Citius. Altius. Fortius: The idealised portrait of the ancient Olympic Games, which inspired the modern Olympic movement, depicts a pure, quasi-religious celebration dedicated to the joys of athletic exertion and achievement. The reality was quite the opposite. The ancient Olympic Games were brutally competitive events. Athletes cheated; people were bribed; and the Greek City States erected gaudy tributes to their successful champions. Not to win at Olympia all-too-often ended in civic humiliation and personal disgrace. How little has changed.
CRITICISING SPORT in contemporary New Zealand is a bit like criticising God. Actually, it’s worse. Because, when it comes to religious devotion, God ranks a poor second.
So much of New Zealanders’ national identity is bound up with their country’s sporting prowess that they recoil from the slightest suggestion that it is not an unquestionable good.
Even when the conduct of New Zealand sportsmen (the gender specificity is deliberate) can only be described as profoundly shocking and anti-social, the behaviour is presented publicly as a purely individual betrayal of sporting ideals. Most significantly, they are pilloried for their failure to uphold the values expected of public “role models” for young New Zealanders. That sport itself might be the culprit is never permitted to cross the collective New Zealand mind.
Officially, sport is about the pursuit of excellence.
At the individual level it embraces the pursuit and attainment of specific physical goals. More generally, it seeks to advance the boundaries of human capacity and achievement. In the words of the Olympic motto: Citius—Altius—Fortius Faster— Higher—Stronger.
Team sport folds this quest for individual excellence into the creation of a competitive whole greater than the sum of its parts. The successful sports team is something organic: a collective expression of human purpose and human will that at once transforms and transcends its individual components.
Unofficially – that is to say what everybody acknowledges to be true, but will not publicly confirm – sport is about winning.
The idealised portrait of the ancient Olympic Games, which inspired the modern Olympic movement, depicts a pure, quasi-religious celebration dedicated to the joys of athletic exertion and achievement. The reality was quite the opposite. The ancient Olympic Games were brutally competitive events. Athletes cheated; people were bribed; and the Greek City States erected gaudy tributes to their successful champions. Not to win at Olympia all-too-often ended in civic humiliation and personal disgrace.
Nothing has changed. Who among our Olympic losers are feted and rewarded? The lucrative sponsorships; the ubiquitous television and newspaper advertisements in which Olympic athletes lend their lustre to every sort of commercial endeavour; these are not offered to the individuals and teams who fail to bring home the gold, silver and bronze medals New Zealanders covet. To the victors – and only the victors – go the spoils.
But if sport is about success, then it must also be about failure. Unfortunately, a society that only celebrates winners will find it increasingly difficult to treat its losers with anything but contempt. Even worse, the inculcation of the win-at-all-costs ethos into team sport risks elevating the key elements of collective success: loyalty, obedience and orthodoxy; over the more socially valuable qualities of altruism, tolerance and innovation.
The elevation of sporting prowess also risks privileging the physical over the cerebral; the fit over the unfit; the instinctive over the deliberative. It leads, inexorably, towards a society in which “hard” counts for much more than “soft”; the strong for much more than the weak; the wealthy for much more than the poor; the masculine for much more than the feminine; and the straight for much more than the gay.
If this sounds like a description of our own neoliberal society it’s because neoliberalism has learned a great deal from the political economy of sport. It is certainly no coincidence that modern management theory borrows heavily from the theory and practice of building and coaching successful sporting teams.
Businesspeople, bureaucrats, even academic administrators, display a growing fascination with the techniques employed by sports coaches to foster and develop “leadership” within their teams. In more and more of our large institutions employees find themselves grouped into workplace “teams” presided over by management-appointed “team-leaders”. These latter individuals combine the roles of monitor and exhorter. Inevitably, the team values of loyalty, obedience and orthodoxy become the indicators by which employees are assessed. Ironically, they are also the values which lead directly to organisational stagnation and decline.
The incidents arising out of the Chiefs rugby team’s “Mad Monday” celebrations in the Waikato town of Matamata have been presented to the public as the deeply regretted failure of a number of young sportsmen to live up to the ideals of their code.
Alternatively, the behaviour in question, far from being aberrant, could be seen as entirely consistent with the values of twenty-first century professional sport. These young men are paid to live in a “hard” culture where the slightest indication of “softness” will be taken as proof of either femininity, or queerness, or both. In such a context, the hiring of a stripper would not be seen as a disaster-in-the-making, but as a perfectly acceptable opportunity for group gratification and solace. They had failed to win the championship: this was how they dealt with being losers.
It wasn’t an aberration – it was the norm.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 August 2016.
The syrupy words of sports management about codes of conduct and the high standard and role model effect when people know it is fake just produce cynicism and dishonour to that sport and in general.
That is fed by FIFA and other sporting management like the Olympics getting bribes and huge salaries. Often there are result strange choices by sports controllers who seem to make decisions on whim or prejudice like little dictators. The prospect of mana and money drives parents mad and there isn't sideline camaraderie, but snarling at each other like dogs fighting over a bone as they press for advantage for their boy, and perhaps girl.
It's a gladiator thing, the sportspeople can be manipulated into bad practices, and die in their 50's instead of having happy and fulfilled old age. When racehorses break down they get shot, what will happen to munted sports people in the future of this hard, mean culture? It needs to change. Humanity and true encouragement should be included in the training and playing plans, not damaging inhuman demands.
I thought that something great came from efforts in Crete in WW2. Perhaps we should read a recent book about their Resistance runners and what can be achieved when heroes rise to perform great deeds in times of crisis. That was noble physical effort, as I believe the original Greek pre-Olympics running was.
I think this is the book I have heard about:
The Cretan Runner - Memories of wartime Crete
A bond deeper than blood. The friendship forged in wartime Crete between Patrick Leigh Fermor and shepherd George Psychoundakis was commemorated in...
As a long time sportsmen and sports fan, sport has primarily meant one thing to me – fun. If it isn’t fun, if isn’t enjoyable then all the rest that’s associated with sport becomes immaterial.
I believe that few other pastimes mimic life better than sport, and like sport, if people didn’t derive enjoyment out of their pastime or interest, then these avenues will hold little interest for them. I also firmly believe that the overall good of sport outweighs the bad, and like anything in life, it only takes the actions of a few to overshadow the actions or spoil the actions of the many. And again, like life itself, the more successful or well-known one becomes the more attention, the more scrutiny they attract.
The parallels between sport and life are many, but more importantly, the true meaning of sport (and it sure the heck is neither excellence or winning) has gotten lost in the mire. Such is life.
It's all very well talking about the sport. The most disappointing thing for me was the woman from the Chiefs' administration who said something like "if you take your clothes off in a room full of young men you're asking for it." And she has some relationship with women's refuge as well. That to me represents the mean-spirited tribal aspect of New Zealand society, which we can well do without.
Brilliant summary; I might add the concept of self respect and respect for the opposite sex went west with the Chiefs incident. The concepts of virtue and romance missing with sex and sport.
As a counterpoise to get a taste of the romance and adventure we have lost in rugby I suggest people Youtube "We beat the All Blacks". It is the story told 20 years after the event of Llanellis famous victory. It has parochialism, love, comradeship, respect and above all humility. It has all the traits to which a player and spectator might aspire.
These young men are paid to live in a “hard” culture where the slightest indication of “softness” will be taken as proof of either femininity, or queerness, or both.
it could also be big-headedness? I recall working at a rugby dinner (at which it was announced there would be a tour of south africa). I had spent a few weeks in hospital having a chunk of bowel out and had lost a lot of weight). A tall man with a distinctive flat nose came back to my table carrying a couple of jugs and out of the side of his mouth boomed: "he's not from the Manawatu!" At the time it shattered me.
he Chiefs' administration who said something like "if you take your clothes off in a room full of young men you're asking for it." And she has some relationship with women's refuge as well.
She is employed by the Chiefs. She owes her loyalty to them, they pay her wages and living and provide her with an interesting and challenging job. If they are part of a mean, hard, self-centred culture then she is too - how can she sing a different tune? If they hired a stripper, who came and was paid, what to complain about? I don't know about it though.
The whole of society has its integrity stretched to the ultimate. It pops and tears very easily. A philosopher said that we remake our society every day, every day we change or reinforce it. But we are impressionable beings and once an impression has formed and stays, is continued then reinforced, it is hard to shift it. Perhaps we should have an annual spring-clean of our thoughts, a thanksgiving day for those things of life that are good and think how to rid ourselves of the negatives? Nationally we seem presently to incline to the negatives.
Trying to get back to a society that isn't over-competitive, and manipulated and enticed by money and notability and fame, which often comes more from bad behaviour than good actions. will be a lifetime job for citizens of integrity. Good luck with that noble cause. I will be dead before a real dent can be made in it.
I remember a great story about inter hapu rivalry and a communal game with flexible rules that favoured oldies. When her side seemed to be losing, one Auntie sat on the ball to give her side time to position themselves better. I think it was The Beginning of the Tournament in Pounamu Pounamu by Witi Ihimaera. It was a game with some room for tricky maneouvres and fun. Nobody's nose or other parts were injured in the play, or not intentionally anyway. More fun in sport, and a general feeling of bonhomie after a good game would benefit us all. Let's aim at having more of these informal games!
I think this is a bit of a low blow, Chris. You'll get no argument from me about the appalling behaviour of the Chiefs team. But plenty of other teams didn't win Super Rugby this year and as far as we know, all of them managed to do that without abusing young women. The Chiefs' behaviour has attracted pulblic odium precisely because it is not normal or tolerated in 2016.
"She is employed by the Chiefs. She owes her loyalty to them, they pay her wages and living and provide her with an interesting and challenging job."
So that entitles her to blame the victim? Everyone without exception should have the right to set limits on what others do with their body. Even strippers.
to me professional era sport is a tiresome “ground hog day” like experience, a behaviour loop destined to be repeated until the end of time as long as it can be monetised for team owners and sponsors
yes much basic human endeavour is repetitive, but at least science, technology, literature and art promise the new and useful and regularly deliver
Mondays predictably see a coke snorting liquor guzzling miscreant who has spent the weekend degrading young women or crashing cars, tearfully before the cameras saying he regrets any offence taken or caused by his actions–out of jail free card–via fake contrition, “I will be a better role model” and “sports ambassador” in future, ala Bart Simpson writing lines in the Simpsons opening sequence
the real apology required would involve sports culture genuinely growing up and ending being a ‘feeder’ that actively enables NZ boofhead and rape culture
Perhaps I should have said ESPECIALLY strippers, considering the number of people who thought she was fair game.
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