Free Thinking Festival 2010: Sport or Arts?

What does Britain do best, sport or the arts?

Initially, I mistook the debate title for ‘what’s best: sport or the arts?’ Which of course is a no-brainer of a question. The arts wins hands down. Every time. Obviously. But then I’m bound to say that.

I’m in no way sporty. If I watch any sport, it’s tennis. And if I’m forced to watch anything like football say, the only way I’ll make it anywhere near bearable is by turning the 90 minute ordeal into something which might loosely be referred to as ‘talent spotting’. Their talents with the ball don’t normally figure in my assessment. And, given that at the point of writing this I can think of possibly only one eye-catching specimen on the pitch, it’s not difficult to confess that football and sport in general is normally something I steer well clear of.

And therein lies sport’s problem, in my opinion. In this country at least, sport means football. Sport’s image seems to be shaped by football. In some cases it might even be tarnished by football’s image. At least that’s the way I observe it from my specially roped-off area signposted “Reserved for The Arts”.

At the same time however, I see the same passion for the game football fans have as I share whenever the Eurovision bus rocks up in town. You’d think on that basis I’d be able to map one experience onto an understanding of the other. I don’t. I can’t.

One is needless, pointless entertainment. And the other is someone else’s party. One I’m not invited to. I’m just never going to get excited about the possibility or the reality of a goal being scored.

Even when I reluctantly find myself involved in the progress of England in the World Cup, I’m not actually involved in the sport per se. I’m more interested in getting to the next level. It’s the win, not how we get the win which I’ll latch onto come the World Cup.

And because I don’t get football it seems even more unlikely I’ll follow rugby or swimming or darts. Darts is a sport, isn’t it?

I know. I know what you’re thinking. There’s not much to understand. It’s not that alien. It’s not a different language. It’s not difficult. I probably just need to go to my local (wherever that is) and watch it with a crowd to experience the thrill of it. Or maybe I need to go to a match. Even though that communal experience is the opposite to the inward reflection I indulge in whenever I come into contact with the arts, I know that attending some kind of sporting event in person is the least I can do. If sports fans I know are prepared to venture into a concert hall then I’m sure I could make the effort and go watch a football match.

That fig-leaf laid to one side however, I still didn’t buy the claims made by Matthew Syed and Pat Nevin ‘for sport’ during the joint Radio 3 and Radio 5 Live live debate that sport was more inclusive than art. Such a cri du coeur did sound a little like a slightly politer version of the age old criticism that the arts is elitist. And there’s nothing more annoying to someone who derives immense pleasure from the arts than hearing cries of elitism.

But tonight’s debate did do something quite unexpected. Something a bit weird.

At the end of what at first I had thought was an intensely disappointing event on the internet (it seems no-one wanted to participate in discussion on the internet of the kind BBC Question Time gets week after week), I found myself wandering back to my hotel room with a slightly adjusted view on sports fans.

Listening to former football player Pat Nevin and Matthew Syed make erudite cases for sport, I was left with a new insight difficult to shake even if it did reveal how narrow-minded I might have been before. It was as though I’d been given a primer into how intelligent sportsmen think. That was enlightening. I don’t know I’ve ever heard that before. I’d had my preconceptions shaken up a bit. I’d been tackled. I’d been thrown to the ground, landed in the mud but – most importantly of all – helped up by my tackler too.

And before you say it, I don’t think I could have got that insight merely listening to BBC 5 Live more. I’d hear people commentating on sport. I might hear people speculating about sport. But what I wouldn’t hear is what sport means to them. That’s what I heard indirectly from the mouths of Nevin and Syed. That’s important. That’s what I need to hear as an arts fan to connect with them.

If you were to over-simply this blog post you might (if you were being especially disingenuous towards me) assume that I’d thought all sportsmen were thick and didn’t think about their passion in the same way I did about mine.

Of course. That would be to over-simplify. And let’s be clear: ‘thick’ is a dirty word too. A deeply unpleasant one. No, I didn’t think that before. The point was, I didn’t feel like I understood sport. I wanted some kind of deep understanding (or justification) in order for me to feel as though I could connect with it. Nevin and Syed effected an introduction where that was concerned. For me, they opened negotiations admirably and decently.

But back to the point of the debate? What does Britain do best? Sport or the arts? It does both very well, satisfying audiences up and down the country and meeting the expectations of those audiences admirably.

What Britain needs to work on however, is making sure that sport and the arts work a little harder at understanding each other. By which I mean me. I should probably work harder at understanding sport a little bit more.

After all, there’s got to be more to just footballers than what they look like, hasn’t there?

:: Listen to the joint BBC Five Live / BBC Radio 3 debate from the Free Thinking Festival on BBC iPlayer or via BBC Programmes

:: The picture at the top of this post is from the BBC website. It’s of the Millennium Bridge outside the Sage, Gateshead.

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