Popular Identity in Sport and Culture - about Living Democracy
28.10.2002By Henning Eichberg
A Paper for the International Sport and Culture Association
Regional conference at the University of Buenos Aires, April 1998
Sport is fascinating - but not innocent. As a mirror of societal oppositions, sport is full of tensions. Tensions between innovation and restoration, between the people and the dominating elites, between liberation and colonization. If one tries to harmonize these contradictions - and this is what large sports organizations normally do - crucial aspects of the significance of sport are ignored. One of the most relevant features of sport is that it is an essential part of popular culture, of folk culture.
This has implications which by far transgress the limits of sport as private leisure activity. It is not purely by chance that the popular dimension so often disappears from the view of public attention - from the view of the mass media as well as from the politics of the large sport systems. Could it be that a connection exists between sport and the revolutionary energies of democracy?
A Tatar folk festivity
Let us begin with a look at two events from the early nineties. First event. We see a wrestler walking proudly around the arena, surrounded by thousands of spectators. He bears a sheep on his shoulders, the prize of his victory, he laughs and waves to the enthusiastic crowd. He has just won the final match in belt wrestling - the Tatar korash - where one puts one's girdle or towel around the waist of the opponent, tries to raise him from the ground and to throw him down on his back. After old Tatar tradition, the winner of the last fight has not only won the ram, which he is bearing triumphantly through the crowd, but also an embroidered towel and the title of a batyr, a Hercules, a strong man.
The triumph of the batyr is a central event in the spring time holiday which the Tatars call Sabantuy, the "ploughman's festivity". This ancient cultural event had been suppressed for generations as being "reactionary", "religious" or "separatist", in any case as "un-Sovietic". But the peoples' rising of 1989/91 brought it to life again. By the festivity, a peoples expresses its cultural survival. It shows that a new - and old - nation is striving for self-determination, Tatarstan.
At the same time, the festivity displays ties between different peoples, while nations in other parts of the earlier Soviet Union clash in bloody conflicts. In Sabantuy, not only Tatars are showing their costumes, flags, dances and musical performances, but also other peoples and minorities living in the region, such as Bashkirs and Finns. And not least, Russians are active both by their performances and by their expert work in communication. They bring - as journalists, scholars and film producers - information about this alternative event of sport and festivity out into the world.
The Tatar spring time festivity includes - besides wrestling - running competitions and horse races, performances of strength (as weight lifting), jumping and several games. Many of the competitions have a humorous character, provoking laughter and enjoyment. They display the grotesque sides of the human body - by sack race, pole climbing, balancing on a swinging beam. These performances do not only put on stage the success, but also the failure, the stumbling, the comic and the ridiculous. Some of the dances, too, are part of the popular culture of laughter. We see a woman showing movements which a man tries to imitate - and all burst into fun. By this sexual parody, the tensions and unbalances between the genders in Tatar patriarchy is displayed and exposed to common laughter. Other dances have a more formalized and folkloristic character reminiscent of the Soviet period when state ensembles demonstrated "living folk culture" by measured choreographies, theatrical pathos and reconstructed costumes. Again other performances are more sportive in character, such as the parachute jump.
The Tatar Sabantuy festivity, thus, is compiled from many elements and different sources, often in a contradictory way. Features from sport and from earlier folk cultures are clashing and mingling - competition, dance and folkloric arrangement - national demonstration and popular joke.
The renaissance and connection of sport, folk culture and popular festivity in the early nineties is not restricted to Tatarstan. In the arctic regions, the Inuit peoples from Siberia, Greenland, Alaska and Canada are, since the eighties already, meeting with drum dance and the ancient winter festivity Kivgiq. Among Kasakhs, the traditional New Year's festivity Nauryz in the month of March has reappeared with its dances and games. Mongolians turn - in the sign of Jingis Khan - back to ancient festivities with nomad equestrianism, wrestling and bow and arrow. The Baltic peoples assemble in their large song festivities. From the neo-colonial darkness, young old nations and popular cultures appear in the light of international attention, marking their folk identity by new old games and festivities. They expose a richness of colours and arieties which make the established Western standard sport appear as poor and one-dimensional.
