Sporting Twins: Orwell Got It Wrong
In November 1945, a few months after the end of World War II, the Dynamo Moscow football team were invited to make a supposedly goodwill tour of Britain. The Russians, lately our global allies in military victory, played “friendly” matches in London (against Arsenal and Chelsea), Cardiff and Glasgow which proved anything but.
Friction began when it emerged that the visitors had brought all their own food, taking into account that their hosts were still under severe rationing; they then walked out of the somewhat spartan accommodation provided to them in the Royal Horse Guards barracks in Whitehall before being eventually upgraded to the Imperial Hotel. Further controversy followed when they insisted that their match with Arsenal, the most internationally renowned club of the time, be refereed by a Russian. He disallowed an apparently legitimate home goal and sent off a home player (who however re-joined the game unnoticed in thickening fog). The Dynamo team won the game 4-3 and returned to Moscow, unbeaten over their four matches, to a heroes’ welcome. No reciprocal invitation was ever issued.
“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations”, wrote George Orwell in the aftermath. “Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples….that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles”.
Over the past 70 years European sporting history tends to have proved Orwell wrong, however. In fact sport depends upon a communality of interest that generally trumps competitive antipathies. Despite occasional dark incidents, such as at Heysel in May 1985 when Belgian police proved powerless to prevent Liverpool fans running amok and causing the deaths of 39 mainly Italian counterparts, hatred between rival teams and supporters across political frontiers has been largely non-existent. Attempts at closer political union have stoked a Brexit backlash; but no one is suggesting that our football clubs should pull out of the European Champions League, our rugby players cease to play in France or our Ryder Cup golf team revert to Brits only. In sport we are all Europeans now.
It is no surprise then that in Hastings, as elsewhere, those who aim to foster social and cultural connexions across the Channel should look to sport. The towns twinned with Hastings – Bethune in France, Oudenaarde in Belgium, Dordrecht in the Netherlands and Schwerte in Germany – speak different languages (though a high proportion speak good English too) and have experienced different histories. They retain political institutions, legal systems, educational processes etc which are often at odds with ours despite 40-plus years of Euro-harmonisation. But they run, swim, cycle, play tennis and football, under the same rules as we do.
Oudenaarde’s links with Hastings arose, like many other twinning arrangements, from the liberation of the town by British soldiers in World War II. Among them a man named Smith fell for a young Belgian woman, subsequently married her and settled in Oudenaarde. After his death their son Edmund devoted himself to forging links with Hastings. He procured invitations for Belgian runners to compete in the Half Marathon; football teams too have made the Channel crossing either way.
Sporting connexions between Hastings and Dordrecht also started long before any formal twinning initiative. In the years immediately following World War II clubs from each town organised competitive swimming galas and water polo matches. Margaret O’Connor, who is still involved with the Hastings Association of Twin Towns (HATT), remembers being one among two coachloads of competitors travelling regularly to Dordrecht with the Hastings and St Leonards Swimming Club in the 1950s.
In those days cross-Channel travel was by ferry, and one might think that the advent of the Eurotunnel shuttle should render modern travel links simpler, if not necessarily cheaper. But the more formal organisation of local sport in the twenty-first century, and the more diverse calls upon its participants, leaves non-elite international competition in some ways harder to sustain.
Football and tennis teams both here and on the continent play in regular leagues or tournaments which leave few extra-mural gaps. Zero hour contracts inhibit commitment of leisure time at weekends. Issues of child protection make team travel for the young a complex business of risk management. Modern family life too is less accommodating to husbands and fathers (or wives and mothers for that matter) taking solo weekends away.
Cost is also an issue, of course. In early days of twinning, perhaps imitating a tradition of more generous public funding of cultural events on the continent, councils or other public bodies might stump up some cash. It seems that some of the continental twins still obtain money to aid sporting links from EU coffers as well as from their own local authorities, while Hastings Council for a time employed a salaried twinning officer. Even after he was dispensed with, it would provide direct financial support to HATT. But “Austerity” rules now. The Council has made it quite clear that it is only interested in funding support for the link with Hastings, Sierra Leone – and this doesn’t seem to involve any sporting connexion. So any continuation of links is down to private initiatives plus the ongoing contacts made and retained by chairman of HATT, Ken Sharples, and other volunteer members (see their website www.hatt.org.uk).
On the other hand self-funded sport is the norm in Hastings, and sporting twins remain catalysts for international forays.
Some years ago Amherst tennis club in Hastings exchanged tournament invitations with a club in Dordrecht. Contact between them had been lost, but was revived at the Spring Bank Holiday weekend two weeks ago when a team of ten over-45 players, five men and five women, came over from the Netherlands for a mixed tournament – more convivial than competitive, perhaps, with plenty of eating and drinking to maximise sporting merriment. They will reciprocate in a year’s time.
Hastings Seagull club still send a water polo team each September to an annual gala in Dordrecht. And on 15 June a band of 13 Hastings cyclists, raising money for charity (see www.charityforkids.com), will set out on a four-day 400-mile ride linking the towns of Bethune, Oudenaarde and Dordrecht, including “welcoming receptions” at each venue. Organiser Paul Harris is unsure what these may entail, but, whatever language they are couched in, they will surely reflect the goodwill inherent in international sporting endeavour.