And so, once more, to the question of what constitutes a sport, as the English Bridge Union awaits a judicial review into Sport England’s ruling that the high-octane trick-taking game is not a sport.
I begin with an apology: despite a fruitless 10 minutes spent searching the Guardian archive, I do nonetheless feel that I have written this column so many times that to produce a version of it again is the equivalent of that episode of Bagpuss where the mice on the mice organ claim to have a factory which mills chocolate digestives out of butterbeans and breadcrumbs. What they actually have is a single chocolate biscuit, which is produced triumphantly out of the front of their facility, then wheeled round the back only for a “new” biscuit to be produced moments later.
Were I required to alight on a single metaphor to summarise my entire so-called career in journalism, I think this would be it. In fact, by way of a meta-metaphor, the Bagpuss analogy itself appears to have had a couple of run-outs prior to today – though not, fortunately, back in 2007, when it was the pigeon-fanciers attempting to get their activity recognised as a sport. That case arose after a Northumberland racing pigeon club was informed by the council that they were not eligible for an 80% rental discount on a shed because they were not a sports club. Speaking on the blower to me, however, the chairman of the Royal Racing Pigeon Association was pessimistic. “Gerry Francis made representations to Sport England,” he revealed of one of the pursuit’s high-profile … athletes, is it? “And if Gerry Francis can’t get anywhere, then no one can.”
Hmm. Discuss. Actually, don’t, because there have been some changes since then. The 2011 Charities Act specifically included reference to “mind sports” – and this is where bridge thinks it may be on to a winner. Back in April, Mr Justice Mostyn granted permission for this current review on the basis that he deemed bridge more of a sport than shooting. (Ah, bridge and shooting – the English country house biathlon.) “You are doing more physical activity playing bridge,” opined Mostyn, “with all that dealing and playing, than in rifle shooting.”
Thanking you, m’lud. But no. With the best will in the world, I would say that sport is like hardcore pornography – or rather, hardcore pornography as famously described by US supreme court Justice Potter Stewart back in 1964. “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description,” he declared, “and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”
And so with sport. You know it when you see it, don’t you? I won’t deny this isn’t occasionally complicated, and can lead to dark nights of the soul. I have spent several of these wondering what I have really been watching if, for instance, a fairly corpulent Phil Mickelson can spend years near the top of its rankings. Is it truly sport, or – shudder – a pastime?
Never mind those old stipulations about having to change your shoes or not being able to have a pint or a fag while you do it – I’ve even had my doubts about things where you have to check a clock to have the faintest clue how competitors in it are faring. I still refuse to countenance the idea that anything preceded by the word “ultimate” is a sport. And I have seen little to challenge my misgivings about sports with human judges. These seem typically a matter for the US attorney general, certainly at Olympic level (or at all levels in boxing). But I shall curtail this incendiary meandering, on the basis that one of the lengthiest and most furious correspondences I have ever been party to was instigated by a reader who objected to my description of gymnastics as child abuse with points. Man, that guy loved gymnastics.
You know sport when you see it. And we all know that bridge is absolutely not a sport. I assume even the English Bridge Union know that it is not a sport. What a shame that it has to affect to be one in order to get access to Lottery funding, to which I see no civilised reason that it should not be entitled. It’s a less distasteful version of those people who pretend to be Christian so they can get their child into what they deem a better state school. Indeed, it can’t be long before the latter pastime seeks sporting status – in which case, let’s meet back here to debate it over another chocolate biscuit.
Time for PM to stop commenting on footballers’ misdemeanours
Are prime ministers role models? Not in my household, I’m afraid, though there may be those who claim that the behaviour of such people fills a vacuum in certain areas of their parenting.
As for the prime minister himself, he is given to declaring at every opportunity that a different section of pampered and privileged young men are role models.
For the avoidance of confusion, I speak about footballers, whose individual behaviour seems to warrant David Cameron’s frequent censure. “Footballers are role models”, is something he and his spokesman have uttered on so many occasions now as to make it almost a catchphrase.
Clearly, none of us wishes to get bogged down in undergraduate-level relativism. But might this be the week for the PM to permanently abandon his practice of commentating sniffily on the misdemeanours or perceived misdemeanours of men often barely into their 20s?