I wrote somewhere the other day that Formula 1 was “my sport”. It is, in my opinion, a sport that is owned, not by mean Scrooge-like characters who are in needs of ghostly visits in order to find redemption, but rather by all of us; by anyone who has an interest in, or passion for, such activity. That is an ideal and, alas, people are not ideal.
There is no clear definition of the word “sport”. Most of the definitions offered feature the same themes: physical exertion, skill, competition, entertainment, recreation, diversion. The word derives, so they say, from the verb to disport, which means to divert and amuse oneself. Other definitions include the fact that a sport has rules or customs to be followed.
But the underlying truth is that like culture, art and music, sport as a concept belongs to us all; to society. Sport has always been a social activity. It has been a way in which groups of people have bonded together, no matter what social class they come from.
When the Council of Europe tried to define sport its European Sports Charter in 1993 it came up with: “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels”.
The social roots of sport are reflected in the names of teams: cricket was organised by county, football by city, town, county and in the case of Nottingham, by a forest. Others were groupings of people who worked in the same businesses like the Arsenal, Hamilton Academicals or Atherton Collieries. Others were based on the day or the place that the club met, like Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley or Plymouth Argyle; others did not play in the same place and so became Rovers or Rangers. There were clubs that adopted words or symbols expressing their nationality, the Albions, the Thistles and Tottenham Hotspur being good examples of this. As football grew so local teams would join forces to create one team which was big enough to represent the city in nationwide competition. Thus were born the Uniteds. I use Britain as the example but it is true everywhere.
In the world of chariot racing, in Roman times, the competing teams became so powerful that they became political parties and the sport transcended the races and started to affect society in general. The sport became too big for its boots and the emperors took control to stop politicking and even rioting.
Grand Prix racing has its roots in the Gordon Bennett Cup, which was a competition between nations. And while F1 is a modern invention, the tribal behaviour of fans is evident nonetheless.
So a key element of all sport has been the social one, not just on the field but also for those who came to watch. If the games happened on common land, then they were free, but when private land was used, the owner of the land was entitled to ask for money.
The widespread commercialization of sport which began in the 1960s created clashes and legal conflicts: who owned what rights? Was it those who competed, those who organised or those who commercialised? Sports wanted to attract money and while fans accepted to pay to go to stadia to watch games live, they have baulked at payTV, although the concept is basically the same. In earlier times, sport wanted the publicity that mass media provided and so sport on TV was free and now – not surprisingly – people don’t like paying for it. Sport, they believe should be free, at least on TV. As the world changes, so the financial models have altered as well and in the end market forces will prevail. If financiers suck all the money out of a sport that sport will fail. It is as simple as that. The happy medium is to find someone who gets a kick of building up a business, without the need to screw every single penny out of everyone. Alas, this is like a benevolent dictator, a hard thing to find.
People in finance don’t often care about society. They are greedy and anti-social and in some cases sociopathic, and they don’t much care if the world doesn’t like them. They hang out with one another, pretending to be friends but will slit each other’s throats in business. The irony, of course, is that money is only important when you don’t have it and the smartest people realise this. Collecting cash, houses, cars, Fabergé eggs, racehorses or whatever is purely a reflection of ego or insecurity. It is a pointless exercise, as one descendants will only waste the wealth, as they grow up without understanding of what money means. As Bill Gates and others have demonstrated, using your money to the benefit of society is a far smarter way to live.
It was a lesson learned the hard way by Ebernezer Scrooge but, who knows? Christmas is coming and perhaps ghosts of Christmas past, present and future will drop in to see those who exploit this great sport and get them to see a bigger picture…