A Danish village holiday
Now let us turn into quite another direction.
Second event. It is a Saturday afternoon in a village of Southwest Zealand, Denmark, in the month of August 1993. One hundred of the 150 inhabitants are crowding on the green where tent and benches have been erected. People are talking and drinking their coffee when suddenly a farmer's wife, chairwoman of the local sports association, calls to the games. Old and young, men and women form three large circles to play a game of run and catch. After this, a sack race makes people stumbling, laughing and shouting. We feel a spirit of competition and personal engagement growing in all the groups, though at last it does not matter which team really has won. The last game is a tug of war - the children of the village against to grown-ups. It ends in laughter and surprise because the children succeed in pulling the strong men all over the
After the games, the preparatory group - which is determined anew from year to year - has planned something special: a competition of orienteering all through the village. The participants form several teams and try to find the described route passing by the inhabitant\' estates and gardens. On their way they have to fulfill some tasks such as jumping rope, making a song about the experience of the day and laying out the longest chain of their clothes. So one suddenly sees all these serious people, more or less festively dressed, laying down one shirt or stocking after the other until they stand more or less naked by the way. The old village church stares shocked at the event, which it maybe has never seen before.
Again, the teams are developing a spirit of competition and solidarity, but when the "winning" team shall be named later on, there will be no real interest in that sort of "result". The common experience itself is what matters. And in the evening, people grill sausages and meat before finally dancing until midnight.
When the series of annual summer festivities in the Zealand village started around 1980, it was a result of pleasure - but also of a sad necessity. The village was on the way to becoming a dull "sleeping quarter" lacking any social life. The majority of the farmers had given up under the growing economic burdens, and most of the inhabitants earn their income now by wage work in one of the nearby towns. They return to the village for sleeping - and relaxing in front of the television screen. The school has been transferred to another village in a process of concentration. The local shopkeeper could not stand the competition with the large supermarkets in town. The church is frequented not much more than twice a year, for Christmas and confirmation services - and else for marriages and funerals. Many of the inhabitants - removing in and out of the village - do not know each other any longer, and the village road is no longer a place of meeting, but of passing by in automobiles. The reform of Danish municipality structures in the seventies had finished with important elements of local self-administration.
In other words, the village life is marked by isolation, anonymity and alienation - just like in the Danish suburbs generally. The last somewhat broader extended network left is the local sports club. But its activities are attractive for only a part of the inhabitants, and its sport hall is placed one kilometer outside the village.
In this situation of social deficiency, the reinvention of festivity around 1980 was an act of rescue. But it was easier thought than done. Once a year on a Saturday evening, people would gather in a barn, sit down, eat and drink, talk with neighbours and - after inclination - dance a little bit. It was a "culture of sitting" which spread its boredom over the arrangement, ornamented by decent dance in couples after common known song-hits, played on a hammond-organ. Only by street-player groups in one or other year, more life and movement came into the arrangement, by common round dances and song games. But normally, it was only the children who added movement and life to the festivity by their disorderly games in the falling darkness outside the barn. Thus generally, the villagers faced the serious problem of how to make festivity.
By including funny competitions, body movement and old games into the social process, the festivity in 1993 gained a new quality. The chairwoman of the local sport association had transferred social meaning from sport to community. The young people's fancy of movement and the elder people's social demand could unite on a new and common level.
Varieties and universality of popular sports
If we compare these two events from a Northern and from an Eastern European country, the social and cultural differences are evident. Examples which could be added from other parts of Europe would show further varieties. In the West of Europe for instance, we observe festivities of old games and gouren wrestling flourishing in Brittany as well as Highland Games and backhold wrestling in Scotland. In the South of Europe, Portugese folk games, Italian festivities, the games of the Aosta valley and Basque competitions of force attract public attention. All over the world, people unite in comparable events - from the Brazilian fighting art capoeira to the Indonesian pencak silat, from the Tanzanian dance festivities ngoma to the Eskimo and Indian Games in North America, from the Libyan Bedouin hockey al kora to the Greenland summer festivity aasivik with its drum dance and rock music ... They all reveal how rich and extremely differentiated the world of games and sports is, each event being related to very particular and unconfoundable cultural situations.
