14 AUGUST 1982, Page 4

Political commentary

This sporting life

Stephen Fay

There are proper subjects for a respon- sible political column this week: the behaviour, for example, of small children in Liverpool who, by throwing eggs and tomatoes at Michael Heseltine, achieved what many irresponsible spectators at re- cent Conservative Party conferences had only dreamed of. (So far no one has com- mented on their uncommon accuracy.) Essays on the manner in which union- imposed press censorship might help the nurses, or on the Church of England's in- creasing resemblance to the Tribune Group at prayer, could decently fill this space. But the Government's droll policy for incomes or the growth of disestablishmentarianism are not idle enough subjects for these dog days.

Instead, the text for this week is the report of the resignation of Giovanni Spadolini, who headed Italy's 41st post- war administration. The significance of Spadolini's resignation was not its occur- rence but its timing, since it happened six weeks or so later than experienced students of Italian politics had expected. The ex- planation — and it gives me this week's subject — is the influence of sport on politics, which is rarely commented on, but is the stuff of much inconsequential political gossip. Spadolini had been able to cling to office because, as he was due to resign, Italy reached the final of the World Cup in Spain, and there were not enough politicians in Rome who could focus on domestic politics long enough to inflict the Italian equivalent of the coup de grace.

The 1982 World Cup produced other obscure footnotes in political history. The presidents of France and Italy demonstrated conclusively what men of their rank think of state banquets by agree- ing to finish theirs abruptly so that both could watch the Cup semi-final between the skilful but small French team and the West Germans, who played like characters out of a bad second world war film. Furthermore, the savage behaviour of the German goalkeeper, Schumacher, has set back Franco-German relations for a while, even though the German has offered to pay for the Frenchman's new teeth out of his own pocket; there was a small riot when he played in Paris recently.

The mind reels at the thought of Mrs Thatcher's aura of invincibility had England won the World Cup so soon after the triumphal entry into Port Stanley. But the impact of recent World Cups on British politics fuels such speculation. In 1966 Harold Wilson survived a particularly nasty sterling crisis when he ought to have devalued the pound, because England's footballers were simultaneously winning the

Cup at Wembley. In 1970 England's team was beaten 3-2 by the West Germans in Mexico, just four days before the general election. After that defeat, the spurious sensation of well-being which Harold Wilson had sought to create — as an alter- native to offering any policies to the voters — suddenly evaporated, and the mood of a substantial segment of the electorate turned sour. It would be unjust to attribute Ed- ward Heath's victory entirely to the result of a football match in Mexico, but there were Labour leaders who thought it was a factor in their defeat — Tony Crosland, a Grimsby Town supporter, among them.

Harold Wilson, who preferred Hud- dersfield Town, was aware that the World Cup might cause Labour difficulties, and there is rare documentation of the influence of sport on politics in Richard Crossman's Diaries. The entry for 8 March 1970 describes a discussion about the date of the forthcoming election: 'Harold said that one of the problems was the World Cup. If it wasn't for that he would favour the end of June, and he was trying to find out what time of day the match was being played.' There were other considerations: .for in- stance the Prime Minister thought the balance of payments might have collapsed again by the autumn, and anyway he believ- ed the Tories were unprepared for a June election. Wilson finally allowed these more conventional considerations to prevail. The result was his only defeat in five general elections.

Besides football there have, of course, been the occasions when the matter of South Africa has reduced attendance at the Olympic Games, or threatened to spoil a promising Test series. I discount these ex- amples, however, as manifestations of a movement which often has less to do with politics or sport than with myth and history on the African continent. Cricket was more relevant as an instance of my case during the bodyline series in Australia in 1932-3, when a few local politicians argued that if the only way England could win was to bowl very fast and short on or just outside the leg stump to an arc of fielders in a leg trap, then it might be better for Australia to quit the Empire.

The two preconditions for sport influenc- ing politics are, I believe, that it must be organised, and that spectators must be able to exert some political influence. So, to take examples at random, the decision of Ethelred the Unready to prohibit hunting on Sundays, or King Canute's to cut off a peasant's right hand if he hunted on royal lands, have more to do with religion and the royal prerogative than with sport. (It is, however, interesting that racing only became the sport of kings when monarchs had to find a substitute for behaviour based on Divine Right, after the settlement of 1688.) Because of these preconditions, the most fruitful historical evidence for my case is to be found longer ago, in ancient Greece and Rome.

Greek athletics had become a profes- sional sport between the 4th and 2nd cen- turies BC; this information is derived from Sport in Greece and Rome by Harold Har- ris, who describes the sad consequences of professionalism in a way which is instantly recognisable to us now, so soon after Wimbledon. 'The highest paid performers , the darlings of the crowd, were ruined bY success and quickly acquired wealth, and became insufferably arrogant.' But the agents of this transformation from the old, religious Olympic ideal — the Mark Me" Cormacks of Greece, as it were — turn out to have been opportunistic politicians, who promoted meetings only to attract votes. The cynicism of the politicians quickly spread to the athletes, who were corrupted by the prizes offered, often fixing competi- tions and splitting the proceeds equally.

Sport affected political priorities too. For example, Nero caused considerable resent" ment during a food shortage in Rome, when a ship arrived from Alexandria carrY- ing only the special powder demanded by the court wrestlers; a case of circuses but no bread. Brutus took a sterner view, especial- ly after he had murdered Caesar in 44 BC; Cicero recalls that he had intended to visit Olympia that summer, but changed his mind during the journey. 'Brutus and his friends were particularly glad of this' because by returning I escaped the imputa- tion of being thought to have slipped awe, to the Olympic Games. No conduct could have been more disgraceful at any crisis of state; in this one it would have been in defensible,' Cicero tells us.

The most unbridled passions were awns' ed by chariot racing, and a young man in a hurry could obtain political preferment bY attaching himself to the team supported bY a prominent politician. Eventually, deci- sions about which team to support were dic- tated by more substantial factors than a simple choice between red and white, blue or green, or even political advancement' The point is best illustrated in Constantin- ople in the sixth century when Monophysites, who believed that Chris; had a single composite identity, supported the Greens and orthodox believers in the Trinity supported the Blues. After a PO; ticularly keen contest between the Blues and Greens in January 512, rioting broke out 111 the Hippodrome. Several days later, the lowest estimate of the casualties was 30,0uv dead. (Glaswegian politicians will find con- firmation of this story by Harris, page 246.) The lesson of history, therefore, is that Michael Heseltine got off lightly when he was in Everton (home of the Blues); and „ that disestablishment ought not to beconl; a political issue, because a struck Nationa' Health Service could not cope with the casualties.