March 02, 2018

Who is sport for? The implications

Who is sport for? The implications

Sport may serve the sports practitioner themselves, the audience, or both. (It may even serve other stakeholders, such as business professionals or coaches, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion.) Yet, who sport is for will also have implications for what sport is. Therefore, the two questions are inherently interlinked. Here, I will attempt to show that as new activities have been called "sport", different audiences have become recognised, which redefines who sport is for.

The history and origins of sport reveal interesting insights for understanding sport, through analysing the associations, changes and forms that sport as a concept has taken. The activities that used to be a 'sport' have implications for what sport served to do, and therefore who sport was for.

Before the nineteenth century, hunting animals was considered a 'sport'. The cruelty of hunting as a sport, Stephen Connor argues, had not been attributed to the treatment of the animals (Connor, 2011). Death, after all, is an inevitable end. At the time, death as natural justified overlooking the cruelty of killing animals. However, Connor (2011) illustrates that our disdain for hunting lies in the fact that death had been transformed into a sport; it had been transformed into a spectacle for others. The abhorrence of hunting derives from “its status as a scene or spectacle” (Connor 2011, p.32). In making hunting a sport, it is putting the activity of killing animals in front of a large mass of people. The assumption in Connor’s argument is that an activity is transformed into a sport when there is a large audience to view it. Consequently, we may conclude that sport is for its audience and is intended to be displayed in front of a large mass of people. Sport serves as a spectacle for audiences. The history of sport suggests that sport was thought to serve the audience, not the sport practitioner.

Nowadays, is sport only ever for its audience? By looking at a variety of different activities, we can explore whether activities called "sports" are for their audiences or practitioners, and whether activities thought outside the realm of sports are for an audience or the practitioner.

Let us consider yoga. Then, we can compare yoga (that is not considered a sport) with other activities considered a sport in the sense of who they are for. Yoga is a disciplined practice - too much so to be thought of only as play or paidia. In addition, like many sports, yoga demands skill and finesse to be able to perform certain postures or asanas. It requires core and back strength, as well as significant flexibility. The cultivation of these skills for yoga requires significant practice. Yoga requires 'training' as much as sport does. However, yoga is not practiced for an audience, but for the self; it is not performed or displayed in front of an audience as sports are. Yoga never demands an audience; it is always and solely for the self and not for others. On the other hand, sports are never short of viewers, of cheerleaders or supporters, of critiques or coaches. The suggestion here is that if an activity is only for the self (and gives no benefit to an audience), then it cannot be a sport. To be a sport, it must necessarily benefit the audience in some way. Thus, sport would be at minimum for the audience (whether or not it is also for the practitioner).

The conceptualisation of sport as a widely-watched activity posits sport as being for others, rather than for the self. One problem with this is that it may conflict with the virtuous end of sport. The Ancient Greeks emphasised the role of sport as being for the self: as beneficial for one’s own mind and body, and of the existential value that sport delivers for the individual. Yoga plays up to this, since it speaks of “your practice”. This emphasises yoga’s placement of the self at the very centre of the discipline: the self is just the goal. Yoga is not intended for others; if it is to confer any pleasure, it is for the self. Yoga fits the Ancient philosophers conception of activities being for the self.

Even if the activity were not for the self alone but also for an audience (as sports might well be), it need not necessarily prevent that sporting activity from also being for the self. The performance of sport need not prevent the participants also deriving pleasure from the sport.

Before concluding, it is important to acknowledge the implications of the above. The above analysis has suggested that sport is always at minimum for some audience; sport as being for the practitioner is only secondary. However, this inadvertently defines sport as a spectacle: as an activity that is viewed by a large audience. However, this cannot be sufficient because there are activities that are also viewed by a large audience that are not considered sports. This is the case with golf. The Ryder Cup, a prestigious golfing competition, is broadcast on the most watched TV networks with vast amounts of TV coverage time and with millions of spectators tuning in. Now let's return to the claim that sport is at minimum a spectacle for a large audience. Despite that golf conforms to this description, the status of golf as a sport is widely contested. If sport is always for an audience at minimum, then activities with a large spectacle face the prospect of becoming a “sport”. Thus the issue of who sport is for has important consequences for what sport is.


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