Given the centrality of sport to contemporary culture, the relative paucity of leftwing analyses of it has always seemed strange, particularly when contrasted to the attention given to other cultural forms. There’s a rich tradition of radical theory to draw upon when reading poetry or attending theatre; there’s much less available when discussing sport. Indeed, the Left often oscillates between simply dismissing sport as a distraction, and uncritically celebrating it as authentic plebian culture.
What follows is not in any way a developed argument so much as some questions (‘questions from a worker who plays’, you might say) spurred by the Olympics hoopla.
1) What’s the difference between sport and art?
Can you make a rigid distinction? How do you distinguish between, say, martial arts moves performed on stage as dance and the same actions when they take place in the ring? It seems to me that sport necessarily entails competition whereas art doesn’t but is that the only difference? Sport also involves a codification, with the action defined by a set of rules rather than a script, but perhaps the same thing might be said about improvisational art. What, then, is the distinction and what’s at stake in it?
I’ve heard it argued that art conveys emotions and ideas whereas sport doesn’t but I’m not sure that holds up. Surely every sports fan has an appreciation of particular plays that could be described as aesthetic, couldn’t it?
I guess what I’d like to understand is the appropriate register for analyzing sport. Mostly, political sports writing seems to consist of something like sociology, a discussion of the political context in which sport takes place (as, for instance, when an athlete wears an Aboriginal flag). Which is good and useful but doesn’t seem to come to terms with sport as sport. That is, it provides a vocabulary for talking about how the player acts before or after the race but doesn’t really engage with the race itself, the very thing that matters most to spectators and athletes. Is there, then, a way to talk about politics and sport that’s analogous to, say, literary criticism in that it engages with the form itself, not simply its context?
2) What do we say about competition?
At various times, people have attempted to generate non-competitive sports (activities based around co-operating to achieve a shared goal) but these have not been tremendously successful. In any case, I’m not convinced that they really should be considered sports at all, for otherwise the definition of sport becomes so broad as to seem meaningless.
But of competition is a necessary component of sport, what follows from that? In particular, watching the Olympics, it’s difficult to see how competition between national teams can be staged without fostering the grotesque jingoism we’ve experienced over the last few days. Is there, then, a distinction between international sports and those played at a regional or local level? Won’t any national competition invariably stir the tendencies that emerge when groups of workers are pitted against each other – sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.? So how should the Left respond? One common reaction is to urge spectators not to take the game so seriously. But is that legitimate? Doesn’t that imply a judgement about the relative triviality of sport? Would we, for instance, urge people not to take literature seriously? Again, what’s the distinction based upon?
3) Is participation better than spectatorship?
My gut response is to make a distinction between playing sports yourself and simply watching them. I’ve been running a bit recently and it’s confirmed my sense that there’s something profoundly wrong in the separation between physical and mental activity that takes place in this society. It seems intuitive that participating in sport, embracing your physicality, is a good thing – indeed, a better thing than simply watching others perform on television. On that basis, then, the huge amount of money spent on elite athletes is profoundly problematic.
Again, though, I’m not really sure if the argument stands up. Partly, it’s possible that the two activities can’t really be separated. When I used to play a lot of basketball, I was much more interested in NBA, simply because what the players did there was so astonishing. If you are writing plays, aren’t you more likely to want to see the best quality theatre in the world? If so, shouldn’t you support the funding structures that make that theatre possible?
This again goes back to the distinction between elite and local sports. If you take sport seriously – if you think sporting achievements matter and should be celebrated – doesn’t that mean endorsing the state expenditure that makes such achievements possible?
In any case, not everyone can – or indeed wants – to play sport themselves. Is there a distinction between spectatorship in sport and spectatorship at any other cultural activity?
4) Does it matter when sport becomes bad for the athletes?
Part of the traditional justification for contests like the Olympics is the celebration of human achievement. To me, that seems perfectly legitimate and admirable: it’s a good thing for a society to acclaim human potential, to encourage people to supplant their physical limits.
Yet, traditionally, this is understood in terms of health, with the athlete the exemplar of fitness and vitality.
In reality, that’s no longer the case – and it probably hasn’t been for some time. This is from an article about professional footballers in the US.
Based on studies over the past 15 years and on the testimonials of former players, escaping unscathed is virtually impossible. Nearly two-thirds suffer an injury serious enough to require surgery or sideline them eight games or more.
In addition, six of every 10 players suffer a concussion; more than a quarter will suffer more than one, and the odds are that any player who suffers a concussion will later experience headaches and memory problems. Nearly half of all players retire from football because of an injury.
When you think about it, it’s not really so surprising. High-level sport requires intensive and specialised training based around performance, not health. Furthermore, in order to achieve elite results, athletes must be entirely focused on winning to the exclusion of all else. Consider the following:
There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma. For it, a researcher, Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.
Which raises the whole question of drugs in sport. The traditional resistance to doping is based on a notion of competition taking place on a level playing field, with athletes pitting their God-given talents against each other. But if that was ever an accurate description, it clearly isn’t now. The whole point of modern training is to make athletes acutely unnatural, developing particular muscles way beyond anything ever seen before. What, then, is the difference between raising hormonal levels to extremes through high-tech regimens and scientific diets, and doing so via steroids? By and large, an athlete without an incredibly well-funded support system behind them has no chance whatsoever. Does excluding drugs make any sense?
Again, the traditional answer comes down to safety, to the risks posed to the athlete? But, of course, they’re already being asked to do things that aren’t safe: the article quoted above talks about retired football players shuffling around like old men, since they’re all so damaged from their playing days.
So what do we say about that? Does it change the way we think about sport?
There are, of course, lots of artistic pursuits that have detrimental effects on those that pursue. Dancers, for instance, often suffer hideous long-term effects. Is it legitimate to accept such sacrifices in the name of art? If so, can or should we make a distinction when it comes to sport?