Talking about sport

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?



Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Good article, but as you acknowledge I don’t think you quite nailed anything down.

    “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.”

    I would demur – isn’t this much like saying that writing is “better” than reading? And on some level equally vacuous?

  2. Hi Tom,
    Well, I guess that’s another question to which I don’t really know the answer. I do think that engaging in physical activity is probably a good, in and of itself, since the separation between bodies and minds is a pernicious aspect of modernity.
    But I’m not entirely sure what to say about spectatorship. Is it comparable to reading? When watching sport is compared to playing it, spectatorship has connotations of passive consumption but maybe that’s unfounded. Maybe it’s a kind of cultural engagement as rich and legitimate as watching theatre. I dunno. I’m genuinely kinda confused by these isseus.

    1. Yeah, it’s tricky. To avoid getting bogged down in complaints of passive and active consumption (which IME tend to be a form of veiled pro-reading snobbery) one could simply switch comparisons and look at film-making (or acting) vs film-watching instead.

      To my mind your claim about the perniciousness of the modern separation of body and mind reads more as the opening of a polemic than a given that can be easily agreed upon. I would like to read more of your thoughts on the subject, though.

      Industrialisation has definitely led to a proliferation of ‘mental’ labour (which I’d define roughly as labour for which the limits of an individual’s capacity are mainly intellectual).

      But at the same time, today we conflate body and mind (and ‘soul’ etc.) much more than ever before in our assessments of personal health.

      To me professional sport is a particularly privileged cultural phenomenon, but otherwise not too much different from art in its vaguest definition. Its traits? It’s characterised by an inbuilt appeal to (biologically determined? Not going there) impulses towards violence and sex, by self-reinforcing and periodic ritual (annual tournaments etc), and by its accessibility to almost all people.

      It’s always overlaid, changing as little as possible, on the rest of history, and you see something similar in the commentary surrounding the Archibald Prize, the Booker or the Hugos it could be argued. Subtract the Booker from the shortlist and view the books in isolation – then imagine the Anzac Day AFL clash without the day, the audience or even the MCG.

      The most obvious thing to note about the relationship between art and sport is that the former is marginal, the latter central. Art’s resentment of sport’s centrality (and equally, its celebration) is a constant theme when sport is depicted in art. I’ve lost count of the number of collage works I’ve seen sarcastically depicting footballers as Jesus, etc.

      As always, there’s a lot to be said anyway.

  3. Some coach once said, when asked about football (soccer): “It’s a nonsense. But it’s a very important nonsense.” Very much like art, in fact. Of course sport is different from art, but it’s also deeply related. We’ve got a book somewhere – Barthes on sport. Can’t find it though, so can’t quote learnedly from it. The French have a fine tradition of writers talking about the aesthetic of sport (especially in relation to cycling). But I guess they would.

    Re the competition thing: one reason I find road racing so fascinating is that cyclists can’t win on their own. They have to co-operate, even with rival riders and teams. Crass competitiveness at all costs is very much frowned on. And at the very elite level, in tennis say, the most fascinating aspect of spectating is that you’re watching athletes dealing with themselves as much as – or more than – their opponents. There’s an enormous difference between being beaten or losing, and the former is pretty exciting to watch, and can even be quite profound. I think the best athletes, on the whole, understand this. The thing about sport is that a lot of the cliches are true.

    For me the biggest question in sport, bigger than nationalism, is its corporatisation. How much does the branding of an Usain Bolt overwrite and obscure – even pervert – the reasons people find joy in sport? Those moments of sublimity that sport can offer are turned into instant logos. Elite sports people have been celebrities since Pindar, but the kind of gigantism of contemporary sports culture is kind of horrifying. The relentless corporate dollar certainly drives a lot of the drug use, and changes the nature of competitiveness, I think. It certainly exploits the genuine feeling that sport can generate, coarsening it into sentiment, and underneath that is an unforgiving corporate machine that actually isn’t interested in sport at all. We’re seeing that in spades at the Olympics. And then there’s things like the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Leni Reifenstahl…

    Anyway, interesting questions. But a huge topic.

