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From the NS archive: The watchers

7 July 1923: As one watched the match, one took part in it with all one’s sinews. 

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In this piece from 1923, our correspondent YY turns their hand to the pleasures of being a spectator. The spectator is not lazy – it takes a lot of mental and physical stamina to watch a game of tennis or rugby – or “base”. But he is primitive – he “likes, above all things, to see some kind of a fight”. There is no point in sport in which the athletes’ physiques have been too painstakingly honed, or in a contest that is too evenly matched. Sport, this article would have us believe, is about a story unfolding, the thrill of uncertainty. “Has one ever been more excited over anything in the public affairs of the world,” YY asks, “than over the doubt whether one’s school would win the football cup?” 

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Grave social philosophers have always been suspicious of games. Games, when they are taken seriously, we are told, are a symptom, if not a cause, of the decay of society. One may say at least in regard to this that, if civilisations must die, they could not choose a more charming setting for the closing scene than a playing-field. How delightful is England in June and July when the sun shines, and there is more tennis and cricket and racing and rowing and polo in a few weeks than most of us would have leisure to attend in a lifetime!

There are those who tell us that we should stay at home and play games in the back-garden with our friends instead of being content to look on at these public contests of men, women and horses. They even assure us that they prefer to watch the easy-going tennis that is played on a suburban lawn. There is something to be said for this view. I myself am happier in a garden than as a spectator at Wimbledon. But it is a different kind of happiness. In a garden I am a happy idler: if I go to Wimbledon, I find myself plunging into the energetic passions of a spectator. People sometimes talk as though the spectators at public games were mere lazy onlookers. They contrast the activity of the players with the inactivity of the crowd. I believe this to be a fallacy. I am sure that to look on at a well-fought game is to take a sort of exercise and almost to play a part in the game itself. It is as if one’s very muscles tightened at the exciting moments of the game, and one's heart beats as fast as though one were running oneself. If an experimental psychologist were to go to Wimbledon with one of those machines for measuring the expenditure of effort, and were to carry out a series of tests among the spectators, I feel confident that he would discover that, even while sitting in their seats, they were expending as many foot-pounds of effort as, say, a builder. It is an arguable paradox that one can get more exercise from watching Johnston or Norton playing tennis than from playing tennis oneself. It is probably not quite true, but there is enough truth in it to make it worth maintaining in an argument.

Many people are incapable of entering with the same keenness into the games which they play themselves as into the games which they see played by champions. They feel that something of world-importance depends on the result of the latter, and grow as excited about them as though a game were a sort of beautiful war. Has one ever been more excited over anything in the public affairs of the world than over the doubt whether one’s school would win the football cup? As one watched the match, one took part in it with all one’s sinews, butting back the enemy in every scrummage, racing with the fast three-quarters through hostile hands that he slipped through as though the ineffectual hands of ghosts, kicking the ball high and far with the fearless full-back, throwing the ball out of touch deftly and powerfully with the half (or, as we used to call him, the quarter). No player moved but one’s muscles moved with him. One’s entire frame responded to and repeated all the activities of the field. All drama, I fancy, re-enacts itself in this way in the spectator’s being, and, if the effect of this is good, as Aristotle says it is, in the theatre, I do not see why it should not also be good, though on another plane, in the grand stand of the playing field. It is true that I cannot definitely say I have ever known a man whose biceps was well-developed as a result of watching cricket or who got an athlete's heart from looking on at rugby football. But I like to think that there are such people, and that somewhere on earth is a man who, every season, after watching his first football match, has to go home and rub himself all over with Elliman’s embrocation. 

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The spectator in any case is not the base person he is sometimes represented to be by those who accuse him of being responsible for the decadence of Greece and the fall of Rome. He is, on the contrary, a man of primitive tastes who likes, above all things, to see some kind of a fight. He knows that most of the animals, and men among them, become exceptionally and even excellingly interesting when they are fighting. A pair of farmyard cockerels that have never attracted his eye for so much as a passing moment begin to fight ­– and immediately he pauses and takes a lively interest in them. He sees a rook and a hawk quarrelling in the air, each attempting to mount above the other in order to deliver its blow, and his heart beats faster as he awaits the issue of the fight. It is not that he is not glad that cock-fighting as a sport has been put down by the police. He may possibly be a humanitarian who detests all attempts to make a game out of the pugnacities of animals. But when Nature herself provides the sport, he is not so churlish as to refuse the boon.

