The pleasures of Small Sport can help us all through lockdown | Jonathan Liew

By on March 31, 2020


So, how’s quarantine going for you? For me, perhaps the most striking discovery of the past couple of weeks is the revelation that my many deferred and undone tasks – the books not read, the films not watched, the camera rolls not tidied, the shelves not rearranged – were never meant to be done at all.

Shakespeare may famously have written King Lear while in plague quarantine but then Shakespeare never had to contend with Instagram Stories, internet chess and an online quiz with the irresistible title “Name Every England Test Cricketer of the 2010s”. (Ajmal Shahzad is the one that gets most people.)

Despite this new abundance of spare time, then, my to-do list remains as stubbornly considerable as ever and it occurs to me now that in compiling these endless, sprawling lists – “buy compost”, “print wedding photos”, “sew holes in socks” – I was articulating not a genuine need but an archetype.

I did not, as it turned out, actually want to sew the holes in my socks, an assignment that once undertaken (and this is the other dirty little secret about to-do lists) would immediately detonate three more, namely “research sewing equipment”, “buy sewing kit” and “learn to sew”. Instead, I was asserting a wish to be the kind of guy who wants to sew up the holes in his socks. For this reason alone, the socks must never be sewn. To do so would defeat the entire point of the task.

And yet in among such bleak realisations, such yawning ennui, such dispiriting dispatches, there is one important aspect where life has improved immeasurably. If David Foster Wallace describes sport as human beings’ reconciliation with having a body, then the same might easily be said of its absence. Deprived of the throbbing bombast of Big Sport, perhaps this is the moment when we seek solace in its unassuming older sibling: the modest, sweat-ringed pleasures of Small Sport.



The 2012 Olympics was meant to get a nation hooked on taking part in sport – but could the coronavirus crisis have more impact on our activity levels? Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

In a sense, many of the activities that come under the banner of Small Sport are the sort of thing that many people would barely classify as sport at all. Jogging around the block. A bike ride in the park. An online yoga class in the living room. A brief but vigorous press-up routine in the bedroom. Even Eurosport would balk at showing some of this stuff. But locked down and locked indoors, we must take what we can get.

In this context, the government’s stipulation that exercise is one of the few legitimate reasons for leaving the house feels less like a permission and more like an imperative. The Association of Cycle Traders has reported a surge in sales of bicycles and cycle equipment. Fitness and workout apps are doing a roaring trade. And every other afternoon I slip on a pair of trainers and join the throngs of grimacing, carefully spaced runners on the London streets: not all of whom, you surmise, can be exiles from the gym or the athletics club.

Perhaps it’s possible to read into all this things that are not really there. Perhaps there is a danger of extrapolating all sorts of fantastical trends from this extremely narrow and unusual set of circumstances. But one of the most appealing traits of sport is the way it reels you in, little by little. The daily jog leads to a half-marathon. The Sunday bike ride leads to a sportive. The idle darts practice leads one day to an idle Google search for local pub leagues. We are, above all, creatures of habit and during this enforced incarceration many of us are grooving habits that may prove tough to shake on parole.


Moment James Page reaches finish line in back garden marathon run – video

There is a certain irony in all this. For decades, we have been told that the only legitimate model of driving mass sporting participation is the top-down approach: spectacle, exemplar, extravaganza.

It is a convenient falsehood cruelly exposed by the firework-laden, Bowie-themed sophistry of London 2012, which derived its justification and vast public expense from the fanciful idea that watching the world’s best canoeists and modern pentathletes would send us all stampeding down to our local white water centre or wherever it is people go to do modern pentathlon. The more prosaic reality? Providing a nation with hours and hours of cracking television to enjoy from their sofas does not – remarkably enough – make them more outdoorsy.

And so it would be quaintly paradoxical if it turned out the key to generating our Olympic legacy was to trap us in our own homes with no sport to watch.

“Imprison A Generation” may not be the sort of feel-good slogan you can put on a Games Maker T-shirt, but perhaps in these times we can be reminded that there is an alternative vision of sport out there: one free of Ticketmaster queues and security bag searches and separate hospitality entrances and Kiss Cam and £6 pints. One that rearticulates sport not as something you sit and pay for; but something you get up and do.

In one sense, this is simply a rehash of the old Foucauldian trope of the body as locus of historic power struggle. In another, it’s the time-honoured human instinct known as “needing to get out of the bloody house”. After all, the resistance takes many forms. Lift a kettlebell. Do a downward dog. Go for a run.

Somehow, in an age of curtailed freedoms and frightening state power, the simple repetitive movements of Small Sport can feel like the most empowering of comforts.



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