The 1939 World’s Fair in New York looked forward to the wonderful world of 1960 in a way we now find remarkable – or regrettable – or risible:
All of human life is there. Thrust into the future, sure. Or future 1.0 (beta), or into what the future was going to be, once, when the future had a different future. And to be fair to the World’s Fair, they were right about quite a lot of things.
But there’s no sport:
And isn’t that interesting, or isn’t that inevitable, or why should there be anyway?
Most sport, let’s admit it, is somewhat present tense. The creations of the Football Association in 1863 and the Football League in 1888 were intended to solve the problems of the day, not build for the future. Only since the 1970s and 1980s has FIFA – another body founded in the hope that it would be the widening of some ancient bottleneck – paid attention to the “development” of “the game”. For all its efforts, “the game” has gone its own merry way, by and large.
And in any case, the idea that sport is somehow central to society, rather than being a distraction or a bread-and-circuses update, has never been universally accepted. Sufficient victims of school sport make it into the legislature and executive to protect their skinny, bespectacled successors from grand programmes that mean, in practice, more standing around in thin clothes on ruined grass in cold weather.
The exceptions to this present-day mentality, this ambiguity of role, are real enough. There’s the Brazilians, who took the game seriously as a means of national assertion in the 1930s and thereby dominated the post-War game. Or consider Herbert Chapman, who pioneered most of the features that distinguish post-1965 football from the pre-1935 game. Today, we have Simon Clifford, the only man, it seems, with a genuine plan for the future of English football. The Australian Institute of Sport.
But there isn’t really a general vision, is there, of what sport will be like in fifty years’ time. There are fears for what sport will be about – mountainous, short-lived superhumans who use drugs in the way Meccano uses bolts watched with galloping indifference from plastic grandstands by the wealthy, media-employed grandchildren of industrial workers. Nothing you’d look forward to.
In the early 1970s, we thought things like this would be the beginning of a completely new era in British transport – until the oil crisis intervened:
What was supposed to be the momentary turn-off became the highway, as so often. But while that was all going on – and add to it anticipation about computing, developments in health care, changes in the role of women, new architecture, space exploration – the best we could say for sport in the UK was that we hoped we might win the World Cup again at some point. And the hope was insufficient, and has continued to be insufficient, for anything tangible to be done about it.
Sport does change, of course. Golf and tennis have become subtly different sports from what they were in the 1960s, partly because equipment first improved (so that it wouldn’t break so much, or deteriorate during use) and then adapted to help duffers. But even twenty-five years ago, during the Borg-McEnroe phase, tennis didn’t look ahead to a future of huge serves and short rallies. We’re bad at predicting the future, even for ourselves – let alone for our sports.
We don’t look ahead for our sports, not in the way we still do in other areas of life. At the moment, the feeling’s abroad that the future had better be green or it won’t be anything at all. There’s no sporting equivalent; never has been. Not in quite that way.