Articles - 9th September 2019

Word Games

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

In theory, I’m a keen sportsman.

In theory, I’m a ripped athlete.

In practice, I don’t possess an ounce of the vein-popping competitiveness required to ever partake in ‘sports’ beyond the four walls of Goldsmiths’ Club Pulse gym. Intermittent exercise keeps me intermittently sane. I like the pounding dance classics, I like dramatically thrashing my arms whilst watching Homes Under The Hammer without the sound on. It’s a bitter-sweaty interlude between the comfortable routines of work, home, cook, sleep. I regard exercise with the same complacency of 17-year-old Swedish Skier Ingemar Stenmark, who, when quizzed by a journalist following his 1973 World Cup victory, responded to the question of ‘How did you win?’ with a gruff ‘De ä bar å åk’ (‘I just go’). Perhaps my thoughts on ‘sports’ were unveiled when I framed my theme in quotation marks. For me, sports is other. It is for people with toned bodies who spent their early teens being picked for teams and now have 9-5 jobs and mortgages. They have their haircut every six weeks and the glare from their luminously white teeth ignites small bonfires wherever they walk.

However, his week, I paid a nervous visit to Nike’s flagship Oxford Street store where I was blown away by the diversity of mannequin sizing that showcased bodies beyond the predictable archetype of athlete. Nike’s mannequins include those with prosthetic limbs, whereas others are short, fat, thick shouldered and large-breasted, whilst all being clad in the company sports and gym wear. It hardly counteracts historically fatphobic attitudes prevalent in mainstream fashion and nor does it remedy the poor sizing of commercial clothes retailers. Gimmick or not, the efforts of one of the world’s biggest commercial powers in this context, in part, normalising fat bodies enjoying and partaking in sports, brought tears to my eyes. I wiped them away with a £50 sock. 

Whilst I’m certainly not one of them, cultural darlings have long indulged in sporty affairs. Existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus, was famously a goalkeeper before he swapped his shin pads for cigarettes. Contrary to rumours that the French-Algerian writer and philosopher played for France, his career in sports, in fact, lasted no longer than his university team, where he played goal for the Racing Universitaire Algerios (RUA) junior team. In honour of Camus, the lefty online t-shirt shop – regularly advertised in the New Statesman I read behind the counter at work, ‘Philosophy Football’, sell shirts with the quasi-footballer’s name and the quote “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”.

Despite rumours of goalie grandeur, Camus undoubtedly left his mark on literature and philosophy far more than football. Whilst the author unfortunately died at the age of 44, his legacy lives on through the cavalier digressions of the French footballer Eric Cantona, who started his career as a philosophising athlete when speaking to reporters outside a press conference in 1995 where he said, with a straight face, “When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Unfortunately, the Cantona of today still has a lot of opinions. Speaking at a UEFA event last week, the former Manchester United footballer was asked “What’s going through your mind right now?” to which he looked up from his flat cap, channelled the voice of King Lear and responded in a single breath, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport. Soon the science will be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, to the state. Soon we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us. Unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football. Thank you.”

Perhaps Neville Southall, too, is another disciple of Camus’, whose tweets, intentional or not, are nothing short of absurdist poems. Examples of these include, “Saturday morning kids football pouring down / 1 game off already / Why don’t they just raise all pitches in Wales 3 feet / I am getting webfeet” and “I love the thought of recycled skeletons / Imagine walking down your street and all your dead relatives were lampposts / Brilliant”. The White Review, watch out!

I’m never going to be a footballer. I gave it my best shot, at the age of 8, where I went to see Brighton’s Albion play a home game and proceeded to spend the entire 90 minutes counting the swear words of my fellow punter’s heckles, (45). I’d rather throw words around than throw a flying sack of pulverised cow skin at the back of the net, thank you very much. Veritable philosopher and lifelong Liverpool fan, Simon Critchley, refers to the beautiful game in his book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, as a “working-class ballet.” It seems to me that the real artistry, asides from the fine footwork, lies in some footballer’s abilities to fantastically, expertly garble language.

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