  4. Cool post. Interesting topic, very well handled.
    I was mucking about with a post myself on sport, particularly in relation to the English Premier League and its complicity in the destruction of some working class traditions and the corporate exaltation of sport and in relation to football, the simultaneous destruction of its aesthetic too. But this post is better.
    For me it raises the questions of what having a physical life or a mental life means, as well as the parallel between sports corporatisation and arts corporatisation.
    I understand that in US gridiron, the acronym NFL can be rendered as ‘Not For Long’, referencing the brief shelf-life of the gridiron player.
    And the football coach that Alison mentions was actually the legendary manager of Liverpool in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Bill Shankly, who said; “Football’s not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.”

    1. Lots to think on in that Jeff. This may be a simple question though – but I often hear commentators and fans exclaim things like that was ‘pure art/artistry’, and so I huess it has made me think why would that not be right?

      Stephen, I’d been thinking about a little post as well on this topic. There is a growing academic literature on the corporatisation of sport – in relation to Australia this is an example:

      Also, have you read ‘Footy Passions’, about the AFL? By Joy Damousi and another academic whose name escapes me, but also from Uni Melb. Great book looking at the complexities of being a life long supporter of a team, and covers a little on the issues around corporatisation. I think it actually starts with the Shankly quote.

      1. Hi Elizabeth,
        ta for the link. I’m not familiar with the Damousi book, but sounds up my street. When I was a kid in the Uk I was a mad Man United supporter. These days I have no interest in sport at all and rarely watch football except if I’m having a bout of nostalgia. The best football team around at the moment are FC Barcelona, and they have the world’s acknowledged best player, Lionel Messi. But it is impossible to watch them knowing that the Indignados are out on the streets of the city, FC Barcelona are absolutely wallowing in the largesse of Spanish banks, and last year Messi was paid 13 million euros. That’s criminal.
        And I think that any similarities between art and sport that it’s useful to think about are at the level of the corporatisation of both, and the complicity of both in the fabulous hypercapitalist world we seem unable to escape from.
        Anyway, who’d have thought so many Overlanders would be nattering here about sport? I look forward to the sports-themed edition of the print journal.

  5. I do think there’s something about the development of sport paralleling the drive to convince people to accept industrial discipline. Prior to industrialisation, traditional games didn’t have hard and fast games nor set rules or teams. The whole village might participate in a game, joining in and ceasing as they felt like it. The codification of rules and sporting codes in the mid-nineteenth century was part of an attempt to break down older traditions and, in particular, to enforce the distinction between ‘work time’ and ‘play time’. In earlier societies, you might play or sing while you worked. But capitalism depends fundamentally on the sale of labour for a particular duration, a time in which play is forbidden.
    Not really sure what follows from that though.

    1. A lot of English football teams (ie; Manchester United) were started in the late 19thc by companies (railways in United’s case) in which employers could buy shares. The workers made up the players in the teams. This kind of organisational structure made the progression to stock market listing a lot easier.

      And I just remembered this quote from Eric Cantona; “I have never, and will never, find the difference between the pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the Final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud.”

      1. The Cantona quote is great.
        Serious question, though: do you think he’s right? I mean, I guess that’s what I’m struggling with. I think I’d say that a life without engaging with art would be tremendously impoverished. Not sure whether I’d say that about a life that didn’t include watching sport.
        But, then again, maybe I would.

        1. Well, you know he may well be right. It depends on what is really being compared though. I don’t want to privilege art, because a de-politicised art – a frequent presentation of art – doesn’t interest me. Missing out on a corporate non-political art wouldn’t;t and doesn’t impoverish me one bit.
          Watching sport could be no different from reading books really – passive, non-political, stimulates a lot of talk about nothing much etc. Lit critics and sports commentators; compare.The production of art is heavily corporatised, and so is sport. Maybe we need to reinvent both.
          BTW, it was a great pass of Pele’s. Like a Zen master of tea. Years of training and refining of genius in order to do something very very simple.

