Last night saw the live broadcast of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the corporation’s breathlessly reverent annual celebration of the UK’s sports men and women.
Athletes make much more wholesome idols than the average sort of modern celebrity, because they’ve actually achieved something. Far better that people look up to Chris Hoy or Victoria Pendleton than a waste of carbon off of Made In Chelsea. But, in the afterglow of a resoundingly successful London Olympics, Britain’s athlete-fetishism has reached new heights of creepily messianic fervour.
Pick one of our decorated Olympians at random, look into their backstory and you’ll likely find a tale of unwavering dedication, persistence and self-belief repeatedly triumphing over setbacks and adversity. In some cases, when the road has been especially rocky, and the adversity especially profound, the biographies can be quite inspirational. But given the sycophantic deluge unleashed on them over the last six months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Team GB’s collective efforts had cured cancer, child poverty and the common cold. Instead, they competed in a sports competition and won some medals.
Our sports men and women are very good at what they do. But what they do is, fairly uncontroversially if you ask the athletes themselves, quite selfish. Everything else in life, in the universe, comes second to their training, and their fierce desire to be the best in their chosen sport. And while their achievements are undoubtedly impressive, the Bemolution clings to the probably laughably outmoded view that the values most worth celebrating are selflessness, generosity, compassion, and, yes, hard work, but hard work in the service of other people.
And, what’s more, they don’t pass the social usefulness test – like stand-up comedians, bankers and shoddy left-wing bloggers, if all professional sports people disappeared tomorrow, society would cheerily keep functioning as if nothing had happened. Hat tip to the doctors, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, retail workers, bin men, bus and train drivers, teachers, farmers, street cleaners, postal workers and others who spend their lives working long, hard hours, are often treated as though they’re not there, are bullied by political elites and who don’t get shiny award ceremonies hosted by Sue Barker. That said, the Bemolution was officially glad that the main SPOTY gong went to Bradley Wiggins, a refreshingly frank, genuine, straight-talking ordinary human being who manages to balance being at the peak of his powers with level-headedness and humour.
Still, SPOTY is one of those fascinating but simultaneously slightly chilling instances when a kind of feel-good but ultimately false national unity is evoked to make everyone involved feel part of something big and important. ‘The whole nation is proud of you’, the athletes are told, and everyone feels all warm and fuzzy inside.
National-level sport is quite like the monarchy, in that the media does away with any pretence of being neutral when Team GB or Wills and Kate are involved. Everyone is chirpily encouraged to be a part of it, cheer along, and enjoy the cosy solidarity.
The down-side is that anyone who doesn’t quite feel the same is immediately excluded. The door is abruptly slammed on them and their views and feelings. Thinking anything different to the party-line is de-legitimised. It’s a very petty but revealing example of how what it is and isn’t acceptable to think and feel can be controlled from behind a cuddly and inclusive façade.
Which, for some reason, made the Bemolution think of an odd little tongue-in-cheek opinion piece by roly-poly Catholic-Marxist Terry Eagleton, in which he brings his usual blistering erudition to bear on football, and how it’s an obstacle to radical social change. You can read it here.