Sporting culture4 min read . Updated: 28 Mar 2012, 08:07 PM IST
You see them when you are approaching London’s Heathrow: football stadiums, rugby fields, the odd cricket ground. Drive out of Manchester in roughly any direction and sport is omnipresent—Preston, Bolton, Blackburn, Oldham, Bury, Wigan, Stockport, right up to Liverpool—more than a dozen professional football clubs within 30 miles (around 48km) of each other. Each with its proud, distinct identity set amid fierce local rivalries.
A fortnight spent in the UK is enough to show you that the culture of sport is everywhere, deeply ingrained in the people’s psyche. The clusters of football clubs, for example, are a reminder of their origins—as working-men’s clubs set up around factory towns, or shipbuilding centres during the Industrial Revolution. Not commercial constructs designed for TV audiences. They point to an organic relationship, one that grows from the bottom up, not imposed top-down.
My visit coincided with the Cheltenham Festival (12-15 March)—it scarcely merits a mention in the wider world but all of England was buzzing with the progress of Kauto Star, the greatest National Hunt (steeplechase) horse of the past decade. Even my Indian host was caught up in the excitement, frequently switching to the live radio commentary for the latest updates.
Geographical compactness and a first-rate transport system help further the cause of spectator sport, whether it’s a sunny afternoon at Lord’s or Wimbledon or a freezing cold evening in Glasgow. Everything is done to improve the experience, even addressing children’s needs; a friend allows his 13-year-old son, part of Arsenal’s Young Gunners membership scheme, to attend matches at the Emirates Stadium with his friends, unaccompanied by adults. Fans of the UK television show Undercover Boss will recall the episode where the boss of Jockey Club Racecourses poses as an out-of-work accountant and travels to four of his courses (including Cheltenham).
What stood out in that episode was the passion and enthusiasm of 81-year-old George, who manned the turnstiles and welcomed fans with a very personal pride. That’s why there will always be bums on seats, even in a depressed economy.
It’s always amazed me why the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has never thought of something like this at its Wankhede Stadium headquarters in Mumbai; there’s talk of a museum—though it’s been in the works for years—but the board seems to have missed a trick on merchandising. You can buy official Indian Premier League (IPL) gear from the franchises (and unofficial stuff from the pavement stalls) but you can’t buy an official Team India water bottle or wristwatch.
The adulation works both ways; the stars rarely forget where they have come from and though there is growing distance between sportsman and spectator, there is enough of a connect to make the relationship fairly genuine.
One segment had Freddie Flintoff join hands with Olympic gold medallist Denise Lewis to help the comedian John Bishop complete the last leg of his five-day, 290-mile (around 467km) triathlon from Paris to London—crossing the Channel in a rowing boat from Calais to Dover. So there were these household names rowing an ordinary boat across the choppy waters for charity; the public responded by pledging more than £3 million (around ₹ 24.5 crore) to their cause; overall, Sport Relief raised more than £50 million on the night it was broadcast. That’s good use of star power.
The top sporting story, though, concerned a man battling for his life in a London hospital. The plight of Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton footballer who collapsed during a match and whose heart stopped beating for 78 minutes, captured the entire nation. TV news bulletins and newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid, led with the story for several days; fans of various teams, even Bolton’s fierce local rivals, laid flowers, scarves and get-well messages outside the club stadium. It was reminiscent of cricketer Yuvraj Singh’s medical condition—but the public response was massive in this case and more focused. Doctors pontificated on the risks faced by young sportsmen, footballers’ unions spoke of the need to intensify medical screening tests, football administrators noted the lessons heeded from earlier incidents and to be learnt from this—and others complained of excessive public grieving.
I returned a week ago to headlines of a similar incident that played out to its full tragic end—the death of Venkatesh Dhanraj, the Bangalore Mars footballer who suffered a heart attack on the pitch, was attended to by teammates and a physio in the absence of any doctor, and was taken in an auto-rickshaw to the nearest hospital—a 5-minute drive away —where he was pronounced dead on arrival. After a couple of days, post the initial breast-beating, the story was off the news.
That one tragic incident revealed in full the gap between our sporting cultures. Don’t measure it in terms of billion-dollar deals and record-breaking stars; measure it in terms of how we treat the ordinary sportsman and the ordinary fan. Actually, don’t; you won’t know where to start.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com