Book review: The Spirit of the Game, by Mihir Bose

The commercialisation of events like the Olympics doesn't mean they have sold their soul. Christopher Satterthwaite enjoys an account of the global rise of games.

by Christopher Satterthwaite
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2012
The subtitle of Mihir Bose's book is 'How sport made the modern world'. It's the sort of extravagant claim one might expect a 25 year-old describing the impact of social media to use, rather than one of our most respected sports writers. There are 750 million users of Facebook and growing. Its population is the third biggest in the world after China (1.4 billion) and India (1.2 billion). However, the statistics of sport outscore Facebook by a mile.

Four billion people will watch the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games. Three billion people watch the Barclays Premiership annually. The Olympics' audience, as a population, would be greater than that of the biggest 10 countries in the world. So, what is the best way to manage such a global force? Nearly 40% of sport revenues come from sponsorship, which was valued in 2010 at $35bn by PWC. These are the facts of modern sport but not where it started.

'Don't let facts get in the way of good history,' I was once advised by the great historian VHH Green, and The Spirit of the Game doesn't allow that to happen. It is full of salient facts but also shows how sport has developed globally through a blend of design and accident. This makes it a sparkling and illuminating read - reassuringly so when accident wins out against design.

Isn't it well known that modern sport was born on the playing fields of Victorian public schools and inspired by Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School? Well no. In all the books, pamphlets and sermons written by Arnold between 1829 and 1842, not one makes a single reference to sport. It was fiction that dictated the adoption of British sport, through Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, which popularised it first in Britain and then in the Empire. As Bose suggests, 'the novel's success came from presenting an alluring vision of eternal boyhood'.

So, as a consequence of several novels, Britain developed seven of the 10 most valuable sports in the world - football, rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, Formula One and the Olympics. The French might disagree with the Olympics but many would suggest the modern Olympic movement was founded at the Much Wenlock Games and, anyway, Coubertin really wanted to be an Englishman, as the book reveals.

How did business fall in love with sport and vice versa? It was all down to a shoemaker called Horst Dassler, whose father, Adolf Dassler (Adidas), had helped ruin the 1936 Olympics for Adolf Hitler by making Jesse Owens' innovative spikes. Horst saw the value of endorsement, which in the UK was in its infancy even in our greatest moment of sporting triumph in 1966. Apart from Banks and Wilson, all the 1966 English team and all the West German team wore Adidas and were paid for doing so (although, out of annoyance at the principle, Jack Charlton threatened to wear one Puma boot and one Adidas boot). To Alan Ball, £2,000 was a fortune for the privilege of not buying his own boots for the big day. To Mario Balotelli less than 50 years later, it's loose change.

Business and sport have become mutually dependent ever since Dassler. Sport relies on business to pay for its development through sponsorship, and business relies on sport to reach its target audience. But has sport made a Faustian pact with business?

Bose examines the possibility of this from many angles, including the intrusion of politicians. For every negative example - such as the East German attitude to sport in the 1970s - there is a positive one, like Nelson Mandela's use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help unify his nation. He applauds the US style of sports administration, which is run on a purely commercial basis, while pointing out the excesses of commercialism in the Indian Premier League. Most of all, in his exposition of sport's hold on the modern world, one feels Bose's belief that sport can be a force for good, even when it is challenged by unsporting behaviour or corruption.

He finishes the book with an extensive quotation from Kumar Sangakkara's brilliant 2011 MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture - as eloquent an explanation of all that fans love in their sport heroes and vice versa as you will find.

For anyone interested in sport, history, business or anything to do with the modern world, this is a fascinating and stimulating book. With a fan base that exceeds any religion, sport has shaped the modern world more than we realise, and if it can do so in the spirit of Thomas Hughes and Kumar Sangakkara, business will continue to benefit and, who knows, the world might even be a better place.

- Christopher Satterthwaite is CEO of Chime Communications, including CSM, the leading sport marketing agency.

The Spirit of the Game: How sport made the modern world

Mihir Bose

Constable & Robinson, £18.99

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