read fiction because it is not real – often those who enjoy sport the most.
2The type of wrestling Barthes was writing about was, technically, amateur, but “professional” in the sense that it was fixed.
3Guy Debord ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (and his many disciples and imitators).