The Symbolic Significance of Traditional Sports and Games. Pre- or Postmodernism? - a Cross Cultural Perspective
28.10.2002By Jørn Møller
In the study of functions and survival conditions for traditional sports and games in different European regions five factors play an important part:
Industrialization has stressed the importance of competitive and achievement elements in games and sports, but industrialization per se is not necessarily a threat to the survival of traditional sports. Modern sport has meant a "sportification" of those traditional sports apt for such a transformation, while those not apt are threatened by oblivion. Religious disregard of sensuality has been a treat to traditional games, thus the puritanism of Protestant societies has eliminated many games. Defence of cultural identity is a major preserving factor in the survival of traditional games, while modernization seems to be a menace to identity and to the games. The bearers of culture are exposed to the crises in modern Western civilization. A barbarian, a neo-naturalist and a traditionalist reaction can be recognized, all with bodily implications.
It is found that traditional games are subject to premodern, modern and postmodern meaning, and it is concluded that their possibilities for survival or revitalization depend on their integration in the postmodern space of meaning.
Key words: Cultural change, Traditional games, Traditional sports.
In the discussion of the symbolic meaning of modern sports it might be useful to ask the question, what made traditional sports and games lose or preserve their meaning. Studies of traditional games in different European regions reveal five factors of importance: Industrialization; Sport and Its Organisation; Religion; Cultural Diversity and - Identity; The Bearers of Cultural Initiative.
In particular the bearers of culture seem to be important, and thus this intervention ends up in an analysis of putative trends for the cultural development in modern western society.
1. The Significance of Industrialization.
Traditional games and physical exercises are often seen as having their origin in the pre-industrial rural communities of the 19th century. Folklorists of the previous century had an affection for and made their records from rural surroundings. This corresponds well with the belief today that the ancient games are practised in the periphery of industrialization, in areas, where industrialization has arrived late or has only partly had any impact: Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Flanders, Portugal. The argument, however is hardly sound:
In Spain the largest number of the various ancient athletic sports is found in the Basque country, which is one of its most highly developed industrial regions. In the prosperous region of Northern Italy there is, for example, a games culture in Val d'Aoste and it has been seen in Flanders that the traditional games have survived best in town areas1. This could be due to the special status held by Flemish towns as commercial centres with an influential "bourgeoisie" and guilds, which have the tradition of being repositories of culture.
Therefore, industrialization cannot be the reason per se for the disappearance of the ancient games and physical exercises, and we could ask whether modern sports is just a kind of adjustment, which has always been in existence, but has been accelerated by the rapid development in general.
Disciplines in modern sports, gymnastics and acrobatics can be traced back to traditional sports and agility exercises. The decision whether a game has survived or not, is then a question of what is regarded fundamental for any one game. For example, do "galoche" players from Brittany prefer an asphalt road to a gravel road for their game. This of course ruins the asphalt but it reduces the number of unwanted occurrences in the game. This means that galoche is no longer played on gravel surfaces, although, this does not mean that industrialization has wiped out the game of galoche.
2. Sport and its Organisation
The problem of the transformation of traditional games is, however, more complicated. The games of course can change qualitatively in such a radical way that the question arises whether it is the same game as before. "Boule bretonne plombe" was played in Brittany with wooden balls containing lead to give the desired weight. A growing wish to compete on equal terms, however, resulted in the game "boule syntetique" which is now preferred by more players and has gradually ousted the old game played with wooden balls. Boule synthetique is played with industrially manufactured balls, which are completely identical in form and weight compared to wooden balls that are liable to become battered and worn3. However, in the game of "boule bretonne" it is part of the game to be able to evaluate how the wear and tear and uneven weight distribution influence the direction of the ball. The great uncertainty and chance contingencies are looked on as fundamental for the game.
The changes, which ensure absolute equality at the start and eliminate the element of chance in the game, with the view to achieving maximum fairness, are qualitative changes of the game. These phenomena, which accompany industrialisation we call the "the process of sportification". Boule synthetique is not "the same" game as "boule bretonne". Therefore, we can establish that "sportification" has almost wiped out the game of boule bretonne.
Many disciplines in modern sport can be traced through a history of transformation back to their roots in traditional physical exercises and games, although only a few identify pole vaulting, shot-putting, weight-lifting, throwing the hammer, hockey etc. with traditional sports. The transformation which these activities have undergone is so radical that they apparently can no longer be regarded as "the sam".
