‘Just fucking do it,’ my friend said. At least, that was the gist. She’d just joined roller derby. I was contemplating boxing. I took her advice.
After nervously booking into an introductory session, I made my way down to Banana Alley. This was a real martial arts gym, not some boxercise centre. I wanted to know boxing: the sport, its technique. I wanted to know how to hit and take hits. I’d watched Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby in complete, teary awe. I’d been captured by the vision of a woman fighting in the ring: her strength, her power, her technique. I wanted to do that.
Boxing gyms have a particular smell and sound: skipping ropes beating mats or wood, the smack of gloves on bags and pads, the dull scent of old sweat that has seeped into talc-embedded leather. It felt dangerous. I liked that. I was handed some gloves and wrist wraps, and directed towards the coach. I easily picked him out. The sport had shaped and moulded his body. He was a slouched and tattooed Yoda of boxing.
An hour and a half later, I’d learnt, while creating my own personal sweat shower, to wrap my wrists, deliver a basic jab, cross and hook, and had renewed my affair with sport after almost twenty years of abstinence. It was a crazy, instant kind of love. I was high for hours afterwards, giddy with excitement every time I recounted the snap of a well-hit pad. After years of attempts to get fit, with tedious hours sitting on a machine in a gym, I’d found what would draw me back, three or four times a week, for most of a year.
I was reminded that day of something I’d forgotten among commercialised sport, TV coverage and giant stadium spectacles. Sport is ours, too. Sport is as simple as finding rubber tyres with which to train, winding sticks together into a soccer ball,1 as running barefoot across dirt paths. It is as simple – and complex – as ordinary, human, physical exertion, creativity and interaction. It happens, every day, around the globe, away from spotlights and social media.
Sport is not just about entertainment, or passing the time, or keeping healthy, although it is also all of those things. CLR James argues that sport, like all culture, is both art and politics. To me, sport is life. Our bodies are designed to move, and are much better for moving alongside, with and against others. Sport is social interaction – even if only at the level of agreed rules or training techniques. It is the development of skill and physical mastery; it is creative labour. At times it is also exquisitely beautiful.
‘The body invades our everyday experience,’ writes Alberto Melucci in a book on The Playing Self. This statement, strangely, captures a common sentiment. Daily we complain about our bodies: the need to eat, the drive to eat too much, how our bodies look, how they creak and ache, how tired we are, how we’ve woken with a crook neck. The injured bodies of workers are discarded by workplaces, as if broken pieces of equipment; at best, some compensation might be paid (as if anything can compensate for damaged biology).
Our bodies get sick, break, age, don’t deal well with sitting all day. They never seem to live up to the standards we expect. At times our bodies feel like an external burden on our real, higher selves. We treat our biology like something to be fixed and controlled.
Is it any surprise, then, that through the physical activity of sport – an activity we choose – we find ourselves whole again? No wonder we are exhilarated when reconnecting with our bodies as ourselves. Boxer Mischa Merz describes the elation she has felt through her chosen sport, not only because of triumphs, but out of the everyday labour of training. She practises the sport ‘like an artist,’ she says, ‘not to attain any particular goal, but because it is who I am’.
Modern capitalism treats our bodies as adjuncts to work. Our bodies become extensions of machines. Marx described how capitalist production atomises us and alienates us from our own labour. We do not control the conditions in which we work to survive, nor what we work for. We become alienated from that which constitutes that labour: our own bodies.
We take this feeling into our lives beyond work. We shun emotion, as if it too is an invasion, rather than a tool for connecting with our biological selves. We disengage from each other and manage our shared time as if working against a clock.
Yet some of our most meaningful friendships and feelings of camaraderie are formed through shared physical activity, through the embrace of shared goals, disasters, triumphs and feelings. As Zach Dundas writes in The Renegade Sportsman:
Sports exercise our higher social functions, fuel our dreams, and trigger the sensory animal pleasures that give our evolved consciousness its earthy roots. They remind us both of the body’s capacity for excellence and its frequent and often hilarious fallibility.
For Dundas, adventures in sport show us how great life can be ‘away from the electronic haze’ that is modern life.
