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Sport was never "only a game"

This summer, it's sport that has made us human.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

In the future, if people want to explain sport’s appeal, its reach, its capacity to engage and to capture not only the imagination but the intellect too, they could do worse than pick the summer of 2013 to use as an example.

At Wimbledon, the quality of the tennis played and the scale of the upsets invigorated a tournament that can sometimes seem like a procession of international superachievers, illustrating a point I have made before on this blog that not knowing who is going to win is key to the attraction of sport. On the final weekend, number 15 seed Marion Bartoli’s focused and gutsy victory was refreshing in so many ways. And yet, irritatingly, much of the coverage focused on the crass remark made by a BBC presenter about her looks. Even more irritating was the glee with which much of the press asked for her reaction to the observation that she was "not a looker".

That Bartoli responded to crassness piled upon crassness with a smart and dignified dismissal – "I am not blonde, yes. Have I dreamed about having a model contract? No. But I have dreamed about winning Wimbledon" – did not detract from the depressing fact that sporting women are still too often judged on their looks almost as much as their ability. The debate on women in sport continued in the build-up to the men’s final. Andy Murray, we were told, could become the first Briton for 77 years to win at Wimbledon. The fact that Briton Virginia Wade was a Wimbledon champion in 1977 eventually registered. Murray went on to become the first British man for 77 years to win a Wimbledon singles title, sparking a debate about national identity.

The observation that Murray was a Brit when he won and a Scot when he lost has been dated for some time, but appreciation of the wonderful tennis of his epic final victory soon gave way to earnest discussions about how comfortable Brits are with the national identities that intermingle in these islands. Murray’s victory also raised other questions of identity and community too. In England, tennis is seen as a posh sport, but not so in Scotland. Unlike the ever-so-English Tim Henman, Murray’s social class and nationality defined him as an outsider to many in the English tennis establishment. The debate continues, too, about whether his victory was secured in spite of English tennis.

In the Tour de France, some fascinating early displays of what sportswriter David Walsh dubbed “chess on wheels” gave way to an astonishing performance on Provence’s Mount Ventoux by Chris Froome in which he established a seemingly unassailable lead. But such is the history of the Tour that astonishing performances soon give way to questions about how clean the performance was. Froome and his teammates are, understandably, annoyed about this but, as The Times put it , Froome “has inherited a poisoned chalice, and his success is burdened by the legacy of Lance Armstrong and Generation EPO”.

In Seven Deadly Sins, Walsh’s account of the years he spent pursuing the Lance Armstrong story, the journalist says: “Enthusiasm for the game is what drives our work. When doubts about the worth of the performance arise, it drains our enthusiasm. That is why so many refuse to ask the obvious questions.” That unwillingness to question what we want to believe is something all sports fans have to deal with, increasingly so in a heavily commercialised age in which the uncertainties that make sport sport rub up uncomfortably against the certainties in which business likes to deal. Walsh has also said there is no evidence that Froome is doping, and cycling website Twisted Spoke made the point that Walsh began his pursuit of Armstrong on the basis of research and witness statements. “He didn’t just howl into the wind like a fool with no proof.”

Sporting ethics, journalistic ethics – the debates all revolve out of a cycling race, a simple sporting event. And there’s more.

The purity of victory and the many faces of cheating are important debates in sport – and arguably beyond. So when two of the world’s fastest ever sprinters, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, failed drugs tests this week the ripples ran wide. Cases such as this damage sport because people need to believe that what they see is real. How can we trust what we see? If these athletes are doping, doesn’t it follow that others must be doping too to compete? Powell says he has never “knowingly” doped; Gay says: “I put my trust in someone and was let down.” You might think that they would say that, wouldn’t they? But ask yourself, is it really possible for someone to know exactly what they are putting inside themselves with every mouthful, every drink, every injury treatment?

In cricket’s First Test at Trent Bridge, the issue was not cheating but the more subtle one of sportsmanship. England’s Stuart Broad edged a ball to slip but declined to walk back to the pavilion, waiting instead for the umpire to decide if ball had touched bat en route to gloved hand. The umpire said not out, and Australia had used up their appeals, so Broad stayed, providing a perfect example – to some people’s minds – of the phrase "it’s not cricket". The sport arguably has more quirks and traditions than any other, and the issue of what constitutes sporting behaviour runs deep. The incident prompted much discussion of declining standards or whether the desire to win had elbowed the proper playing of the game aside.

But, as sportswriter Adam Powley points out in his book When Cricket Was Cricket: The Ashes, the view of a past golden age when players were gentlemen in every sense is not – as these golden ages often turn out not to be – entirely accurate. In the 1882 Test , Australia’s batsman Sammy Jones completed a run and grounded his bat before walking away from the crease to pat down a divot. W G Grace, no less, received the ball from the wicket keeper and whipped off the bails. The umpire upheld his appeal for a stumping and gave Jones out. There was enormous controversy but, in a twist that would grace a film script, an enraged Australia went on to tear England’s batsmen apart – Fred Spofforth taking a haul of seven wickets for 44 runs – and won the game.

The argument over whether Broad’s behaviour was sporting may not be a new one, but arguments over the effects of technology on the old game are. A dramatic Test featured a number of moments in which technology played a key role, none more dramatic than the final action of a game that was poised on a knife edge. Once again an edged ball was to prove decisive, the cameras detecting the slightest of hotspots to give England their vital last wicket. The climax of a wonderful five days of cricket would soon give way to discussions of whether technology was enhancing or ruing the game.

It’s all just sport, and it is wise to remember there are more important things in life. Really, there are. But we’ve talked here about gender and class and identity and prejudice and nation and ethics and conduct and personal responsibility and belief… Just this snapshot of one summer illustrates the appeal of sport and how it spirals into so many other areas. The New Statesman magazine is currently running a series on What Makes Us Human. "Sport" is not a bad answer.