The Greatest by Matthew Syed

The standout chapter in this otherwise routine offering is undoubtedly Chapter 4, The Political Game. But it is the standout chapter for all the worst reasons. On the question of sports psychology, motivation and sporting success, Syed has been determinedly innovative and at times quite revolutionary. Syed consistently rejects spurious notions of inherent talent and instead focuses on personal mindset, environmental factors and sheer hard work. For this Syed should be warmly applauded. Talent as a factor in success is ultimately a reactionary concept carelessly propagated by the ruling elites to justify their continued hold on the reigns of power.

Syed systematically explodes this ruling-class myth. Syed is also consistently in the vanguard in exposing petty prejudices in sport and society; not least racist and homophobic prejudices. Once again, this sterling work should be acknowledged and applauded. But when Syed strays into the world of historical polemics, one can’t help but feel, despite or perhaps because of his PPE Oxford Degree, that he is way out of his depth. Clearly, dialectical thinking is not on the Oxbridge curriculum.

The central though not exclusive theme of Chapter 4 is the corrosive role of the State when it comes to sport. Strange though how the chapter is full of denunciations of the socialist state yet has very little or nothing to say about the liberal democratic capitalist state. Nothing about how capitalism has transformed sport and its elite competitors into commodities to be bought and sold like cattle in the market place. Highest bidder takes all. Nothing about how, like all things under capitalism housing, education, health and leisure, – the silent capitalist behemoth turns all things into commodities. That this should happen is no surprise though, seeing that the defining feature of capitalism is commodity production for private profit. So, sooner or later, all things that once had a use value are turned into soulless commodities that corrode our societies and alienate human beings from the very things that define our humanity.

Of course, that Syed should omit this from his analysis of the State is also no real surprise given that the author, once a fine athlete, now earns his main income peddling his considerable journalistic talent to Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire. One can hardly be expected to bite the hand that feeds you. Or, to use the old adage; he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Syed may like to recall that the first president of the international Table Tennis Federation was in fact the communist and humanist Ivor Montague, and it was he that was responsible for one of the most progressive and far-sighted sporting constitutions of the modern era. A constitution that was, unlike most sporting codes of the day, free of the exclusive and outright racist baggage of the Victorian era. It was a constitution fit for an egalitarian socialist world.

We are still dreaming and fighting for that socialist world but the communist parties and its leaders that Syed is so quick to disparage, played a mighty role in breaking up the old oppressive colonial empires and laying the basis for much of the social justice that we in Britain enjoy today. Without the revolutionary social reforms instigated by the Soviet Union for example, it is very doubtful that the Western nations would have acquiesced to the level of welfare provision that we currently take for granted. And it is surely no coincidence that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the neo-liberal capitalist classes both sides of the Atlantic have been busy dismantling those treasured welfare reforms and privatising every social amenity they can get their grubby hands on.

And not surprisingly, when Syed polemicizes against the thought control of the tyrants and dictators of the former socialist countries he fails to mention his own employer, Mr Rupert Murdoch, who has taken subliminal thought control via his global media outlets to unheard of proportions.

And while Syed is polemicizing against these socialist tyrants and dictators, there is absolutely no mention of America’s neo-colonial wars of aggression in which they cheerfully slaughtered, by conservative estimates, some ten million peasants, workers and intellectuals. Five million alone were incinerated in America’s wars against those South-East nations that had the temerity to uphold their own right to self-determination. And still the imperialist killing goes on; in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and in the endless CIA covert wars in Central and South America.

Afghanistan is a particularly interesting case study in the West’s bloody imperialist meddling. Fearful of a modern, pro-Soviet regime developing in Afghanistan, the US financed and trained the Mujahedeen as an anti-Soviet guerrilla force that was later to morph into the Taliban and other radical Islamist organisations that have wreaked so much chaos across the globe. What you reap you sow! Had the US not sought to undermine the modernisation process underway in the 1970’s in Afghanistan, there is every likelihood that this unhappy country might have been spared decades of war and misery. As for Afghanistan, so for dozens of other developing countries around the globe that dared to hope for independence after the so-called war against fascism in Europe. Virtually every attempt at modernisation in post-war Africa and Asia was crushed by the United States for fear such modernity would herald an opportunity for bilateral links with the socialist world. Much of the dictatorships that we see today, and that Syed is so quick to denounce, can be laid firmly at the door of Uncle Sam and the corporate machine that is the US of A.

The moral of this story; If you are going to write about dictatorship and be taken seriously, you would be wise to remember dictatorship comes in many shapes and sizes, perhaps none so formidable and ubiquitous as the dictatorship of global capital.

Syed describes Mao as a monster. But there is no mention by our fearless sports journalist come historian of the diabolical tactic by the British empire of addicting huge swathes of the Chinese population to opium in order to force their way into the otherwise self-sufficient 19th century Chinese society. This was a truly monstrous act of colonialism that brought untold suffering to the Chinese people and very likely retarded China’s own attempts at modernisation by nearly a century.

Mao’s legacy is certainly difficult to assess. But what is certain is that he and countless millions of his fellow citizens heroically threw off the colonial and imperialist chains that were holding China in abject poverty and laid the ground for the phenomenal modernisation programmes that are underway in China today. Terrible mistakes were undoubtedly made but those mistakes can only be meaningfully assessed in their full historical context.

Syed is equally damning of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. A revolution, I might add, that has provided the highest life expectance and social welfare provision in the whole of the South American continent. Not a bad achievement given the decades long trade blockade imposed by the North American Imperialists. Strange how our illustrious author fails to mention this crippling blockade or the nature of Cuban society prior to the revolution a society that was a playground the US super rich whilst the mafia and US corporates plundered the resources of the island and brutalised its people with the full backing of American military might. Of course, socialist Cuba is proud of its sporting and other social achievements. Why wouldn’t it be?

And whilst Syed is lambasting the socialist world for its state sponsored sporting practices, he has no time or regard to mention the huge state sponsored jamboree that was the 2012 London Olympics. In fact, Britain seems to have taken a leaf out of the socialist book when it comes to financing British sport. No chance of a medal then expect to get your funding slashed. UK Sport has become every bit as ruthless in its attempt to glorify national sporting success than the socialist countries ever were. Just ask the British cyclists about bullying, sexism and general harassment.

The problem with much of Syed’s Chapter 4 is not so much what he says but what he leaves out. It is laudable that Syed should seek to analyse some of the dubious sporting practices of the old socialist bloc. The left, and I include myself in this, would do well to be far more vigorous in its criticisms of that complex period of history. But to do so outside of the fuller historical context of colonialism and 20th century imperialism is to be in danger of producing hollow platitudes that are of very little use to anyone. I might suggest that our intrepid journalist treats himself to his own mini-cultural revolution and embark on some much-needed re-education. Some of the seminal works by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov including Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Noam Chomsky’s Profit Over People and Who Rules The World might be a rewarding place to start. I look forward to a revised Chapter 4 sometime in the future.

Be the first to comment on "The Greatest by Matthew Syed"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.