Another kind of "sportification" follows when the organisation of a game starts to engulf large geographic areas in which a given game has been practised in different variations in different local communities. In Guarda, Portugal, the local district committee wanted to encourage interest in the ancient games. The committee tried to arrange tournaments between the different villages and so had to standardise the rules for play and for the requisites used. In addition they had to divide the players into permanent teams with the same level of proficiency and arrange fixed training hours. On one hand, this can be seen as a way of keeping the traditional games alive, and on the other hand, it can be regarded as an act of destruction.
In the Basque country, at least eleven forms of pelota can be found, and there is a strong desire to encourage these games. One method of doing this is to have pelota recognized as an Olympic discipline, and due to the progress of this strategy, pelota was shown at the Olympics in Barcelona as another possible sport for future Olympics5. The result of a successful promotion would probably be the recognition of only one form, which would threaten the ten domestic forms of pelota with obscurity. There are expectations, however, that sports should not be only about achievement but primarily through playfulness lead to pleasure and physical well-being. This interest to some extent has led to a "reludofication" of sport, which has resulted in a wealth of new activities (anything is possible) and at the same time given rise to the interest for the ancient games, who are experiencing a renaissance.
It has been shown that Protestantism and Protestant ethic with its waves of Pietism and Puritanism is a good bed of growth for sport6. The opportunity to achieve happiness and salvation through hard work, diligence, asceticism and competition are all functional norms whether we refer to Protestantism, liberalism or sport. A look at the distribution of areas with a vital culture for the ancient games, on the contrary will show us that Protestantism is too puritanical to accept the sensuous raciness so often connected with traditional sports, whether we are talking for instance about wrestling or games of strength, or the culture of betting, drinking, flirtation and other forms of immoral behaviour connected with the above. A look at the history of traditional games will show that they have continually found themselves at loggerheads or on the wrong side of Protestant morals and codes for decency. Conversely, there are more reminiscences of a games' culture in the Catholic areas than in the Protestant areas. Thus, religion is the likely explanation why more games have survived in the Catholic Flanders than in the Protestant Holland, even though the two countries are neighbours and speak the same language.
4. Cultural Diversity and Cultural Identity.
Clearly the concepts of cultural diversity and identity plays an important part in the discussion of the survival possibilities of the ancient games. It is striking that the games survival possibilities increase in areas where the population is struggling to keep their culture alive. This could be in an island community or a community in a periphery area of rugged nature where the population is dependent on a single industry for its existence. In these areas the drama of life is still man's fight to rise above the forces of nature through customs and traditions. The struggle in other areas is the struggle between different cultures, one trying to advance to the detriment of the other. This could be between minorities who feel their regional or sub-nationalidentity threatened, due to the larger nation state of which they are a part.
In such areas traditions are more than just museum pieces of folklore, taken out and dusted for the benefit of tourists or for the state to show off on official visits. Here, the folklore is strongly political and closely connected to the struggle for survival as a whole people, and without doubt, the number of regions where this type of cultural struggle exists, are growing. It is in connection with such endeavours that the traditional sports and games are found as objects of identification in the sub-national creation of an identity.
This undoubtedly plays an important rle for the survival of ancient games in for example Scotland, Brittany, the Basque country, Val dAoste, and presumably the reawakened interest in the ancient games that can be seen everywhere, is a symptom of the fact that Western Europe increasingly feels the lack of cultural anchorage.
5. Bearers of Cultural Initiative.
In many areas it is not any longer (or not only) a rural community, which acts as agents of tradition, ensuring survival of the ancient games, but also intellectuals, professional people and civil servants who attempt to keep local culture alive and with it the ancient games. This phenomenon is perhaps the most important point in the discussion on revitalisation and the possibilities of survival of the traditional games' culture. The basis for this kind of thesis is the tendency for crisis in the Western civilisation also called the modernity crisis.
'Modernity' refers to the epoch in which reason is regarded as the most important principle, enlightenment the most valuable project, science the highest institute in the question of truth, and progress the very end.
On the road of progress, however, many problems seem to appear, and there is a general lack of belief in economics and technology as a way of producing us out of these problems - in science as a way of thinking us out of them, and in politics as a way of negotiating us out. Therefore, the modernity crisis is a crisis of reason, - of information, - of moral standards, as scientific truth is restricted to the relation between facts and methods, - and of the belief in progress.
This appears to give rise to at least three different basic reactions, all with "body cultural" implications and probably in accordance with the "habitus" of specific population segments.
Firstly: A barbaric reaction, which is a consequence of the growing number of poverty-stricken people in society today. An impoverishment caused by the fact that while the majority of the population is improving their material standard of living, there is a mechanisation and intensification of labour conditions in process throwing about one third of the population out of the labour market as unsuitable. In this group we find the superfluous generations, without hope and a future, left to the expediencies and mercy of the social institutions, or left to survive as best they can in the cities where the law of the jungle prevails.
