It’s a gloriously sunny day in the English countryside. Sheep bleat with content, birds sing and trill with burning goodwill, and butterflies flit between exquisitely colourful efflorescence. Magnificently natural, the secluded ‘peacefulness’ of the meadows, fields and riverbanks are throbbing. Throbbing with the sound of 18 break horsepower. This is the British Lawn Mower Racing Championship.
Initiated in 1973, this humble form of motorsport surely epitomises the track on which the engine of British sport should be headed. Devoid of monetary impetus, its rustic and simple allure has drawn famous and successful racers, like Stirling Moss, to compete ferociously for the kudos of ‘best in field’. Its motto, translated as “Through the grass to the stars”, is not only humourous and illustrative of the modest layout of the sport, but is inspirational, like the RAF motto it parodies. It shows an aim; a desire; a goal. Through 400m of liquidated lawn, competitive spirit, sportsmanship and co-operation cut through the apparent triviality of the sport.
Lawn-mower racing is hardly a major world sport. One doesn’t win a prize. It’s not televised. Outsiders hardly consider it Olympic material – it doesn’t matter. But that’s the point. Because, looming and zooming above those blades of grass, is the essence of true sport.
The detritus feeder of commercialism has decayed the purity of sport, before it’s dead. With such astronomical amounts of money being thrown liberally at football players (the average annual pay for a Barcelona player is £5.2m excluding endorsements), Formula One drivers (the average yearly wage of a Ferrari driver is £16m) and Olympic athletes (Usain Bolt earns almost £13m), it seems like the founding and purest aspects of sport are being thrown to the lions of avarice, materialism and rapacity.
The real impetus for the pursuit of sporting excellence should not be global acclaim, a bank balance that could afford 3m mosquito nets for impoverished Africans or scores of endorsement deals. It should be for the pursuit of health, social mobility and leisure. It should be adorned not with the logos of countless companies, but with the banners of health, fun and fair play.
Sportsmanship, the ideal of sport undistorted by greed or selfish ambition, was begun by the Victorians when they revolutionised football, rugby, cricket and other such popular sports. What started as commonly played games increasingly spread throughout the British Empire and their allies, covering the world in a matter of decades. Sportsmanship rode on that great Britannic wave. The idea of sport as something totally opposite to intellectual study, healthy for the body and mind, started with the Ancient Greeks; but the evils of commercialisation are a relatively new strain of plague.
The first sponsorship deal in Formula One was in 1968, when a company responsible for thousands of worldwide cancers, respiratory diseases and circulation problems, Gold Leaf Cigarettes, lit up the commercial racing scene. There’s no smoke without a fire; by 1972, every single car was covered with commercial symbolism.
Through the ashes of monetary addiction is a lesson for all forms of sport. 44 years on, corporate hands are stained yellow with the shame of eradicating the originally exemplary ethics of racing, the boundaries between fairness and balancing the books at the end of the financial year being smudged incomprehensibly, leading to fixed race results by team hierarchies, inter-team spying and drivers often being chosen over the amount of sponsors they bring, rather than their proven skill. This is all down to fiscal short-sightedness, megalomania and moronity.
While smoking is a detriment to the healthy image sport likes to emanate, the cancers of commercialism and materialism are far more terminal and treacherous to the cells making up pure and unalloyed sport, than any caused by cigarette smoke.
It’s not the money injected into sport that is its moral downfall – deprivation of all funding will let cricket grounds turn brown, pools become contaminated and ski pistes to become abandoned and unsafe. But the accentuated and markedly unsporting state of monetary affairs has destroyed all that our ancestors worked up to.
Although the intentions may have started off well, the dragons of financial gluttony have mauled world sport and have devastated its purity.
Whilst football pitches are surrounded by hoardings, leagues swamped by title sponsors and kits steeped in advertisements, the grassy knolls of the Sussex countryside are airy. A season in lawn-mower racing would cost £796.35 on average, including a new race-prepared mower, slightly less costly than Manchester City’s £392m wages bill alone. All the kit you need is a helmet, outdoor jacket and a pair of trustworthy boots, and there’s not much commercial interest in inscribing an old walking jacket.
And so, in a world chastened by oxymorons, contradictions and unfairness, it is to the lowly garden sheds and garages that we must turn to find modern sport in its prime. Flick the switch and raise the blades – the grass is greener on the lawn-mower racing side.