But it is also obvious to recognize in all this richness a common cause. It is popular sport we witness in both the Tatar and the Danish case as well as in all the others. People are active in types of sport which are essentially contributing to social culture. But what does this mean - the popular dimension of sports? What is the universal
significance of folk culture?
After all, this question should have been replied to and should have been self-evident for a long time: because modern society has developed huge and powerful organisations of sports as well as elaborate sports sciences to define and administrate all the arising problems of meaning in sports. However, a closer examination shows that very little has been done to cast light on just this fundamental dimension of what is the
popular in sports.
This must have a more profound reason - and maybe not a good one. Let us have a look at the current patterns of interpretation which try to define the social meaning of sport.
Sport as production of achievement?
The dominant perspective is still that sport is centring around achievement. Sport represents - as one says - the striving of the human being towards better and better results, towards records. The human being - it is said - has always tried to imagine "gods, heroes, super-men", and the "quicker, higher, stronger" of modern Olympic sport is just a natural prolongation of this universal desire. Sport assorts the participants into winners and loosers. More concretely, the fundamental elements of sport are results produced by competitions on hierarchical levels, results which should be compared and quantified. They require a technologized and rational training. A central organization has to administrate the system by arbitration, standardization and control. A progressing specialization leads to more and more differentiated sport disciplines.
As it is easy to see, this analysis of what sport fundamentally is includes at the same time a political concept of what sport should be - seen through the eyes of the dominant sport system. However at a nearer examination, few - if any - of the named fundamentals of the achievement system can be found as essential in the described events nor in other experiences of popular sport.
Neither for the Danish village people nor for the Tatar participants of spring time festivity is it relevant that there must be results and records measured in centimeters, grams, seconds or points, nor must these be compared with Olympic or other standards. Neither the one nor the other festivity has to enter into a hierarchical series of sport tournaments or to be controlled by a pyramidical organization of functionaries and arbitrators, umpires or referees. There is no scientific training for sack race, and an organized specialization of disciplines would not give any meaning. If there is a "hero" - like the Tatar batyr-Herkules - then he or she is important for collective identification and enjoyment of the people, not for the production of abstract records. Outstanding sportive performance may be fascinating, but it is not at the core of popular sports.
So it is essentially not the Olympic type of sportive achievement which is the point in these popular sports and folk festivities - nor in the Baltic song rallies, nor in ngoma dance in Sukuma Tanzanian villages, nor in samba and capoeira in Brazilian suburbs. The extreme achievement orientation in international sport with its winner-and-loser configuration seems to be rather a colonial phenomenon linked to a certain type of Western industrial-capitalist society and its worldwide expansion. Commercialization and the one-sided attention of the mass media to this side of sport have further contributed to make the dimension of achievement hegemonic.
But the hegemony of the achievement orientation in sports has at the same time produced its own crisis. Doping is not only a marginal mistake in the system, but a logical consequence of organizing sport on the line of result production. If one subordinates the human being to its achievement, then doping - by the means of chemical, physiological and other manipulations - is a rational prolongation. Achievement sport and the artificial creation of monsters are related to each other.
Sport as strategy of health?
It did not happen by accident that during the last decades another dimension of sports has received new attention, the health aspect of bodily movement. Today we witness many attempts to redefine sport as a means of fitness and individual health. Why to exercise sports? Because it makes our life longer and healthier.
Again, scientific analysis and political promotion cannot be separated. With large public relation inputs, programmes are launched for hygienic motion, physical training and "wellness". Sport is not only a strategy of health, it should be. Why this new focus? The established sport system has discovered that the achievement principle does not describe what is essential for the real people to be active in sports. If one wants to "sell" sports, one must find other ways. And: The system of achievement sport - being in crisis because of its doping scandals and its corruption by the media market and commercialization - tries to restore the public confidence by creating a supplement of positive value.
But what about the analytical contents of the sport-health hypothesis?
Can we understand popular sport involvement as an out-come of this strategy?