    2. Great post Jeff, important questions to ask I reckon.
      Interesting your view that the development of sport parallels the drive to convince people to accept industrial discipline, which sounds plausible except that there are organised, disciplined, competitive games with rules in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, circa 800 BC. And later with the Olympics, held to honour Zeus.
      As Alison and Dave say below, sport was once (with the ancient Greeks anyway) associated with ritual and celebration – and as time out from war.

  6. There was the Cornish sport of hurling (quite different from what we know) – basically a grudge-match-race-football-scrum between two villages, always with injuries and sometimes with fatalities. Different times…

    Thanks for the correction, Steve.

  7. In answer to one of your questions, when I do a martial arts form, it’s an art, when others do it, meh…. a sport. 🙂

  8. “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?”

    That’s actually not quite what I argued. My argument was that the *point* of art is emotions and ideas, (exploring, conveying, engaging with, whatever) whereas that is not the objective of a sport. It might be a byproduct of sport, it might be something the spectator gets from sport, but it’s not the *point* of sport. The point of “sport as sport” as you say is not ideas or emotions, but a physical goal: put the ball between the sticks more times than your opponent. Hit the clay pigeon. Run faster than the other guy.

  9. Oh, I’m not sure I agree with that. Cricketers are meant to win but test cricket is constructed in such a way that it’s meaningful to discuss the beauty of a Victor Trumper drive. That’s why, while Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery was technically legal, it was still widely seen as disgraceful.

    1. I’m not saying it’s not meaningful to discuss cricket in terms of aesthetics, but aesthetics are not the *point* of the sport. If they were, perhaps Trevor Chappell’s underarm would have actually been illegal.

    1. Could a sport persist if no-one enjoyed watching it? What about a case like lawn bowls? At its peak, massively high participation rates, but did it draw spectators – not really. OK, bowlers will hang around a green and watch others’ bowl, and undoubtedly enjoy it, but that’s generally a gesture of personal or team support, and fits the general pattern mentioned above (as re basketball/NBL) of taking an informed interest perhaps in a spirit of learning and finessing one’s own game, one’s appreciation of the possible.
      What lawn bowls always had, however, was a strong club-based structure for a sport that had very few restrictions on participation – not age, not sightedness, not having both arms and legs, not being the full quid, etc. It also, interestingly, has an intricately rewarding form of competition – winning end by end, rink by rink, game by game. That is, the gratifications of formal achievement could come regularly regardless of ultimate success.

  10. Sure, if you’re just watching out a sense of obligation. But you could say the same thing about awful school theatre: aesthetics is neither here nor there, cos you’ve just come to support your kid.
    I stand by the point. Unless spectators get some pleasure out watching what takes place on the field, they’re not going to come. It can’t just be about the outcome, it has to be about the process, otherwise people would simply gather to hear an announcement about the winner. In that sense, every modern sport is designed, in some way or another, to create spectacles. Isn’t that aesthetics?

    1. But the exhilaration from near misses, from close calls, the question of whether a game is exciting or not is almost always inextricable from the question of who is going to win. The excitement that comes from that doesn’t have to be because the game is pleasing to the eye. Professional sport is heightened because often it’s so close, the things they can do to achieve that are so much more impressive, skilful, etc. There’s pleasure in that energy and I’m not saying there aren’t aesthetics in there too, but the point is still to kick goals/make runs/swim fast.

      1. Yes, that’s true, cos if it wasn’t, we’d be saying sport and art are identical. But that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m simply suggesting that aesthetic pleasure is fundamental to both.

