The antidote to Cities of Culture

The city of Leeds lost out in its bid to be European Capital of Culture 2023, disqualified by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Meanwhile, its neighbour, Bradford, has been chosen to be UK City of Culture 2025. Licking its wounds, Leeds (or rather Leeds City Council and the people who had put in the bid) decided to go ahead anyway under the self-proclaimed title, Leeds City of Culture 2023.

One of the most striking and unusual events in the year-long programme turned out to be something called ‘Unsung Sports’, which called itself ‘a unique arts-based project celebrating some of the hidden sporting gems of the city and their loyal and diverse base of players, fans and organisers’.

“Sports and the Arts?” as Peter Spafford, whose brainchild it was, said quizzically when he introduced the climax of the project at Leeds City Museum a few days ago. “What have they got to do with each other?”

He wondered also why sports are just sports, while arts are the arts, but found no answer. I wonder whether it has something to do with sports being the same as sport, whereas art is just one of the arts. PE teachers teach sport, all sports, everything that belongs to Physical Education. The arts in schools on the other hand consist of at least five specialisms: art, music, drama, dance, writing. Never, or rarely, do they meet, leaving school-leavers in some confusion as to what the arts are, let alone culture.

What Peter Spafford’s project demonstrated so comprehensively is that sports bring people together, promote physical and mental health and give the people who take part something to sing about.

The sports that do it best, as we saw during the course of the evening, are not the big ones, like football and rugby, but the little ones, like pétanque, aikido, basketball, pickleball (what?), table tennis, synchronised swimming, kabaddi and roller skating. Not the big clubs, like Leeds United, but the little ones, like Pingpong4U, Roller Girl Gang, Potternewton Rollers and South Leeds Valkyries.

The evening of film, poetry and music, created and performed by, with and for the unsung sports clubs and their members, was funny, moving and different. Different from any community arts project I have seen before because it was about people and the games people play. What Peter Spafford and his arts team did was not to put on a play or an exhibition, but to ask them what they enjoyed about the sports they played and let them sing about it.

Sports? Arts? Culture? Names can be limiting, defining too narrowly things that should be all-embracing. Bringing sport and the arts together at the end of a year in which Leeds has been draped with fading advertisements for cultural events (‘We’re letting culture loose in Leeds!’) Unsung Sports was just what I needed, a breath of fresh air – the antidote to cities of culture.

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