Sunday, 14 December 2008

The cult of the sportsman

Tonight is the BBC Sports Personality of the Year programme. I tend to think of the cult of the sportsman as a modern thing. (And yes, I used the male rather than wrote ‘sportsperson’ advisedly because it seems to me there are far fewer female cult figures from the world of sport.) The international super stars who have transcended the sport itself and become personalities in their own right, such as David Beckham, seemed to me to start with the 1966 England World Cup Team.

Dixie Dean's feat of 60-goals in a season is still remarkable.
But then I thought back to Dad’s generation and its veneration of such characters as Dixie Dean and Stanley Matthews and Stirling Moss. The difference seemed to be threefold - their pay was so insignificant by comparison, there were no sponsorship deals, and the global communication was so much less that sportsmen only rarely had more than local significance.

But more I thought about it the more I realised that the cult figure has probably existed for as long as there was sport. No doubt the Roman’s had their favourite Gladiators and cheered extra hard when they entered the arena.

As for sponsorship – how about this Colman’s Mustard advert. For those who don’t recognise the figure (and have missed the comment on his chest) it is unmistakeably ‘WG’ – W. G. Grace, generally regarded as the greatest cricketer of all time.

The amateur (which W G claimed to be) was, by definition, not a professional and the dictum of the amateur-dominated Marylebone Cricket Club was that "a gentleman ought not to make any profit from playing cricket". Like all amateur players, W G and his brother claimed expenses for travel and accommodation to and from cricket matches, but there is plenty of evidence that the Graces made rather more money by playing than their basic expenses would allow and WG in particular "made more than any professional".

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