  11. I’m interested in the competitive/non-competitive thing. I do think televised sport under capitalism relies for its drama on a wonderfully myopic conception of competition which future generations will look back and puzzle over. In sports participation at all level there is of course a range of attitudes to competition, and even at the elite level the tension between athletes and organisers’ conceptions can be striking. (Just think of the different attitudes expressed for example by Ovett as opposed to Coe, or by Steve Prefontaine as compared to most US athletes today, or by many top Kenyan athletes today and their rivals from Aus, GB, etc). By the time you get to club sports, there is a different attitude still, and as for the history of the Workers’ Olympics…

    1. But I guess that goes to the heart of my confusion. Is intensive competition necessary for really mindblowing performances? For instance, did the Workers’ Olympics actually produce any great performances? Because, if they didn’t, don’t you end up with a position that stresses their value as a political intervention as against their function in producing great sport? Do you see what I mean? It seems to me an elegant leftwing solution would argue that good politics produces better performances than bad politics, cos otherwise you end up with a position that, in some senses, privileges politics above sport.

  12. The weird thing is that either/or: that art and sport are somehow mutually exclusive, or somehow opposite. That’s definitely a product of the alienations of capitalism. They’re definitely different, and serve different desires, but I do think there are ways in which they rhyme. I was thinking along the lines of, art is an act that inherently makes meaning, whereas sport is an act on which meaning is imposed, but I’m not sure of that either… But I know I do definitely get an aesthetic pleasure from some sports, and only the most brutalist experience of it – as seen in so much Australian commentary – is about the results.

  13. How is art any different to sport under capitalism!? Come to MY exhibition cos its heaps better than the alternatives on show…

    People like sport…running around and having a good time. We are physical beings. Like almost everything it is commodified. Like art, music etc…Unless you think it is a lever of class struggle then I don’t see what the big fuss is, especially if it is so ‘reactionary’…which I am pretty sure most of the Left think it is…

  14. Sorry to come so late this fascinating discussion that Jeff so eloquently and provocatively started.

    The question for me is how and why do different human societies produce sport? The thing to remark on is how sharp a divergence there has been in the organisation of sport (or physical, game-type activities more broadly) between capitalism and previous societies.

    Prior to the rise of capitalist organisation of production, game-like activities (including ones where there was an obvious competitive element — and these haven’t always been dominant forms in terms of viewing or participating) looked very different to what we have now. The organisation of teams, the intense disciplining of bodies, the use of various time-keeping & scoring measures to organise play, the reward through merit in competition — these are all obvious outgrowths of how capitalist social relations are organised in general. So competition is not just problematic between nations, leading to jingoism, but because it reflects and replays inter-capitalist competition (that is, the disciplining effect of the law of value on human beings) that serves to not just unite people as teams but set them eternally against each other, as workers for competing units of capital. As Marx pointed out there is no such thing as a single capital: Capital must always exist as many capitals.

    My argument is that capitalist sport increasingly dominates all aspects of physical activity, just like the capital relation comes to dominate all aspects of social life, not just at work. But sport doesn’t just do so spontaneously or as an secondary by-product of capitalist social relations; it is consciously organised along those lines. As Steve Wright correctly points out, many early football teams were company teams engaged in company competitions. That’s why AC Milan is not AC Milano; it’s named for a company in a league. The organisation of corporate spirit, or state/national spirit are consciously promoted. This makes sense for politicians and business leaders because the way that their interests present to them is in maintaining a unity across real social antagonisms of class. Simply put, how can you compete in the market or on the world stage if your own company or nation is not behind a united project.

    But the growing reach of commodification also makes sport the site of powerful commercial interests, which imposes further distortions — making sport not just the site of reflections of the despotism of the factory but a factory in itself. Fans and players may react against this, seeking a golden past apparently free of commercialisation, but solution they seek is necessarily partial. It doesn’t make sport (its capitalist form) into not-sport (a non-capitalist form of play).

    The problem as I see it is that all the valuable mental and physical aspects to be found within sport are distorted by the reality of sport. And this flows beyond elite teams to the increased pressure to sort through potential future champions starting from the early years of school. It leads not just to more physical damage in search of perfection, but ever more reliance on medical technology to patch that damage up so that the sport can be continued. Even when people join running or cycling or footy groups “just for fun” they are still run along the same lines as more organised sport — people time themselves, score points, aim for “personal bests” — as if these are necessarily the only possible ways to achieve mental and physical potentials.

