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.