Big versus small sport

During what seems like a never-ending lockdown, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman found two books that helped him understand the sport he missed and the sport he does.

At the start of the first lockdown in March 2020,  Guardian sportswriter Jonathan Liew  wrote a brilliant column on small sport versus big sport.  He described small sport as “the sort of thing that many people would barely classify as sport at all. Jogging around the block.  A bike ride in the park.  An online yoga class in the living room. A brief but vigorous press-up routine in the bedroom.”  

Perfectly suited for lockdown, these are activities that can be done on our own, non-competitive, little or no kit required, cheap, and in theory open to just about all.  And a world away from ‘big sport’, what we watch, for the lucky few as fans in person, for most on the TV. For a period this ceased entirely; when it returned, it was without fans in the stands, a strictly televised spectacle, which in large part is what it had become in any case. Fans providing the dream backdrop for TV producers, turned into a ‘product’ every bit as much as all the rest of big sport.            

As the end of this stage at least of the pandemic approaches, as Jonathan predicted,  ‘small sport’ has persisted through the last twelve months while ‘big sport’ has been cancelled, postponed, threatened with financial oblivion and struggled on in a much reduced version. But what has also been revealed is that overall ‘small’ sports participation actually fell during this period too. Sport is socially constructed, a jog round the block may be, give a short breath or two, the easiest thing in the word to do to get fit and be healthy, but for all sorts of reasons most don’t.      

As a handbook to help explain why not and what kind of better society we would have if active leisure was a major part of it, two books published in the ‘year of Covid’ are a major help.

First, The Age of Fitness by Jürgen Martschukat.  Jürgen’s pioneering argument is that the obsession with individual performance via ‘small’ sport is emblematic of, and a product of, neoliberalism. Competition, individualisation , commodification certainly all play (sic) their part in The Age of Fitness, as “at the core of fitness lies work on oneself and on one’s own limits.” 

This reads like the antithesis of a collective society. While the recognition that sport is shaped by social, economic and political forces is most welcome, is there the danger that in the face of such powerful forces the potential for a sporting counterculture is dismissed?  I would argue such a potential absolutely does exist, but first we have to understand, and, this book really helps here, that sport cannot be reduced to a simple binary opposition, big bad sport vs good small sport.

My second read, Peter Walker’s The Miracle Pill really helped in this regard. What made this read really special was the argument that the sedentary position isn’t an individual choice but the product of social imperatives that diminish, ignore and do little to encourage an active life.  

To me that sounds like not only an incisive critique but a manifesto for change too, one that combines the individualistic with the collective. Peter’s argument goes beyond even the smallness of small sport to advocate a simply more active lifestyle “to seek the more straightforward activity gains in whatever circumstances you face.”

Of course those circumstances will vary, the opportunities to change shaped by race, gender and class. Yet at the same time the consequences of failing to effect change are severe and costly, and the alternatives to no change cheap and beneficial.

A progressive popular common sense vision of post-building back better would do a lot worse than taking active leisure, individual and collective, as its starting point.  After all, we have nothing to lose but our weight gains.

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka  Philosophy Football    


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