17 July 2018

Ruminations on sport

Sport is a funny thing. It does two things: it provides physical activity for the enjoyment of those taking part; and, in many cases, it is entertainment for spectators, both on-site and watching on television.

It is big business these days, of course, as it is one of the most successful ways for advertisers to deliver their messages around the globe. More people are interested in the thrill of live sport than they are watching chat shows, news programmes or soap operas. At the same time, traditional TV delivery is changing, with more and more people following sport on mobile devices. Until recently the digital revolution had done little to impact sport, while completely changing the way one enjoys cultural activites, shops, chats, dates and even the way politics is handled. Sport seemed immune to it all but e-sports is now beginning to make an impact.

Esports is basically video-gaming, which requires fast brains and quick fingers. Stars in esports are beginning to be treated like traditional sports stars, being paid by sponsors and being followed by fans, not only online but also at events. Traditional fans of sport laugh at esports, arguing that it is not real sport because of the lack of physical activity and that it achieves the opposite of sport in making players less healthy, less social and more likely to feel isolated. The gamers argue that it is good for their brains. Some governments do not agree, believing that playing computer games all the time makes people anti-scoial and dysfunctional, in addition to making them unhealthy. Today there are esport addiction clinics designed to wean youngsters off their gaming. Seven years ago the government of South Korea was so worried about the way things were developing that they introduced the Juvenile Protection Act, known as the Cinderella law, which forbade children under the age of 16 from playing computer games between midnight and 6am. This was in response to problems emerging with children from 11 onwards who were so fixated on gaming that they were losing interest in friends, family and schooling. They were no longer sleeping and not eating properly. But esports continues to grow.

In motor racing we make jokes about the virtual version of racing having "virtual testicles" because while the electric version of racing requires many of the same skills, it does not require the players to risk anything, which is a key element in racing, despite the best efforts of the FIA to make motor racing safe. What they overlook is that the risk is part of the attraction of the sport and that without a sense of danger, the sport is far less attractive to fans. That may not be some that they wish to accept, but it is a reality. Humans are attracted by those who seem not to be afraid of anything. The thrill of pushing boundaries and living on the edge - or simply watching others do it, is exciting and enthralling. Being drawn to danger is a key element in the development of the human race. Our society needs risk takers to push back the boundaries: to explore new continents, to fly, to go fast, to fight fires and so on.

However, we should not underestimate esports because it is open to many more people, who cannot afford the huge amounts of money now required to climb racing's ladder. Perhaps we should embrace the new technology and use it to train youngsters in the skills and techniques required to race before letting then loose in real machinery, thus saving a great deal of money that is wasted on kids who are unsuited to the sport they desire to be in. Nissan has been a pioneer in this respect with the GT Academy idea which found drivers using a video game competition and put the winners into real cars. Graduates of this system include the first winner of the competition in 2008 Lucas Ordonez, Jann Mardenborough, Russia's Mark Shulzhitskiy and American Nicolas Hammann. It works for some of them, but not all.

Sport's social side is important for society. It's great to see how fans get on with one another when I host my Audience events. Passion for sport is a means of integration, a way in which people feel that they belong to a group. Sport can also be very irritating as I found out last weekend while trying to have a picnic with friends and family and discovering that the Tour de France had so many road closures that it was impossible for people to get across unless they could find a bridge or tunnel - or go around the end of the route, which was closed for hours without any sign of riders, nor even the so-called caravan of publicity vehicles that goes everywhere with the Tour.

In France in recent days the power of sport has been clear to see. I am not a football fan, but I watched the World Cup Final and listened to the neighbourhood getting increasingly daft.

Since then France has been a country in complete chaos, with lunatics tearing around the streets waving flags and hooting horns, with the TV unable to show anything else. The news consisted entirely of World Cup reaction, despite the fact that the world's two most important leaders were meeting for the first time in Helsinki. I watched mad scenes as the French team returned to France and were driven from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the centre of Paris for a victory parade along the Champs Elysees. There was a crowd there bigger than anything I've ever seen. On the way from the airport there were scenes of absolute mayhem, which would turn Jean Todt a whiter shade of pale given that he is a great believer in road safety. Hundreds of motorcycles were chasing the team bus, dodging about, bumping into one another, ignoring policemen. It was all quite extraordinary.  Kids who see these things will not forget them, but for a country that seems to be at odds with itself a lot of the time, this was something that only sport could create.

Motor racing is a great discipline and has enormous potential to deliver messages, but when watching the World Cup celebrations in France the only real conclusion one could draw is that Formula 1 isn't capable of delivering such emotions.

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