Orwell’s reminder

George Orwell, were he alive and still in the habit of reading a daily newspaper, would have had pause for thought this week. Never enthusiastic about sport, he had an unremittingly bleak outlook on its ability to bring about change for the better. Reflecting on the visit of Dynamo Moscow to England in 1945 in an essay called The Sporting Spirit, he concluded that ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’, little more than ‘war minus the shooting.’

It has always seemed to me that is sport’s greatest justification; that it allows for the letting off of steam, and is an outlet for the fierce competitiveness that is inherent within most of us before middle-age, a mortgage and children take hold. Usually such competitiveness stops short of anything more serious. Chelsea might have embarrassed themselves after Barcelona’s late equaliser at Stamford Bridge, but both sets of players and the referee walked away unharmed. If you take the shooting out of war you no longer have war.

Orwell was having none of that, though. ‘If you want to add to the vast fund of ill-will that exists in the world at this moment,’ he wrote, ‘then you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and Brits, Russians and Poles, Italians and Yugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.’ Then report on the ensuing carnage.

But what would Orwell have made of the football tournament which will take place in Katine in rural Uganda in the first week of June? This is an area that has been decimated for the best part of twenty years by violent conflict, where 80 percent of young males are unemployed, where HIV/AIDS is rife and where three-quarters of the population now live below the poverty line. But football, which routinely shows its worst face and warped sense of priorities in the developed world, is about to show its best in the underdeveloped.

Match balls will be donated by a non-governmental organisation which makes hand-stitched footballs as a way of both providing jobs and spreading health awareness, and cows and goats will be donated as prizes for the winners. Forty-eight teams will descend on Katine, along with around twenty-thousand spectators. No doubt the referees will get some stick from large sections of the crowd, and some players, but for those men who have been involved in conflict for most of their adult lives something fundamentally more important is happening: slowly they are beginning to find a way of doing the things we take for granted. Their passion for football is such that a tournament like this is perceived to be the best way of reintegrating them back into society.

And what would Orwell have made of Dame Tanni Grey Thompson’s trip to Kigali recently, movingly reported in this newspaper on Monday? In the heartland of the Rwandan genocide, where more than a quarter million gravestones ripple down the hillside and where evidence of the horror between the Hutus and the Tutsis is written on every mutilated body, sport is providing some hope. How else could two legless (in the literal sense) volleyball players- one Tutsi, one Hutu- come to be fighting now for the same cause?

The National Paralympic Committee is investing a considerable amount of time and money attempting to ensure that Jean de Dieu Nkundabera, who won a bronze medal in the wheelchair sprint in the Athens games, and was Rwanda’s sole representative in Beijing, does not remain Rwanda’s only successful Olympian. If the cliché that a tough upbringing is a necessary pre-requisite to sporting success carries any truth, who would bet against it?

And what would Orwell have made of Cricket for Change, an organisation set up in the wake of the Brixton Riots in 1981 and now dedicated to using cricket as an instrument of change? Within the last year, it has embarked upon its most ambitious project yet, one that has stumped generations of politicians, that of bringing Jews and Arabs together.

After an initial toe-dipping expedition in late 2008, they returned as guests of the Israeli Cricket Association in April this year to a village called Beersheva, just 25 miles from the Gaza border. On a ground that had recently been hit by a rocket mortar, and that boasts surely the only nuclear bomb shelter as a pavilion, tape ball was introduced to young children from all backgrounds. George Sheader, the cricket development officer in Israel was quoted as saying, ‘the great advantage of the game in bringing people together is that it is completely new, it comes without any baggage.’

The next step is to try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together on the cricket field. In April Sheader uttered possibly one of the greatest understatements of all time when he announced that ‘things are a bit tense at the moment’ but the enthusiasm for the project remains. Has there been any progress? According to their spokesperson, the initial trips were well received and they are planning to return towards the end of the year.

Cricket For Change’s idealism could be tempered by the knowledge of what happened or did not happen between India and Pakistan following the resumption of cricketing ‘hostilities’ between them. Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, President of Pakistan and Prime Minister of India respectively, had little in common bar the cricket when they met at a match between their two countries in 2005.But a small amount of common ground was enough and the cricket was followed by a publicly expressed desire for peace. Events since then, though, have pushed that moment of goodwill into the background: a shared love of sport can only carry you so far.

Was Orwell wrong? Not entirely. Having an eerily prescient sense of what was to come he would surely not have been surprised to learn that, 19 years after his death, football pretty much caused a war. Things were already a bit dodgy between El Salvador and Honduras even before the World Cup qualifiers in 1969, but three close games inflamed the situation. Riots and savagery followed each match and a six-day war, known as The Soccer War, resulted. Six thousand or so died.

Orwell wasn’t wrong about sport, but he wasn’t right either. In a century that has seen sport help bring about the end of apartheid, showcase the talents of the oppressed and integrate minorities into the mainstream, it is clear that he was blind to the ever present possibilities. In Rwanda, Uganda and Gaza, hope is thin on the ground but sport is providing some: ‘we have to move on,’ said one of the Rwandan volleyball players mentioned above, ‘it is hard to forget when you have lost friends and families [and, he might have added, limbs] but it is the only way. Sport has helped.’