4 min read

The decade that defined sport 

What the sports stars of today owe to the eighties.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Maradona runs in celebration, holding a hand aloft as an England player sits dejected on the ground.
Maradona celebrates, 1986 World Cup.
Dani Yako via Wikimedia Commons

If the 1980s were your formative years as a sports fan, you will carry many images with you even today.  Dennis Taylor potting the last black after midnight to beat Steve Davis.  Barry McGuigan defeating Eusebio Pedrosa in the ring at Loftus Road.  The races between Coe and Ovett at the Moscow Olympics.  The tie break between Borg and McEnroe.  Botham’s Ashes.  Diego Maradona versus England at the Mexico World Cup.   

You will undoubtedly have other memories, though these will have been controlled by a limited number of broadcast editors.  I clearly recall watching Viv Richards’ astonishing century in one cricket World Cup final against hosts England being regularly interrupted on BBC1’s Grandstand with coverage of a routine horse race meeting.  The introduction of the less fusty World of Sport on ITV was a route in for some sports that faced an implicit class bias, but it was all still far removed from the 24/7 reverencing of sport today. 

The eighties was an era of transition as sport began to gain a place in our cultural consciousness.  It was also a decade in which the relationship between sport and politics became cemented on paths we still walk.  In Everybody Wants To Rule The World, academic and journalist Roger Domeneghetti has written an entertaining and informative book subtitled ‘Britain, Sport and the 1980s’. 

In our branding of the twenties as the decade of polarisation, we forget how deeply divided Britain was in the eighties.  Recent commentary on the fortieth anniversary of the miners’ strike has been a reminder of this and how violent public life proved.  Football hooliganism was pervasive and after a riot at a Luton Town – Millwall game in 1985, Margaret Thatcher asked of football officials: ‘what are you going to do about it?’.  In a pithy and telling response, the FA secretary Ted Croker said: ‘Not our hooligans, Prime Minister, but yours.  The product of your society’.  Perhaps more than any other exchange, it symbolised the braiding of sport and politics, threads that endure to this day. 

The sports stars of today have become surrogate saints, held up as an inspiration for what can be achieved and frequently employed as motivational speakers.

The argument that sport and politics don’t mix has a familiar ring for people who live with the tired old trope that religion and politics don’t either, as if our experience of culture and values are sealed off from each other.  Sporting boycotts in the 1980s - from Olympics to apartheid South Africa – placed athletes in the unavoidable position of having to make decisions about participation that would reflect on their values and could affect their careers; positioning that other people were spared.  These were an early taste of the moral standing afforded to sportsmen and women today; a status that somehow asks more of them, perhaps because other professions have become so tarnished and mistrusted. 

Domeneghetti’s book is also a sobering reminder of how ugly and careless much of our shared life was in the eighties.  The Bradford City fire and Hillsborough disaster were awful losses that showed the low priority of health and safety and the culture of institutional cover up that continues to blight the nation.  The author locates these failings in the wider context of disasters like Kings Cross, Piper Alpha and the Marchioness boat as part of his bid to write a social history of sport. 

Yet in a sense, Domeneghetti chose arbitrary parameters.  Football in particular was on the cusp of a revolution with the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.  Cultural sympathy for the game was about to change with the writings of Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch and Pete Davies in All Played Out.  The nasty face of football was to be transformed into a highly marketable model. 

The ugliness of the era is laid bare in the prolific and casual racism, sexism and homophobia that coursed through every sport.  The Windrush’s second generation broke through in the 1980s, notably in football, but was met with staggering levels of prejudice.  Anyone tempted to think this has now been eradicated hasn’t spent any real time at a football ground or on social media.  Women’s sport had virtually no profile in the eighties outside of tennis and athletics and as recently as 1978, Lord Denning had ruled that an eleven-year-old girl should not be allowed to play competitive football against boys the same age even though she merited a place in her team.  Meanwhile, stars like Justin Fashanu, Martina Navratilova and John Curry were targeted for their sexual orientation.  It remains hard for present day athletes to identify as gay, despite the rhetoric of acceptance.  Sport then, as now, held up an unerring mirror to our faces. 

The sports stars of today have become surrogate saints, held up as an inspiration for what can be achieved and frequently employed as motivational speakers.  But there is the gloss of a hyper-individualistic, neo-liberal culture.  Sports stars succeed because of a combination of innate gifting (which cannot simply be replicated) and material advantage (too many Olympic medals are still awarded to wealthy and advantaged Britons). I won because I wanted it more is a dishonest assessment of sporting success in the UK and in this way also holds up a mirror to other walks of life.   

The powerful personal branding of today’s athletes in many ways have their origin in the 1980s and the way the likes of Ian Botham, Carl Lewis and John McEnroe transcended their sports.  The cult of the conquering superstar is a smart diversion from the reality that money usually wins.  Just look at the Premier League table. 

Film & TV
5 min read

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 20 years on

Memory and the meaning of suffering.