In a recent article, Damon Young goes further. Fitness, he argues, is not simply about health or enjoying endorphins:
The rewards are also existential: the satisfaction of seeing one’s self-conception translated into flesh. It is the runner’s easy breath, the boxer’s weavings, the rower’s rhythms. The heightened feeling of being alive in this body, the only one we have.
We reconnect with our bodies, ourselves and each other. Our biology becomes something to celebrate and enjoy.
Fitness and physical ability can be channelled back into work. Managements and governments have long known the contribution that regular exercise makes to developing bodies and minds for further exploitation. Workplaces offer free fitness programs and discount gym memberships. Managerialist-speak from our workday – efficiency, productivity, competition, working beyond our limits – finds its way not only into the corporate gyms but into the sports we play for fun.
As most of us would have experienced, sport in schools has rarely been just about play. It is part of the training ground for work and its management. School programs are regimented and often compulsory. Many have noted the similarities between sports and military training, as well as some sporting spectacles and war parades – the fanfare, national pride and flag waving. It is not uncommon for governments to consciously increase the fervour around international competitions in times of war to bolster nationalism and distract from their own crimes.
Competition in sport can normalise ruthless competition for food, housing and jobs. It can support an ideology in which the victim is held responsible for his or her own failings, for not working or training hard enough. It can foster blame directed at individuals for lack of performance rather than at society for not providing the means to survive.
But the problem is not the competitive nature of sport per se.
Competition that helps athletes improve, that’s friendly, that pushes people beyond ideas of what is possible: all of this has a name. ‘Being a good sport’ is very different from competition that leaves people distraught or shamed – or, for that matter, starving, cold or poor.
Competition in sport is social. It requires agreed rules of play, measurements of success and recognition of improvements. The spontaneous admiration that even elite athletes express for each others’ performances is just one example. So is the spectators’ response to bad play, to rules being bent or time wasted. An idea of fair competition starkly contrasts to notions of winning at all costs, to the ruthless ideology of capitalism.
In any case, sporting culture is not the only example of our ‘eight hours of play’ being intruded upon by commodification, the expansion of work or ideology. Something similar happens in all areas of our ‘leisure’ time, all cultural activities. Yet sport still remains an alternative, a place where our bodies are more our own. It is a site of struggle for collective, physical control, where political and even industrial struggles begin. The Zapatistas play football (soccer) to develop camaraderie and international solidarity. The sit-down strikes in the US during the Great Depression began not in a factory, but at a baseball game, against a non-union umpire.
The reconnection with the body provided by sport is particularly powerful for women. The experience of the body as passive object to be observed and controlled by others is intense in a culture in which images of women’s bodies are commodified. Sport and physical activity can transform this. Many women describe regaining their sense of self as they shift from how their body looks to what it can do, or from calorie-counting to eating food as fuel. Roller derby skaters describe a sudden appreciation for their powerful thighs and glutes, a revelation in a culture that privileges images of women’s skinny legs.
Damon Young describes how the power gained from physical exertion is ‘visceral’, an ‘inner feeling of augmented potency, born of dogged, skilful striving’. For women, especially, this sense of increased power translates into other areas of personal, domestic and work lives. According to US research, women active in sport are less likely to suffer from eating disorders or even be in abusive relationships.
Sport is also challenging the socially constructed divide between sexes. Women are catching up with and surpassing men in some areas. John Brenkus argues that we are ‘only scratching the surface of what women will accomplish in sports’. Social theorists like Jennifer Hargreaves compare sport to a silent wave of feminism, bringing into disrepute the very idea that women can’t be as dynamic, aggressive and muscular as men. Attempts at policing ‘womanhood’ by organisations like the IOC are, as Jesse Ellison points out, becoming almost laughable.
Sport provides the space for women to express themselves physically and overturn traditional notions of femininity; changing women’s bodies is deeply political.
Of course, sport itself can be a source of alienation, atomisation and damage. Sports institutions manage, control and even injure athletes. The move towards giant stadiums and televised spectacles correlates with declining popular involvement in physical activity. Sport is absolutely bound up in the capitalist economy and neoliberal ideology. The multi-billion dollar industry, with its glossy logos, hides the super-exploitation of factory workers, while turning some athletes into symbolic gods.
