Was struck this morning by an advert on the back of the freebie Sport magazine that gets given away at stations. It shows a finely hewn young man looking extremely serious, holding a bit of gym equipment shot in such a way to make it look as if he is in a prison with his hands on the cell bars. “DEATH ROW” is the headline, and then the strapline below is “The Boat Race: Pain, Punishment and Glory”.
And I’m thinking – hold on, the Boat Race? Now I appreciate that times change, but when I was small the Boat Race was one of the jollier elements of the English sporting calendar, a holdover from a more patrician age of sport which obviously meant a vast amount to the people involved in it but sod all to anyone else, who tuned in anyway because one of the boats might sink (and because there wasn’t much else on the telly, I suppose). Even now I am an alumnus of one of the Universities involved I don’t feel anything partisan about the Boat Race. Actually this lack of involvement as a ‘supporter’ is probably why the ITV advertising has taken the line it has – stressing the immense athleticism and effort involved, not the quaintness or the result.
But even so it strikes a false note – and a familiar one: you can also see it in adverts for the Six Nations (which similarly annoy me each year) and a lot of other sporting events. Glory. Sweat. Pain. An iconography of physical effort which is so po-faced it topples immediately into kitsch. It’s a reduction of sport to its ‘purest’ athletic elements – which boat is the young man in? Who even knows? (He looks considerably less beefy than most of the rowers I knew, so perhaps he’s a cox).
But the pure athletic elements of sport aren’t the most interesting things about it – or else we’d all be weightlifting fans. It’s also – as anyone who’s been watching the football this week can attest – simply not true that sport is all about athletes giving everything they have in the relentless pursuit of success*. The constant refrain of pain and glory misses out the stuff that makes sport so compelling and infuriating: humour, surprise, frustration, complacency, luck, sheer uncanny skill. It also – in typically English fashion – misses out TACTICS, as massive a part of rowing as of anything else.
*though since watching England is now about outrageously rich individuals indulging themselves while the audience secretly hopes something catastrophic will happen, perhaps football is the new Boat Race!