Sport, sport, masculine sport, prepares a young man for society…
The Olympics really depresses me.
Not just the horrendous waste of money and the revolting jingoism and the all-pervading ideological reinforcement… but it represents a boat I missed.
Sport. Games. I hate them. But I strongly suspect that I hate them because school trained me to, through social punishment.
In school, sport is a dark ritual soaked in hierarchy and humiliation and hatred and contempt. Win or you’re rubbish. Understand and like and care about the right things or you’re ‘gay’ (horror of horrors). Be thin and athletic or know that you are subhuman.
All school is like that. A huge pyramidal structure of power in which the establishment trains its next generation to be drones or managers or lumpen failures salutary for the rest of us. Meanwhile, the kids compete for popularity and cool and acceptance. Learn, children, straight away, that life is a race and the losers are scum. It’s all built on the shaming and degradation of anyone different or overweight or awkward or sad or bookish or unattractive or poor or clueless or weak.
That was the context in which I was exposed to sport and games for the first time. I don’t remember ever being taught about it. I was just thrown in and expected to prove my aggressive masculinity (at age 7 or whatever!), to jeer at anybody who wasn’t as good as me, or accept that it was my place to be jeered at if I didn’t have any aptitude or skill.
Inevitably, I reacted against it and became not just useless but actively hostile. I started to define myself in opposition to things like healthiness and outdoorsiness and athleticism.
But I don’t really believe that sport is inherently bad or worthless. I was just made to take on that rationalisation because sport in school made me feel bad and worthless.
August 10, 2012 @ 10:12 am
When one divorces athletics from the context in which it's usually presented, like in your example as a rehearsal for life in a cutthroat capitalist society (or in team sports, a metaphor for war), and of course the absurd amount of money that goes into it (not just the Olympics, but the sports industry in general), I can't help but marvel at athletes in the same way that I marvel at professional dancers, musicians, actors, artists etc… people with such amazing control over their instrument (of course being, in this case, themselves) that they can do the seemingly impossible. Would that I had such mastery and discipline over myself.
And if only we had such lavish expenditure on the arts…
August 10, 2012 @ 2:14 pm
Of course we're reading 🙂
I have a more positive view of athletics than you, probably because I was introduced to it on my own terms and primarily through my love of the sports themselves. Part of this is growing up in a very rural area: Outdoorsiness is sort of an integral aspect of culture around here and it's something I've been surrounded with, and happily so, all my life. I loved the communal feeling I got from playing basketball and volleyball (I didn't typically play the big mainstream sports like baseball or either kind of football) and extreme sports, particularly surfing and parkour, are still a deeply, deeply important part of who I am and have helped shape my worldview and philosophical outlook on life in very significant ways. They're less like sports and more like spiritual arts such as yoga or aikido to me.
That said, you make an excellent point about school. That's pretty much the way school has always felt for me too-I was bullied and made to feel uncomfortable as well, though not nearly to the extent it seems you were I must admit. Sports in school were always dreadful and I did react against the hyper-competitiveness that abounded there, but to me I usually saw that attitude and culture as a bastardization and corruption of the ideals of athletics and outdoors life rather than a fundamental component of it (much as the Olympics is too). That's not to say professional sports aren't a vipers' den too, it's pretty clear that cutthroat attitude thrives at that level. Nevertheless, I don't personally feel there's anything written into athletics that by definition makes them tools of hegemony, it's just that, like anything, it can be co-opted by it.
For what it's worth you're not alone: My younger sister gained an extremely negative opinion of athletics for pretty much the exact same reasons you describe here. She's since had more positive experiences, thankfully, and now feels, as I do, that you can separate the sport or activity from the bullying hierarchy of school. As an anthropologist, I also believe sports, like any artefact, can take on different social roles in different cultural contexts.
Perhaps strangely, for me, athletics has always felt a feminine thing, or perhaps a place where gender doesn't necessarily matter (or at least shouldn't). For anyone who cares, I wrote a little bit about the confluence of athletics, gender and video games in my positionality in these two series of blog posts:
August 12, 2012 @ 7:18 pm
I too struggled with athletics in the hierarchical setting of the educational system. But I was lucky — my grandmother loved to play golf as much her husband and their son-in-law, my dad, so I got to play some sort of game that wasn't just a coded metaphor for punishment.
Well, until my junior year in high-school. I played basketball, with the sole redeeming athletic contribution of being tall. I wasn't any good, and didn't do it my senior year, but just participating earned me a grudging respect from the other girls, many of whom wouldn't have given me the time of day otherwise. Or maybe it was being exposed as a competitive person who could fail repeatedly and still be a good sport about it, because that's not who I was in the classroom, much to my detriment.
As an adult, I have to agree with John and Josh that there's some salutatory effects to sports and games — from gaining a sense of self-mastery through physical fine-tuning, to the creative, artistic aspects of games. Playing golf with other middle-aged women, it's also a chance just to socialize, and to practice the art of gracefulness, not just in terms of bodily achievement, but also bodily failure, and the notion that through the competition we're all aspiring to something greater in ourselves, with little glory for winning, or repercussion for not.
And, because Jack loves the Octo-monster, an image from the closing ceremony of the Olympics.
June 24, 2019 @ 9:31 am
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