Can We Be Playful About Sport?

By Ooi Kee Beng

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ALL SOCIALLY INCLINED animals start life by crying for food. Beyond that, they seek safety and comfort. After that, the need to train their bodies for the future takes over. If there are siblings, they begin to fool around with each other, in the process, becoming aware of their bodies, gaining skills rather unconsciously, and enhancing bones, muscles and reaction times.

In most cases, a notion of mutualism builds up. A sense of comparability in abilities and connectivity in roles come to form a basis for the games to be played. These get more and more serious as the little ones grow into adults, and the skills they honed are put to good use for the ultimate goal of survival—of the individual, the group and the species.

For humans, with the complex social systems they are capable of building, sport becomes part of life and social interactions. Sport tends to lie in the area between the Civil and the Martial (Wen and Wu in Chinese). In fact, one could say that sport is a systematic civilising of aggressive behaviour on the one hand, and the turning of play into social competition on the other.

But that’s just me thinking. Let’s get into some more public definitions. “Play”, according to Johan Huzinga, is “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.” (Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1980: 13)

Seems uncontroversial enough.

What about sport? Robert A. Mechikoff in his book, A History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Education. From Ancient Civilizations to the Modern World (McGraw Hill 2014: 4), informs us that, “Sport is a modern term first used in England around A.D. 1440. ... In French, the word de(s)porter has its roots in the Latin word deportare, which means ‘to amuse oneself.’ Over time, the meaning of the term sport grew from merely ‘amusing oneself’ to an interpretation that was used extensively throughout England, referring to competition in the form of games, individual athletic exploits, and hunting. ... While it can be argued that all sport is play, it does not follow that all play is sport.”

Competition Among Equals

Mutualism remains central in sport, however. We seek to compete with people who are technically equally skilled. We use age to structure competitions, we adopt weight in boxing, we use gender in almost all cases, we class by geographic and national representation, et cetera.

Rules evolve to make competition interesting (and technically fair and equal), and in the end, these are what define and distinguish one sport from another. Squash is not tennis despite their many similarities. Likewise, rugby is not American football, and American football is not soccer.

Most interestingly, different societies and civilisations in the world developed different ways to play games, at one end to make play more effective in its upskilling of psycho-physical prowess, more memorable and more central to the identity of the person and the group, and at the other end, to prepare the young for defence, conflict and war.

Along the way, the economics of sport becomes important. While some sports function well as daily exercise and individual development, others focus on entertainment value which brings monetary motivation into the picture. And they become part of a sports industry. Like soccer.

As one should see from above, the idea of sport is more complex and multifarious than one might have imagined at first. As with so many modernist notions though, such has Religion or Philosophy, and even Love or Power, in Sport as well, Western perspectives tend to dominate in defining the phenomenon.

In every international sports event, therefore, controversies over which sports are to be included and which excluded are practically impossible to avoid. These shift in line with who the host is, and with how internationally popular a sport is. This is as true for the Olympics as it is for the ASEAN Games. The finances involved do not make things any easier.

Some sports are more upper-class activities than others; some more popular among women than men, and some more common in temperate countries than in tropical countries. We can easily see why we have to have the Summer Olympics separate from the Winter Olympics. And why the Paralympics came into being. Our play and our games correspond to the nature around us, and to our communal conditions.

Finally, the politics of sport should not be ignored either in discussing the subject. How much a government decides to invest in a sport or in sport in general for the sake of national pride is a good reminder of how central to human identity, activity and survival competitive games actually are.

Sport can be economically generative and politically cohesive. Therefore, the political economy of sport at the national, international and corporate levels is a subject worth studying deeply. It is bound to tell a very different story about the competitive nature of human interactions from the one about the games children play which gave rise to sport.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: