We should be promoting sports that aren't effectively formalised pub brawls. Photo: Getty
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Is it time to ban violent sport?

There is no glory in setting out to cause injury to another human being.

Last week Lance Ferguson-Prayogg died after a white-collar boxing event in Nottingham.  White-collar boxing is a strange modern phenomenon, a violent battle for which graduates only need apply, where MMA meets MBA.

The sport started in New York in the 1980s (well you didn’t think I was going to say Sweden did you?). Bouts now take place around the world including in the UK, with one London club boasting over 1,000 members. Princes William and Harry and Kate Middleton have been to watch charity white collar boxing events staged by their high society chums.

Sadly, “it’s for charity” has become the ultimate 21st-century excuse for things we wouldn’t put up with otherwise: topless calendars, demands for Facebook clicks and unlicensed boxing. What next? Cock fighting for Comic Relief?

The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) has been making their opposition to unlicensed boxing known for over a decade.

It is outrageous that you can do this without a licence but is it any less offensive that you can do this with a licence? The BBBoC’s main concerns are that participants do not receive MRI head scans and that there is no upper age limit for participation. I can’t help thinking if a scan showed brain material present in the skull, that’d be a good reason not to allow anyone to punch it. The fact is that from Davey Moore to Kim Duk-koo to James Murray there is no getting away from death as a side effect of a sport where the whole objective is to render your opponent unconscious.

White collar boxing, along with the Ultimate Fighting Championship or cage-fighting, is a recent phenomenon. But the principle behind them strikes me as grossly outdated. We need to draw a line between sport and violence. Yes, sport often carries a risk of injury and there is something noble about taking that risk. But there should be no glory in setting out to cause injury to another human being.

As a feminist I’m all about equality, but that doesn’t always mean taking the status quo for men and giving it to women. In 2005 in Denver, Colorado, Becky Zerlentes became the first woman known to have died from injuries sustained during a sanctioned boxing match. This is not the equality I want.

I won’t deny that I was initially swept along with the surge of enthusiasm for letting women participate in Olympic boxing. But should boxing be in the Olympics at all? I’d rather we focused our efforts on the other gender-exclusionary sport: the lack of a men’s synchronised swimming category.

The Olympic authorities say that male synchronised swimming is not popular enough. This is like saying “you can get in the lifeboat when you dry off”. Or (and as a comedian I’ve heard this one a few times) “you’d be perfect for our TV show, but you’re not famous enough”.

Let’s use the power of the Olympics to promote the sports that aren’t effectively formalised pub brawls. Or bring it into line with fencing and many other martial arts by using modern technology to detect contact without the need for concussion. This wouldn’t stop you or I going to the gym and punching a bag, learning self-defence or high-kicking our way through a pile of breeze blocks.

When I mention to friends my idea that we should put an end to boxing and cage-fighting they jokingly warn me to focus on annoying people who aren’t so strong and prone to violence. It’s a fair point but also exactly the one I want to make. If we want a society where the threat of violence isn’t a factor in decision-making, we need everyone in our society to understand viscerally that violence is always wrong.

Please do not bother trying to tell me that boxing and “fight” clubs are where the young men, and now gloriously equal women, of Britain “get their aggression out”. This is profoundly unscientific. It’s like suggesting Suarez be given a lump of raw meat to gnaw on at half-time. Exercising regularly makes people want to exercise more. Which is great if you’re a bag-puncher or even a synchronised swimmer.

The big money professional fights would go overseas. But are we really involved with violence for the money? The 21st century deserves a culture free from violence and the glorification of violence. We are better off without these things. Bye then. And please take Luis Suarez with you.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and political activist. She is on Twitter @Cruella1 and her website is www.katesmurthwaite.co.uk.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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