    So the question of how to approach sport critically seems to me to run along two main tracks. The first is to understand that its form and organisation and ideologies are an outgrowth if the alienated social relations of the capitalist mode of production — and specifically of a type that deeply (and in many ways quite obviously) reflects the organisation of production under a system of competitive accumulation. Thus, there is nothing “natural” about this state of affairs, and we should not lower our horizons by imagining “that’s all there is” in terms of enjoyable and physically/mentally healthy game-like physical activity. But at the same time we have to recognise that people like sport because it simultaneously engages both their alienated feeling that this is how sport must be, but also their desire to enjoy pleasurable activities of the sort that sport distorts. So, as Trotsky said of art, we need to judge and analyse sport on its own merits, as long as we then don’t try to reduce our analysis to simply doing that. It must be part of a wider social critique that points to the non-naturalness of the current set-up and towards the possibility of different social conditions allowing humans to consciously develop different ways to play in the future.

    The second track is to intervene in the directly political aspects of sport. We should have something to say about how commercialisation creates ever-crazier distortions of the good things people look to sport for. We should point to the madness of how doping is almost essential to winning at the elite (and lower) levels and how level playing fields are as much a myth in sport as in society in general. We should have a critique of jingoism. We should refuse to back Australia against other countries because the main enemy is at home. We should cheer when a John Carlos raises his fist in a black power salute and join protests to stop things like the Springboks tours of the 1970s. None of that should stop us pursuing an appreciation of a great play or an amazing physical feat, but to imagine we can abstract the play from the politics would be deeply problematic.

    Finally on the question of art v sport, while I think there is a fuzzy border (bullfighting is in the arts & culture section of Spanish newspapers, for example, although perhaps “sport” isn’t the correct name for the organised torture of animals either) the main lines I sketch above suggest they are organised quite differently (even though both are of course also commodities).

    DISCLAIMER: I’m an only partially recovered cricket tragic.

  15. I pretty much agree with all of that. Particularly struck by this comment, though: ‘Even when people join running or cycling or footy groups “just for fun” they are still run along the same lines as more organised sport — people time themselves, score points, aim for “personal bests” — as if these are necessarily the only possible ways to achieve mental and physical potentials.’
    That seems to imply the prospect of a non-capitalist sport, in which competition wouldn’t apply. But if sport is defined, at least in part, by competition, the logic seems to be an anti-sport position, an idea that sport is something that will be overcome, supplanted by ‘enjoyable and physically/mentally healthy game-like physical activity’. In that sense, it’s rather different to the position on art: art would be transformed in a non-market society but it wouldn’t be replaced.
    As I said, the logic makes sense to me but I’m kinda uncomfortable with the conclusion. I mean, if you really think sport matters today — and millions of people do — the bits you are obsessed with are scores, records and personal bests, precisely the aspects we’re saying will disappear.
    The argument seems to work but it intuitively doesn’t feel right.

    1. I had originally addressed this sport/art thing in my comment but it was stupidly long already and so I cut it out. I think it’s a terminological issue, really, and that while sport and art are different there are analogous ways of considering them.

      So, art has been dramatically transformed by the social realities from and through which it is produced. Art today is so bound up with capitalist social relations that both its production and our appreciation of it is historically rooted. Therefore there’s always a danger that we’ll interpret the art of the past through what art is today rather than understanding its specificity.

      I would expect that at one level we’d want to “overcome” the capitalist nature of art today also; that doesn’t stop us appreciating the human creative qualities and their connection to our existing society. So, for example, despite the fact that millions love and obsess over the Harry Potter novels and movies, I would want that kind of art “overcome” (Harry Potter being obviously not a form of sport, even if there are PS3 games modeled on it; although the issue of video games is an interesting boundary phenomenon, isn’t it?). In fact, I’d want all art based in general human alienation overcome. Surely creativity can develop on different bases?