If it were possible to interfere between the hawk and the rook, I should interfere. I think I should put a stop to almost any fight except a prize-fight, if I had the power. Even so, as the old dramatist said, homo sum, and, if it is only a pair of dogs that are fighting, I cannot pass by, like the Levite, on the other side. We may hate contests of this kind, but we cannot remain indifferent to them. A contest in itself is almost always an absorbing spectacle, and it is only odious in so far as some element of cruelty or brutality enters into it. Games, better than anything else, provide us with contests from which we need not shrink out of kindness of heart. Here are bloodless battles – dogfights out of which both the dogs emerge exhausted but cheerful. Here is all the keenness of rivalry without its corollary of murderous malevolence. Man, it appears, can understand nothing save by comparison; he can understand strength only by comparing one man’s strength with another’s, and speed only by comparing one horse’s speed with another’s. Hence his passionate interest in every sort of game in which strong men are pitted against each other, or any fine physical quality is seen in its relative perfection. Nor is it only in the physical world that we are in love with contest.

Time was when Christian men stood enthralled by the spectacle of one theologian striving for pre-eminence over another. A man who could dispute well in those days became famous throughout Europe, and Milton in his time was scarcely less famous than Jack Dempsey is today. And what is history, when it is not a record of contests between soldiers, but a record of contests between politicians? Go back to Athens, and you always find the great politician confronting his rival, like a great boxer or a great tennis-player: every Demosthenes has his Aeschines. As we read history, it reveals itself an account of ten thousand championships won and lost. Contest is always there – either a contest between rival men, or a contest between rival nations. We like the great men to come before us in couples, and in our minds we can scarcely see them alone – Pitt without Fox, Gladstone without Disraeli. A public man’s biography is largely the biography of his chief enemy. Here he seems to have lived most keenly, when he had to struggle most desperately for victory. Here, out of the overflow of his keenness, some keenness seems to pour into our own beings as we read, and our sleepy attention is awakened as though by a struggle of our own times. No doubt there are other important things in life besides conflict, but there are not many other things so inevitably interesting. The very saints interest us most when we think of them as engaged in a conflict with the Devil. And, indeed, men have gone so far as to imagine the entire universe as the scene of a long fight between Satan and God Almighty. 

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Thus it will be seen that even our excitement over the results of a ping-pong tournament has its roots in something deep and universal in our nature. If there is anything that especially distinguishes us from the angels, it is, I fancy, that the contest of opposites means so much more to us than it does to them. We imagine the very light and darkness fighting each other, and the gambler pits the red against the black. Games and sports are the finest animal expression of this love of opposites. So strong is our passion for such things that society is willing to support a large company of athletes in what would once have been called idleness in order that they may train themselves to such a point of perfection that our contests shall be contests between demigods.

The all-time athlete does not seem a more shocking phenomenon to us than the all-time soldier. During peace-time, indeed, he looms a far larger figure in our interests than the soldier. His sham fights do not excite us the less because they are comparatively safe. All we ask is that he shall thrill us by standing up to his equals and surmounting all the difficulties in the path to victory. For games would cease to be exciting if men and horses did not meet men and horses who were more or less their equals. Boxing would lose its interest if the champion were always invincible. If our excitement over the Dempsey-Carpentier fight rose, as the papers said, to fever heat, it was because the genius of the one man seemed in its way equal to the genius of the other. If Mlle. Lenglen lived for ever, we should lose a great deal of our interest in women's tennis. Tennis, as played by her, is an exhibition of skill and not a contest, and, as a result, we find a part of the crowd applauding her faulty strokes in the hope that, after all, she will prove herself human and may meet her equal at last instead of being an eagle among canaries.

Similarly, racing would become comparatively dull if every year produced a Mumtaz Mahal, that marvellous two-year-old that can outstrip all its contemporaries as a northern gale could outstrip the puff of a child’s breath. We admire Mlle. Lenglen and Mumtaz Mahal as wonders, but we are always hoping for the appearance of other wonders to match, if not to vanquish, them. Horse-racing is the sport of kings and dustmen because there are so few horses of whose continued supremacy we can be perfectly sure. Every season discovers horses that are whispered to be invincible – a Collaborator, a Verdict, a Town Guard – but in time they all go down and we enjoy racing all the better in consequence. What gives us the greatest pleasure on the racecourse is a neck-and-neck finish – such as that between Happy Man and Silurian at Ascot – especially, perhaps, if it is the horse we have backed that is a neck ahead. Horse-racing merely bores most of those who go to races, and who are not interested in advance in the contest between the genius of one horse and the genius of another.

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A boat-race similarly depends for most of its interest on our doubts and fears as to the result. How tedious was the Oxford and Cambridge race last year, with Cambridge certain to win, and winning without an effort! It was like watching a cricket match between Yorkshire and Glamorgan. As a spectacle of white and green, even this may be worth looking at, but not as a contest. A seat at almost any game on a fine day is a lazy man's paradise. But the games that we remember with pleasure for years are those at which, so far from being lazy, we are lashed by the waves and beaten by the winds of excitement, and in which we take part in the strife as players by deputy.  

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)