Sport By Any Other Name…

Does the Olympic Games reflect everyone’s vision of sport?

I am in the midst of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport’s (IAPS) 40th annual conference. Surrounded by international scholars, it is strikingly beautiful how people from all walks of life can share a common love of wisdom for sport. And with this group comes so many opportunities for good debates and conversations that really get the intellectual juices flowing. I firmly believe that the best learning someone else brings us up against our own intellectual horizons. Nowhere does this happen better than with international audiences.  This is because both culture and language can cause us to see things one way when other cultures and languages may just as rightly view something another way. At IAPS, this point becomes very clear when the topic turns to sport.

What does sport look like when no competition is present?

Sport, for the English speaking world, seems rather straight forward.  Depending on which version of Bernard Suits you read, almost all English definition involves competition, physical activity, and games. Klaus Meier, R. Scott Kretchmar, and yes, Suits, clearly sketch out what sport is….but only from a cultural perspective firmly embedded in the tradition of modern sport so kindly exported by the British around the turn of the century. In fact, Suits limits his definition of sport to things recognized by the International Olympic Committee, an international organization but one firmly rooted in the British notion of sport (Suits 27). But for others, the distinctions about sport so patently obvious to Suits are not quite so clear when they consider sport from their own cultural perspective. Consider the Scandinavian notion of Idraet, which embodies the notion of participation, challenge, but not necessarily competition, teams, codified rules, or games. This is a vision of sport that shapes cross country skiing, rock climbing, surfing and many other activities that don’t fit neatly into previous definitions of sport. Or consider the Asian notion of sport which includes activities such as martial arts performances, yoga, and tai chi. This even further complicate the neat definitions put forward by Anglo-American scholars.

Now this position is not to advocate any kind of relativism. Relativism is the belief that what is true for one culture may not be true for another–thus truth is relative.  I am certainly not a relativist and I don’t think sport is simply relative to one’s cultural view. Rather, what I think these differences illustrate is how sport is both a deeply embedded cultural practice and an easily translated one. It is really easy to see sport only in the way that you are first introduced to it, but it is also really easy to relate to ways that other people do it.  There is something easily recognizable about the way other people play sport. When I see how the Anglo-American view is overly focused on certain aspects of sport, it is easy for me to expand my notion much like an expanding horizon.

Surfing does not fit Suits’ model of sport

At the same time, it becomes clear how cultural values shape visions about sport. Historically, British sport was heavily interested in producing people ready to fill various roles in the British Empire, thus competitive team sports emerged. Asian sports often emphasize the value is in the doing, not in the outcome, thus martial arts training is sport even if one never contests a fight. And I am sure these distinctions continue if we explored the variety of meanings embodied by different cultures and languages in ways that philosophers such as Suits, Meier, and Kretchmar may have missed. So when they say sport is about “X,” they are often too narrow in their definition of sport because they are only speaking about a specific type of sport.

This can be especially worrisome when we consider how promoting one version of sport over other physical cultures’ notion of sport changes things. Consider how many sports attempt to proselytize their sport to the world. The National Basketball Association has a “Basketball Without Borders” program designed to spread basketball to all ends of the Earth. But what sport does this push out? Why is basketball better than traditional sports? I can respect that some might love the game, but the effort to spread the game has political and cultural implications.

Even more interesting is teaching philosophy of sport at to many bilingual students. I am now very curious to know how students who hail from Latin America, Asia, and Africa and who speak their native languages see sport in ways that I miss. Once I am back from Portugal, I look forward to hearing what they have to say about sport and the visions put forward by the many English speaking sport philosophers. Until then, I am excited to continue engaging the international community of philosophers of sport as we try to understand sport in its many forms.

This entry was posted in KNES 516, Philosophy of sport and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Sport By Any Other Name…

  1. nick hardy says:

    Dr. Gleaves,
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the context of the event in which we’re engageged, such as sport, create an intrinsic viewpoint that in itself is relative to the participant based on such factors as geography, culture, and socioeconomics? I agree with you regarding the free exchange of ideas in their relation to our intellectual growth, in that we maintain an open mind in preparation for the reciept of new viewpoints and information. I find myself to hold a relativist view, simply because although the human condition is a shared experience, there remains an intrinsically relative position from which we experience sport. I look forward to discussing this deeper and I’m curious regarding your thoughts on my comment.

Leave a Reply