      Play (whether you call it “sport” or not) is similarly socially bound and shaped. I think similar considerations apply.

      On the issue of competition, and this is addressed to Alison also, I perhaps should have been clearer. Competition has existed in previous societies, but competitive accumulation distinguishes capitalism from those other societies. Therefore there is the risk that we see all past competition as capitalist competition. The ancient world did indeed have organised games with rules, and winners & losers, but the organisation of those games/sports was radically different, and the social meaning of the competition was also very distant from what we know. The time-keeping, the obsession with scores and stats, the extreme disciplining of bodies as if machines, etc — these were not just the result of more primitive technology but because social relations were such that these things couldn’t even be imagined as important.

      There’s a great passage in Chapter 1 of Capital Vol 1 where Marx points out the limits of Aristotle’s political economy; that Aristotle admits he cannot get any further in figuring out how you make two qualitatively different things (beds and houses!) commensurable for exchange in the marketplace (markets being a peripheral aspect of his society). Marx points out that what is missing, because there is no social basis for it in Ancient Greek society, is a concept of value that allows such different things to be quantitatively commensurate. The extreme quantitative comparisons that modern sport demands would have been alien to people in that time.

      Similarly, the end of capitalist social relations would allow people to consciously choose new ways to play, no longer trapped within the fetishised form of market relations that make sport what it is today. Of course it’s possible that some of the things we are talking about — scores, personal bests, etc — may be appropriated by a post-capitalist sport, but the social significance of these technical measures will no doubt be vastly different.

      Finally, it’s possible that there will be a fusion of various types of human activity (work, art, play) because the divisions of labour imposed by class societies will no longer make sense.

  16. I suspect that both ‘sport’ and ‘art’ come from the same impetus of ritual and celebration.I’d assume that anthropological studies may suggest that. However, the other feature is ‘play’…and that’s generic, but there’s also a martial component — a warriorism — implicit in being physically challenged.

    What capitalism does is alienate the process and take it out of our proximal experience.

  17. Yes, agree with all the distortions laid out above. But competition well predates capitalism. Or do the ancient Greeks qualify as a capitalist society? They organised spectator sport in ways we’d recognise it. The Olympiads were religious festivals which, like the play festivals, were huge public events. Notably, both art and sport were competitive: the play festivals were competitions too. And of course the winning athletes were duly celebrated in Odes. Not to idealise the Greeks, but they placed the idea of competition in a different context – as Dave said above, ritual and celebration – so even though politics entered the games bigtime, in rivalries and cheating between different regions etc, it seems from here a socially richer way of looking at exceptional human achievement. Rather than, say, being a human billboard for a soft drink.

  18. Not sure that competition in sport is a cultural universal. Anthropologist K. E. Read wrote about the Gahuku-Gama, who learned all the formal rules of football (or ‘soccer’ if you must) but play it with a different ethos. Levi-Strauss quotes Read that the Gahuku-Gama ‘will play, several days running, as many matches as are necessary for both sides to reach the same score’.

    Of course it’s hardly typical of sport as it is played. But I don’t think we can say that they aren’t playing properly, or that they’ve missed the point; they are playing actual games of football, with an underlying ethos that’s in radical opposition to how it’s usually played.

  19. I sit, barely able to type, after having recently joined a gym where the emphasis is on weights. Free weights. Machine weights. Balls that are also weights. And twenty-two year old men as trainers who can lift one-handed what I am struggling to bench press. It’s actually fun to not think about anything except whether one can lift something. And how many times without vomiting. It is totally a self-directed competition, if that makes sense.

    And only later, as the muscles cry, to contemplate how far we can actually remake our bodies, under those pesky conditions inherited from the past…(that’s a long way of saying sloth and computer induced fat).

    I promised myself I would not write the phrase weighty issues, and I almost succeeded.

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