It is difficult sometimes to remember that most sport is amateur, played for recreation and enjoyment. It is all the harder to remember this since national newspapers nowadays rarely pay any attention to amateur sport.
The local press — where it survives — is different of course. There you can read about club matches, tennis and golf tournaments featuring people who plan for pleasure. They take it seriously — that’s part of the pleasure — and scheme and struggle to improve. It’s amateurs who buy “how to improve your golf” and similar books.
Much has been gained by professional sport. It would be stupid to deny this. Top athletes’ commitment to success is remarkable. Standards of fitness are higher. More thought and science are devoted to the search for improvement. Yet something has been lost. Reading the obituaries of Phil Bennett will have brought this home to many. It was not just that he was a man who belonged to his community as no top international sportsman can do today. It was also that he seemed to play rugby as self-expression and fun. Nobody would have doubted his will to win (or that of his contemporaries, in a golden era of Welsh rugby), but you also had the sense that even international rugby was something to be enjoyed, and that there were more important things than the game, even for a young man touched with genius.
One has to admit that some of the newspaper coverage of amateur sport half a century and more ago was coloured by snobbery. Broadsheet newspapers reported gold tournaments such as the President’s Putter at Rye and the Halford Hewitt Cup, which were restricted to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge and the Old Boys of Public Schools, and did so in more detail and with more enthusiasm than their reporting of the average professional tournament.
It must seem remarkable to anyone under sixty now that, after Test matches, the most important match of England’s domestic cricket season was the Gentlemen v Players at Lord’s, and it’s somewhat shameful to remember that I supported the Gentlemen, even though the cricketing heroes of my childhood and youth were professionals like Len Hutton, Bill Edrich, Denis Compton, Alec Bedser, Fred Trueman and Johnny Wardle. I did so even though I was aware than some of the admired Gentlemen were by then really shamateurs. But then, right up to the 1980s, 20 years after the amateur/ professional distinction was abolished in English cricket, England was the only Test-playing country where professional cricket was a full-time career. I would guess that many today don’t realize that Don Bradman, statistically still the greatest of all Test batsman, earned his living outside the game, latterly as a stockbroker in Adelaide.
Rugby Union, as Bennett’s obituaries will have reminded many, and taught others, remained amateur longer than any other major sport. When Scotland won the Grand Slam by beating France at Murrayfield in 1984, one of the heroes of the day, full-back Peter Dods, whose goal-kicking had made victory possible, was back at work on the Monday after the match, painting the public toilets in his home town Galashiels. Another of the heroes of that team, scrum-half Roy Laidlaw, had been able to tour with the Lions the previous year because friends in Jedburgh had been able to subsidise his employer so that he could continue to pay Roy’s wages while he was in New Zealand.
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It’s natural to think nostalgically of the amateur days at this time of the year, on the eve of the Wimbledon fortnight when the top players will be surrounded by their numerous employees — skills coaches, fitness coaches and nutrition advisers etc — even more so now, when the world of professional golf has been divided by the repulsive Saudi enterprise offering players extraordinary rewards for playing in meaningless tournaments.
Standards of performance in all major sports may have improved enormously in our time, but almost all major sports have also been corrupted by money. One cannot but admire the dedication of today’s professional stars, even while comparing the world they inhabit unfavourable with the game Phil Bennett knew, loved and adorned.