Even at elite level, both athlete and spectator suffer under corporate-run sport. Athletes are denied free expression in the name of brand or national promotion. They are reduced to bodies to perform for others. Athletes who step outside strict limits are quickly punished, like civil rights advocates Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. Even elite athletes have had to organise and form players unions to regain some control not only over pay but over coaching, and in defence of their lives outside of sport.
Under corporate control, spectators are separated from their heroes, only accessing them via media conferences or product launches. Sport gets drained of its humanity, becomes heavily managed and dominated by advertising. It transforms into a spectacle, where any elite performance cannot be free of branding.
The real contradiction, then, is between sport run for profit and sport run for human enjoyment. The former is the almost sole focus of cultural critics, while sport as an ordinary expression of human ability or in connection to social struggle is often missed. But it exists, nonetheless. Zach Dundas defines his ‘renegade sport’ as sport driven by those involved, that breaks the taken-for-granted separation between observer and participant, that is spontaneous, bends rules and is about fun.
Travel outside our borders and you’ll see sport played every day around the world, under every condition, not only in well-funded centres but in refugee camps, urban schools and deserts. It is both played and cheered on. It is this ordinary, collective enthusiasm for sport and expression of physical skill that is the most interesting.
Sport displays, in a sense, that dynamism of living labour that Karl Marx argued drives human development and that is so constrained in our contemporary working lives. This could explain our almost universal enjoyment of it. Dave Zirin surmises that:
sports are more than just a sounding board for war, graft and mind-numbing moralism. It can also be place of inspiration that doesn’t transcend the political but becomes the political, a place where we see our own dreams and aspirations played out in dynamic Technicolour.
When Jesse Owens wins over an Olympic stadium in Nazi Germany; when Diego Maradona scores one of the best goals of all time, against the team representing the imperialist oppressor in a bitter war; when Billie Jean King beats sexist Bobby Riggs in straight sets, quite literally at his own game; when a world unites against the racist selection policies of South Africa; when the life of a young transgender girl is forever changed by seeing herself reflected in the Vagine Regime, a network of queer roller derby skaters; when an unassuming group of refugees comes together through the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to play football (soccer) – sports shows itself to be absolutely the stuff of politics.
These moments are not anathema to sport, something brought from ‘the outside’. Like any cultural form, questions of social power, unity and division run all through sport. So does the human desire to express ourselves creatively, to move in and change the world around us, to develop our physical selves. CLR James, in discussing what attracts people to political activity, writes that they are simply drawn to live a free life and to ‘live the life that is in them’ and to ‘refuse to be bound by the old traditions and ideas’.
The life within
The stadium is packed. The organisers sold the original allocation of 3300 tickets in a matter of days, before finding the extra seating to squeeze in another 300. The crowd is raucous and on its feet. A few hundred are pushing and shoving to get closer to the visitors from the US and their Melbourne rivals.
The visitors, the Texas Rollergirls, hail from the home of modern roller derby, one of the fastest-growing women’s sports. A radical, athlete-led game, run ‘by the skaters, for the skaters’, roller derby is challenging notions of how sport should function.
The agility, the leaps and spins, the giant hip and shoulder blows on display at the game played at the Melbourne Showgrounds in July 2011 would be incredible on two feet, let alone on eight wheels. It is as beautiful as any dance performance, as powerful as any contact sport, as precise as any music. A collective ‘oh my god’ echoed about the stadium as we began to comprehend what the sport had become in less than ten years.
CLR James had a profound understanding of the significance of such moments. He understood the tension between sporting success and failure. When a triumph over risk occurs, ‘it demonstrates to the watching world for a moment something of the possibility inherent in human creativity, something of the human ability to transfigure and transform circumstance’. Sport, played well, is no less than a display of human potential. As Young says, it is a chance ‘to transform the world’.
For James, the ‘desire for togetherness and the celebration of the human as an ability to act in the world’ and those ‘flashes of wholeness and completion which cultural forms at their best provide’, these are not the ‘other’ to political struggle. These are what a genuine and popular politics is about. A politics without them is inhuman.
Sport’s radical potential is simple. In contrast to our alienated and constrained existence, sport provides a place for us to change the world around us, by living the life that is within us.
1 My sister came across the stick-woven footballs in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.