There is no doubt that physical activity has positive effects on the life of the individual, and the increasing ecological stress in our industrial and urban as well as in rural environments makes this aspect more and more significant. Of course, we all want to be healthy, beautiful and smart. And no doubt, sport can also be used for rehabilitation and prevention. However, when regarding the fascination and activity in the real existing popular sports, the health aspect is not at all shown as central. The Tatars definitely do not meet in wrestling and "ploughman's festivity" for the sake of their fitness. Nor do the Danish villagers run their festive competitions because of hygienic considerations.
If anything like "health" gives a meaning in popular sports - whether in the Turkish yagli oil wrestling or in the melon dance of the Kalahari Bushmen, whether in the Malay duel dance pencak silat or in the roller-skating of Copenhagen youngsters, whether in the capoeira in Brazilian streets or in Amsterdam and Copenhagen - than it is related to a common mood of social healthiness. Popular sport creates a climate of collective well-being, a spirit of community, directed against the experience of alienation. The "healthy" dimension of folk sports is rather in family with the "magic" sides of popular medicine.
In other words: Folk health in sports refers primarily to a social quality. It is therefore far from the health concept of Western scientific medicine, from laboratory physiology and from purely individual fitness sport. The definition of sport as health activity, promoted by the international Olympic sport, obscures these oppositions and contradictions. It does not help to understand, what there is at the core of popular sport activity.
A comparison with dance and music can make the limits of the "sport for health" perspective clearer. It would not give any meaning to explain the popular enjoyment of dance - whether country dance, waltz, disco or pogo - by its health qualities. Neither does the rock music get its fascination as youth activity from the striving for physical wellness. Should we make programmes for fitness by "dance for all" or "music for all"? No, surely not. Popular sports and games are just like dance and music active contributions to culture. And if the notion of health gives any meaning in this connection, then culture is rather an alternative - social - definition of health.
Popular sport as festivity
If there is that important difference between the orientation towards achievement of measured results on the one hand, the strategy of physiological health on the other, and the dynamics of popular sports on the third - than sport is not one. We can forget the dominating ideology of the one Olympic sport and can look with fresh eyes on the reality of folk activities in sports.
Indeed, the Tatar sabantuy as well as the Danish village holiday have something in common: They are festivities. The same is true for nearly all the other games, sports and activities named as popular sports - from the Greenland Inuit drum dance to the famous American Red Indian running competitions - and to the landsstvne, the gymnastics and sports festival which is characteristical for Danish popular sport. They all create a larger totality than just the isolated and specialized activity. They create a social gesamtkunstwerk - by putting the bodily activity in the centre of the cultural event. Popular sports create festivity.
If this is true, we have to look at sports in a quite new way - which, by the by, is at the same time a very old way. Sport, games and festivity have in earlier history always been connected, until this connection broke down in the process of industrial alienation. Sport as a central point in the festive display of life - this is popular culture. Festivity as the core of sports - sports as a central element of festivity - this means that sport is not isolated, but enters into a connection with a broader spectrum of cultural activities.
Let us have a closer look at this totality of festivity. What is forming the cultural context of folk sports?
Music is a central element of festivity. No festivity without the rhythm and the melodies of a community. By "cleansing" sport from music, the sport of the industrial society has become poorer and poorer. But in popular sports, you will always hear the drum - or the common song which is a feature in Danish folkelig, popular culture.
Dance is another important feature in popular festivity. In dance, movements are synchronized, forming a social, bodily and erotic connection. The dance, too, was isolated by achievement sport under the command of specialization. But in many forms - for instance in Danish folkelig gymnastics - we see dance re-entering the field of sports.
The variety and integration of activities forms the gesamtkunstwerk of festivity. While a sports tournament separates the specialized activities, isolating them side by side - also spatially - like an exposition of products, the popular festivity mixes the activities and smelts them into an always new totality, a happening.
The multiplicity of activities facilitates the mingling and interlacing of the social groups which is an essential feature of festivity. Old and young, men and women, children and grown-ups, insiders and outsiders come together in popular sports. Without their meeting and interaction, a festivity will not be popular. In contrast, the laws of assortment in achievement sport have carried the disciplinary sport far away from the popular culture.
