It didn’t take long for Kofi Annan’s article for the Guardian on Monday on how ‘The World Cup is Africa’s chance to show how it has changed’ to amass pages-worth of negative feedback. I’m something of a naturalized Web 2.0 user, but the idea of readers berating the former U.N. Secretary General for logical inconsistencies still seemed a little weird. Nevertheless, despite its largely platitudinous tone, the article did open with a pithy delineation of something we all appear to know and which has nonetheless, it seems to me, been insufficiently analysed: ‘Sport is far more than just a game’.
In another revealing feature, this time in the March 28 edition of the Observer, South African performers expressed discontent at being left out of the roster for the Opening Ceremony of their nation’s biggest ever sporting event. The comments of Mabutho “Kid” Sithole, spokesperson for the Creative Workers’ Union, are as heuristic as those made by Annan: ‘If we cannot use the World Cup as a showcase for our artists, what can we use?’
To try and come to terms with the issue of the interrelation between sport and art, I spoke to Craig Coulthard, an up-and-coming Edinburgh-based artist whose work ‘Forest Pitch’, consisting of a football pitch constructed in the centre of a forest just South of the capital upon which two amateur games will be played, will be presented as part of the arts programme accompanying London’s 2012 Olympiad.
Initially, I ask Coulthard about art’s dependence on sport, an idea hinted at by Sithole’s remarks. ‘I think the most basic element of the relationship is that sporting events can help artists reach more people than they would otherwise’, he instantly replies. ‘The Olympics and the World Cup aren’t just about sport, they’re also massive business. If you think about what happened at the Beijing Olympics, the guaranteed huge audiences allowed artists to realise projects on a massive scale. How relevant these were to sport, I don’t know.’ He then freely admits that his project was conceived in a similar vein: ‘I just saw [the Olympics] as an opportunity. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to make something connected with the Olympics. I had an idea for a project, and the Cultural Olympiad was the resource available to me.’
Coulthard was one of the lucky few chosen out of thousands of applicants for the entitlement to these resources. Did he feel a sense of sportsman-like competitiveness throughout the application process? ‘It’s not the art Olympics’, he responds. ‘It was only competitive in the sense that any shortlist is competitive, and the shortlist is about as competitive as it gets in the arts.’ There is a fundamental difference in teleology between sport and art, he argues. ‘I don’t find my career path comparable to somebody making their way in sport. In football, if you are a striker and you score goals then you’ll play. If you’re a goalie and you keep the ball out of the net then you’ll play. The arts aren’t that clear cut’.
There’s a difference, however, between the way in which a professional sees the game: ‘one game at a time and all that bollocks’, and the view of the public, by whom they are vastly outnumbered. ‘There are so many different things that people can get out of football: some people are happy just to see their team winning whereas others are more interested in watching skilful individuals like Messi’. But this, we agree, is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s the slapstick of blooper reels and the surreal humour of Match of the Day 2’s weekly ‘2 Good 2 Bad’ feature. There’s the rhetorical delights of certain commentators (for what it’s worth, Clive Tyldesley is my all-time favourite, though the theatrics of Spanish commentators always beggar belief) and the beautiful, humane writing of publications like When Saturday Comes. Coulthard tells me about the singer-songwriter Michael Marra, whose track ‘Reynard in Paradise’ commemorates the moment when a fox ran onto the pitch during a game between Aberdeen and Celtic. ‘It’s told from the eyes of the fox, which had run away from the country because his family had been hunted. He appears on the football pitch and when he sees the Aberdeen players in their red strips he gets frightened and runs round and round. Marra said that he was inspired by the radio commentary of the game, and the commentator announcing that “a fine young elegant red fox has just run onto the pitch”. That just caught his imagination’.
It sometimes feels like sport is an arena that we as a society have set up so that all these supposedly extraneous art forms can flourish. Coulthard sees his ‘Forest Pitch’ very much along these lines. ‘It’s not about results. The quality of the games is of no interest to me. It’s not supposed to be about great football – I’d love it if it was, but it’s really more about creating a situation through participation, which is kind of the original message of the Olympics’. We then trade stories about remarkable examples of participation in recent games: Ghana’s representation at this year’s Winter games springs to mind, as does the now-famous ‘Jamaican bobsled team’ of 1988. We rely on sport to provide this kind of narrative: the ‘couldn’t-make-it-up’ stories that inevitably end up as novels or films. In a modest way, Coulthard hopes that the ‘Forest Pitch’ will engender narratives of its own: ‘I’m interested in documenting the process in a way that not everything is clear: watching a match on Sky Sports, for instance, you get everything, whereas if you listen to the same match on the radio you get an element of it, and then you have to imagine the rest yourself.’ He therefore proposes to put out an online radio commentary as well as a post-game match report: ‘In my head I’m hoping Hugh McIlvanney will do it’. He also hopes that ‘individuals who can’t make it to the game itself will be able to gather all these elements together into a whole picture. As well as people who can’t just get there though, I’m also thinking about people who come from overseas to visit and participate but whose families are back home: they’ll listen to the broadcast and it might mean nothing to them in and of itself but hearing the name of their child or sibling might be really exciting for them.’
Maybe Annan’s remark wasn’t so platitudinous after all. Sport’s intrinsic value is evidently way out of proportion with the value it has outside the narrow confines of competition, and to read this solely – as many seemingly do – in terms of the opportunities that major sporting vehicles provide for investment and publicity is woefully, woefully reductive. ‘Sport is far more than just a game’.
by Luke Healey