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2 July 2023

How sport explains Thatcher’s Britain

The commerce, scandal and violence of sport in the 1980s was a reflection of a ruthlessly individualist society.

By Emma John

In January 1980 Margaret Thatcher told her foreign secretary that she did not want British Olympians competing at that year’s games in Moscow. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan a month earlier, and the prime minister – along with the US president, Jimmy Carter – was adamant that the hosts should be denied any opportunity for sporting propaganda.

When the International Olympic Committee refused to move the games to an alternative venue, Thatcher turned one of her fiercest attack dogs, Michael Heseltine, on the British Olympic Association. But it refused to withdraw its participation, and the political pressure was redirected on to individual athletes.

Those who were against or simply unsure about a boycott were sent letters from the government; one to Allan Wells contained photographs of an alleged Soviet atrocity; Peter Coe was asked by Douglas Hurd to take his son, Sebastian, in hand. But while the governing bodies of the more conservative-leaning sports – equestrianism, hockey, shooting, yachting – joined the boycott, 219 British athletes competed, and 21 of them won medals, with golds for Duncan Goodhew, Daley Thompson, Wells, Steve Ovett – and, of course, Coe.

Thatcher herself didn’t much care for sport, and yet she is, inevitably, the dominant figure behind much of Roger Domeneghetti’s social history of sport in the 1980s, from the opening up of media markets that presaged Sky’s deal with the Premier League to the sublimated resentment and jingoism that found its way to the football terraces and overspilled into violence.

The idea that sport and politics shouldn’t mix has long been exposed as an absurd fallacy – as Billie Jean King said last year, when the tennis world number one Iga Świątek spoke powerfully in support of Ukraine, sport is politics. It is also culture, identity and a microcosm of contemporary society, which is why, in Domeneghetti’s view, sport is “the key to understanding what really happened to Britain during the 1980s”.

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It certainly came to dominate TV schedules and, in a decade when there were still only four channels, began to offer a collective experience like never before. Indeed, if sport tells us anything about who the British were 40 years ago, it’s that we were fast becoming a nation of telly addicts. In 1985 18.5 million viewers – roughly one third of the UK population – tuned in past midnight to witness Dennis Taylor steal the snooker world championship final from Steve Davis, the climax of a 15-hour contest. Two years earlier, ITV had broadcast a live match from the football league for the first time since 1960, after years of resistance from the organisers. Here, behind a fug of tobacco advertising and larger-than-life darts players, lie the origins of the fractured media landscape’s daily battle for eyeballs.

Back then, it wasn’t so much a fight for a place at the table as an all-you-can-eat-buffet. The memory of BBC’s Grandstand will always be precious to sports lovers of long-enough vintage because its magazine format allowed them to become surprisingly expert in everything from rugby league to horse racing, and for the real devotees there was Ski Sunday the next day. The Eighties was arguably the first decade to allow the couch-potato to become a truly rounded figure, a fact only briefly mentioned by Domeneghetti.

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Everybody Wants to Rule the World is not, however, a highlights montage of happy childhood memories but an unflinching record of a surprisingly brutal era. Behind the brightly coloured leggings of celebrity aerobics instructors such as Jane Fonda and the Green Goddess lies a shadow world, where machismo rules and misogynist, racist, homophobic and ableist attitudes are as overt as they are endemic. The decathlon champion Daley Thompson had a famously difficult relationship with the British press, who labelled him “arrogant” and “rude”. But then, at a time when Carl Lewis was beset by rumours about his sexuality, he also wore a T-shirt reading: “Is the World’s Second Greatest Athlete Gay?”

Meanwhile, the tabloid circulation war was moving sport stars from the back pages to the front, delving pruriently into their private lives and breaking the previously cosy omertà between the press and the talent in the process. “If the Sun embraced the spirit of Thatcherism in the 1980s,” writes Domeneghetti, “[Ian] Botham embodied it.” A true believer in free enterprise, the cricketer was one of the first British sportspeople to recognise his worth as a commercial brand. It’s the violence and tragedy in the rear-view mirror that really shocks, however. In his 1990 book Sport and the British, the historian Richard Holt placed the football hooliganism of the previous decade within a far longer history of violence among sportsgoers, but also asked whether its intensity was a modern phenomenon, and “how far… money and the media [were] responsible”.

With the benefit of 30 years’ more distance, Domeneghetti sets the rise of football’s firms of “hard men” against the context of a decade of domestic conflict and heavy-handed policing. Riots in Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth and Tottenham caused damage, destruction and even deaths, while in Northern Ireland the Troubles were taking a far larger toll, and news footage of street fighting in Belfast and Derry was swiftly becoming normalised.

The high watermark of football violence arrived in the 1984-85 season, when the miners’ strike was “reinforcing for many the sense of a country riven by civil war, the police and government on one side” and Thatcher’s “enemy within” on the other. In March a Luton-Millwall game at Kenilworth Road turned into full-scale riot, with seats ripped out of the ground and the Luton goalkeeper just avoiding a six-inch blade. In May a 15-year-old boy, Ian Hambridge, died when crowd fighting caused a wall at Birmingham City’s ground to collapse on him. A few weeks later, during Liverpool’s European Cup Final against Juventus, the Heysel Stadium disaster claimed the lives of 39 fans. 

After the Luton game, Thatcher summoned the FA secretary Ted Croker and asked: “What are you going to do about your hooliganism?” “Not our hooligans, Prime Minister, but yours,” Croker replied. “The products of your society.” In the same way, Domenghetti draws a firm connection between the Bradford City fire and Hillsborough and other deadly catastrophes of the time that demonstrated a similar lack of care for public safety. From the King’s Cross station fire to the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the Piper Alpha rig explosion and the sinking of the Marchioness, the “litany of tragedy”, says Domeneghetti, “begged some serious questions about the state of the country’s infrastructure”, nor less the government’s attitude towards its citizenry.

No such thing as society, indeed. These chapters make the most compelling case for Domeneghetti’s thesis that sport is the key to understanding Britain in an economic era that championed individual endeavour and the spirit of competition. But the book works better simply as an overview of the way that Eighties sport was interwoven with its surroundings, with several threads we can pick up today (rebel South Africa cricket tours as an early form of sportswashing on behalf of an apartheid government, or Spurs’ doomed stock market flotation proving that sometimes you can be too far ahead of the curve).

Women are by no means absent and the stories of the sailor Tracey Edwards, the footballer Carol Thomas and the Paralympic swimmer Tara Flood all illustrate the hostile environment that female athletes faced. Still, Domeneghetti never makes the connection between the supposedly liberating lycra revolution and the cultural and dieting trends that demanded women’s bodies become ever slimmer.

There are, too, some interesting omissions. Torvill and Dean, whose “Boléro” routine at the 1984 Winter Olympics offered romantic escapism for the time and was a cultural touchstone beyond sport, receive no mention. Nor does Nick Faldo, despite being one of Denis Thatcher’s favourite sportsmen. But then, we ask a lot of sport. We want it to be a universal language, but also represent our local and national identities. We expect it to be full of combat, conflict and drama, yet unify its participants and foster world peace. We want our side to beat the other side, but we don’t want that rivalry polluted or dictated by the political landscape – at least, until we have an insuperable beef with another country, at which point we demand that sport take a stand. It stands to reason, then, that we can’t expect sport to explain either history or the present.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World: Britain, Sport and the 1980s
Roger Domeneghetti
Yellow Jersey, 480pp, £20

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[See also: Football was never a truly amateur game, but now even the supporting cast are raking it in]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia