David Owen

Tuesday (January 21) marked the 70th anniversary of George Orwell's death at the age of just 46. This gives rise to an irresistible, though I suspect not especially original, urge to re-examine the great writer's views on sport.

(It has been a quiet-ish week in the sports industry, so it was either this or in-depth analysis of the rights and wrongs of grilling hot-dogs on the Olympic flame.)

The famous "war minus the shooting" quote occurs in a piece of journalism entitled The Sporting Spirit published in the left-wing magazine Tribune towards the end of 1945.

"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," he writes.

"It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."

Wow: I cannot see that making it into a [IOC President] Thomas Bach speech any time soon.

A BBC adaptation of "1984" - just one of the many works of the phenomenal George Orwell ©Getty Images
A BBC adaptation of "1984" - just one of the many works of the phenomenal George Orwell ©Getty Images

It being journalism, though, let alone a piece of journalism composed in that auspicious year of 1945, context is all-important.

It just so happens that the context of this particular piece is very specific: it was sparked by the recent tour of Britain by the footballers of Dinamo Moscow, a tour which drew enormous crowds to London, Cardiff and Glasgow, and underlined the effectiveness of the Soviet players' disciplined, yet freewheeling tactics.

Though the exercise did not want for sporting interest - with both sides hoping fervently, and in Britain's case rather taking for granted (wrongly), that the games would demonstrate the superiority of their teams - it also had a clear political dimension.

This was to foster goodwill between two nations who, while much misunderstood by the other, had been wartime allies and, in Britain's case, had just elected an overtly socialist Labour Government with a huge majority.

It was this political element to which Orwell astutely gave short shrift, given that the Soviet ruler of the day was Joseph Stalin.

"Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying privately before the Dynamos ever arrived," he huffs, his mis-spelling of "Dinamo" a habit shared by the British popular press of the day, perhaps betraying the haste and superficiality of his judgement.

"That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before."

With the exception of the adjective "unfailing", I could live with that.

But, as he builds up a head of steam, it seems to me that the author of Animal Farm and The Road to Wigan Pier goes well over-the-top.

"I am always amazed," he continues, "when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.

Orwell was very prescient with his views of the 1936 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Orwell was very prescient with his views of the 1936 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

"Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles."

Plainly the Berlin Olympics was not sport's finest hour.

Orwell was writing, moreover, in the immediate aftermath of more than five years of all-out war and in an era when national governments, even Clement Attlee's new Westminster administration, had immeasurably more power over their own people than they do today.

A certain amount of jaundice is understandable.

Without wanting to overstate the case, however, it seems to me undeniable that sport constitutes a vernacular that, in the right circumstances, can give people of contrasting backgrounds some common ground, and hence aid mutual understanding.

This was true even then: one thinks of Jesse Owens and the German long-jumper Luz Long. 

Orwell's patchy knowledge of sport is also evident when he describes football, i.e. soccer, as "a game in which everyone gets hurt".

He was on more solid ground, though, when he claimed of the same sport that "every nation has its own style of play".

That used to be so, and was one of the reasons why World Cups used to seem so much more exciting: nearly everyone had their own style which, in most cases wrongly, we would rush to equate with perceived national characteristics.

Then the Premier League, and others, morphed into veritable global showcases, and national teams became both more similar and more familiar.

I am also largely with Orwell when he argues: "At the international level, sport is frankly mimic warfare.

"But [a big "but"] the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players, but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe - at any rate for short periods - that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue."

Yes, indeed, this is still a thing, partly due to our respective nationalistic medias, and, taken to extreme, it is hard to see that it is in any way healthy.

The writer also has at least half a point when he argues, on the basis of personal experience: "In England, the obsession with sport is bad enough, but even fiercer passions are aroused in young countries where games playing and nationalism are both recent developments."

Today, at least, I would not say it is "young countries" where this can be an issue, but undemocratic ones, where some strongman holds largely unfettered power and support for projections of the nation on the international stage, such as sports teams, can be interpreted as a (usually bogus) gauge of loyalty.

Dinamo Moscow taking on Chelsea in 1945 - the match finished 3-3 ©Getty Images
Dinamo Moscow taking on Chelsea in 1945 - the match finished 3-3 ©Getty Images

In summary, some parts of this famous article still stand the test of time, three-quarters of a century after it was written, but not all.

I much prefer Orwell's essays, where the quality of his thinking is, of course, often dazzling and his aperçus on sport, though infrequent, place it in the context of society, generally English society, as a whole. 

Take this from The Lion and the Unicorn, a dizzyingly brilliant 80-page essay subtitled Socialism and the English Genius.

"We are a nation of flower-lovers," Orwell writes, "but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans.

"All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which, even when they are communal, are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'."

That is writing; that is England.