These groups are predominantly self-destructive physically, expressing themselves through different forms of abuse, and/or through crime, gang wars and riots. Whether they regard themselves as right or left wing is irrelevant, as they do no longer worry much about cogent goals, ideology or other forms of justification. In his essay "Aussichten auf den Brgerkrieg" H. M. Enzensberger has described this phenomenon in more detail9. He states that the anatomy of civil war consists in the individual not meeting any form for acceptance and approval, which gives expression to hate and self-hatred. The situation is global to the same extent as are the Western values, unemployment and the superfluity of individuals. The Barbaric reaction rounds off modernism and can be regarded as its negative side, the flow of capital from the Western centres in direction of the Oriental tigers as its dynamics, and modern competitive sport as its most admired side, but we can glimpse barbaric abuse and contempt of the body in its perverted forms.
Secondly: A neo-naturalist reaction which can be interpreted as a withdrawal from a mutually dependent cultural discourse to a bodily orientated naturalism, with balance or resourcefulness as ideals. The withdrawal takes on various and contradictory forms, one of which can be characterised as the "New age" syndrome and another as "Action man" syndrome.
The "New age" syndrome is the most philosophical of the two and contains a scepticism towards the possibilities of the positivist science in understanding nature as a whole. It contains a reference to holistic principles, with rather an ambiguous universal energy concept as the common denominator for the material as well as the spiritual side of life10. In addition there are frequent references to the theory of complementarity as an argument that science is unable to distinguish between mind and matter. The energy concept is often supplemented with a psychoanalytical argumentation in which the idea of letting the original and unconscious forces of the Freudian "id" manifest themselves harmoniously and in complete accordance with nature. The concept leads to respect for "nature", - ecological views, - care of the body, its balance and energies, its healing, health, and nutrition - respect for original, "primitive" wisdom, exotic practices as Oriental physical exercises, from meditation to martial arts and other kinds of self controlling behaviour, often combined with fragments of Hinduism or Buddhism.
The "Action man" syndrome contains an extreme individualism, in which the bodys form, its training, strengthening and staying power are central elements (if you cannot trust anything else, you must be able to trust your own body).
Science and technology are used partly as a means of effective and controlled bodyshaping, and partly in the manipulation of the outside world in order to create growing experience potential and also to strengthen the individuals opportunity to command the outside world. Sociobiological theories are prevalent as implied theories on human behaviour. Practices connected with the body range from fitness and bodyshaping under the influence of medicines thought to have the desired effect - to life in the open air, fun sports with technical aids that can potentiate the experience, high risk activities with the use of the most advanced equipment to avoid the potential catastrophe, which is a necessary dimension of the desired object, "the ultimate experience".
Like no inner point is unknown to the "New age" generation, no outer point is inaccessible for the "Action man", together they occupy and monopolise the essence of nature,
Thirdly: A spiritualistic reaction that moreover, can be described as having two diametrical variations: a fundamentalist and a traditionalist one.
The fundamentalist variation searches for a basis for social norms and values in texts of religious character. The basis is the existence of absolute truth. It is revealed, holy and above any discussion or criticism. The criterion for its validity is faith, and the believers have a true duty to live by, defend and spread the word. With the basis in this sort of code it is possible to distinguish between clean and unclean, the true believers - disbelievers, the redeemed, the unredeemed, thus there is a basis for totalitarism. Body practices are concentrated on rituals or on training to fight for the "good cause".
The traditionalist variation rejects the alienation of town life and the materialistic attitude to life, and applies itself to the revival of concrete human relationships such as family values and contact with neighbours. It replaces commercial events with the traditional societys rituals, celebrations and festivals and as an answer to the question of life the emphasis is put on history and mythology. The followers of this variation are very involved in local politics where behind the slogan "the good life" they work towards a high degree of self-determination.
They evaluate highly, as the bodily part of this revitalisation, the non-alienated production of utility values. They prefer to be self-sufficient, supports collective production and enjoy communal meals. They talk about the necessity of a reinforcement of moral standards, and they think folk dancing and the traditional games sound exciting on festive occasions and festivals but feel more secure with Jazz music. In their praise of the quiet life in idyllic rural surroundings with sheep, hens and geese they might have dropped their career and the "rat race", they are environmentally aware and aim for perpetual forms of energy, ecological farming methods, self-sufficiency, re-cycling and reduced use of resources. - Unfortunately they haven't got space enough for all, and also time seems to work against them.