Beatrice writes on literature, religion, the arts, and the family. Her published work can be found here

A coupe sit on outdoor steps against a blue sky. One holds a plate and the other looks towards them.
Carrey and Winslet as Joel and Clementine.

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. Twenty years on, its stubborn insistence that the memory of pain gives meaning to our lives is as relevant as ever.  

I first watched Gondry’s cult classic earlier this year, in the midst of recovering from postnatal PTSD. When we are faced with heartbreak, it can be easy to wish that we could retreat from painful memories, hiding them away until the initial pang has seemingly died down. That was my experience, at least. But I quickly learnt that the traumatic memory of my daughter’s birth would continue to resurface until I processed it and accepted it as part of my life. Just so, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind teaches us that being vulnerable to suffering is a gift, that suffering itself is necessary to our moral growth, and that our ability to remember the past is an invaluable faculty of the human mind.  

The film begins simply, with a meeting between its protagonists, Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. As Joel and Clementine start making small talk, they seem immediately comfortable, almost familiar with each other, and yet the atmosphere is eerie. Soon enough, we discover that Clementine was a patient at Lacuna, a clinic which erased every memory of Joel from her mind after their two-year relationship ended in a painful breakup. When Joel finds out, he asks Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, the director of Lacuna, to do the same for him. As viewers, we now start to wonder: was that meeting we witnessed their very first, or have they met again after their memories were erased, unaware that they loved each other in a ‘past’ life? 

This tone of disorientation continues throughout the film, and that’s what makes it so special. As Joel’s memories of Clementine are erased one by one, he realises that the removal of one’s painful experiences is in itself a kind of trauma; what promises to be a relief, turns out to be nothing more than loss.  

We experience this sense of disorientation and loss alongside Joel as we jump through snippets of his and Clementine’s happiest and saddest moments together, trying to piece together in our minds a linear narrative of their relationship. While this is happening, the film’s subplot focuses on Stan, Patrick, and Mary, three young people working for Lacuna. As Stan and Patrick, the ‘technicians’, work on Joel’s memory removal, Mary, Lacuna’s naive receptionist, muses on the beauty of their mission. She begins quoting aloud the passage of poetry which inspires the film’s very title, taken from Alexander Pope’s verse epistle Eloisa to Abelard (1717): 

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 

The world forgetting, by the world forgot. 

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! 

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. 

Mary has an idealistic vision of her work: she believes she is helping suffering people experience the kind of ‘eternal sunshine’ that only a ‘spotless mind’ can achieve. But the human mind is not so simple. Joel’s desire for forgetfulness quickly turns nightmarish. As he realises he has made a mistake, he starts fighting to retain the memory of his love for Clementine, but his is a hopeless quest. Dr. Mierzwiak’s intervention ensures that the procedure is completed.  

Left alone without Stan and Patrick, Mary confesses to the married Dr. Mierzwiak that she is in love with him. It is at this point that her idealism crumbles down. He reveals that they’ve already had an affair in the past and that she agreed to let him erase its memory from her mind. Mary is devastated. She decides that what Lacuna is doing is unethical - even if Mierzwiak technically has the patients’ consent to the procedure - and releases the clinic’s files back to the patients. It is this decision which leads Clementine and Joel, just a few days after they ‘meet’ again, to discover that they’ve already loved each other in the past.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. 

Although the script of the film doesn’t spell it out, Mary’s story emphasises that the absence of painful memories is in itself experienced as a painful loss. What’s more, it shows that, without the memory of the suffering which we have inflicted on others, and which others have inflicted on us, we are incapable of moral growth. Thanks to the knowledge of the past, Mary is able, this time around, to resist having an affair with a married man. Just so, the final scene of the film, which sees Joel and Clementine vow to renew their relationship, is hopeful not in spite of the fact that they have regained the memory of the ways in which they hurt each other in the past, but precisely because of it.  

Accepting suffering and holding it in our hearts, not with bitterness, but rather with courage, requires endless patience and infinite hope. But that is what we were made for. Each one of us is called to endure pain in imitation of Christ, and, out of that pain, to discover a greater capacity for sacrificial love. We make meaning out of pain: that’s what human beings do.  

The very last lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind perfectly express the fruits of this Christ-like acceptance. As Joel reassures Clementine that he can’t see anything he doesn’t like about her, she expresses her doubts and anxieties: ‘But you will! But you will.’, she repeats, ‘You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.’ Joel and Clementine look at each other, and, after a pause, they simply say to each other: ‘Okay’. Their ‘okay’ is not an indication that they are doomed to repeat old mistakes. Rather, it signals a new choice: this time, when their relationship becomes difficult, they won’t just run away; this time, they will face discomfort, heartbreak, and disappointment, armed with the knowledge that seeking a sense of permanence by loving another person completely is an inherently valuable pursuit. In accepting the most traumatic parts of our past we grow closer to God; and in bravely deciding to look ahead to the future with hope, we catch a glimpse of the unadulterated joy which we will finally experience in God’s eternity.