Festivity is a display of identity - and this means also a shift of identity. Playing a role - that is what the "strong man" or Hercules of the Tatars does as well as the "riflemen's king" in popular shooting or the "king" or "queen of May" in Nordic popular festivities. The champion of sports has his origin in the popular culture of shifting and playing the role, side by side with the princess, the witch, and the fool. Walking on stilts makes us "high" - and stumbling brings us down to the earth; the game tells the story of highness and change. But also the mask and the drunkenness are means of changing identity - in the framework of a social game. Festivity and popular sport give you the chance to become "an other".
By festivity, people celebrate that life has a meaning. They collect around a common cause which is relevant and significant for their community. This may be the identity of being Tatar in the Great Eastern revolution of 1989/91 or the creative will to overcome alienation in the Danish everyday life. Festivity will always have "holy" and in this respect "religious" dimensions. It contrasts the stress of everyday life and creates a rhythm of repetition. Thus as a part of festivity, popular sport has a ritual significance. Sport displays - by the bodies of the participants - the meaning of life.
And - last but not least - life is grotesque and should not only be taken seriously. Popular festivity has always features of the non-serious, of carnival. Popular sport can only be understood as part of the popular culture of laughter. The strong body is fascinating - but isn't it also grotesque, ridiculous? The winners in tug of war - are finally falling on their arse. Popular games display the stumbling and the failure; the sack race, the mock tournament, the fight on a swinging beam and the stilt race give occasions for laughter. The clown and the fool are important figures in popular festivity and in folk sport.
All in all, festivity comments on the life of the people - and so does popular sport. By temporarily exceeding the "normality" of everyday life, people try the game - affirming their life, ironizing it, experimenting on it. By festivity and sports they display both identity and the shift of identity - otherness.
It is the process that counts, the sport activity entering into a dialogical process of communication. This contrasts clearly to the mainstream concept of sport as work - as it is analyzed by natural science in ergonomical terms and as it is displayed in achievement sport as the production of results, of sportive products.
Process vs. product, communication vs. production - the popular dimension of sport is, thus, not only ideology nor will it be constituted by abstract discourses about the "values" and "use" of sport, imposed on the practice of sport from above, as it is practiced by the Olympic ideology. The popular dimension of sports is to be found in the activity itself.
Festivity of sports: folk, culture, identity
Festivity and the festive dimension of sports reveal that there is an fundamental connection between the popular, culture and identity.
Culture is the way, people live their life. Conceived as a totality, popular culture places the human body and movement in its centre. That is what festivity shows by game and dance, by competition and play.
Identity is the never-ending question: Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? - Identity is an opposition to alienation - "I don't know who I am". And identity has always a collective dimension. There is no I without a Thou and a We. There is no identity without cultural identity. Festivity makes this connection concrete, visible and sensible. By meeting in game and dance, the I becomes a You and enters into a We.
Therefore it would be erroneous to define popular sport - understood as a festive work on identity - as a part of leisure politics. Its place is on quite another level than the public administration of the population's reproduction. Popular sport is essentially more than leisure and spare time activity, more than an annex to the world of
The popular dimension is what is most difficult to translate between the languages. In Denmark, folkelig idrt (popular sport) is a well-established term in the world of organized sports. The folkelig oplysning (popular enlightenment) appears in the aim formulation of one of the two large national sports federations, De danske Gymnastik- og Idrtsforeninger (DGI), though this organization is permanently shocked by debates about to which degree this is more an ideological superstructure over "normal" sport activity than a feature of practical significance. The stress on folk is linked to the generally accepted term folkelig outside sports as in folkelig forening (popular association), folkelig hjskole (popular academy) and folkelig oplysning (popular enlightenment) which is a concept of general, non-formal education in Denmark. Historically, the focus on folk and folkelighed, the popular dimension of culture, dates back to the poet, philosopher and theologian N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). But it is the actual understanding, that demands discussion today - and translation.
When trying to translate the folkelig, however, one meets serious problems. In English for instance, peoples' sport seems to have political, mostly left-wing undertones, while the more neutral concept of folk games points towards traditional practices with, if there are any political undertones, rather conservative ones; in contrast again, sport in popular culture is related to the complex of youth cultures, media and commercial sport in late modernity. The corresponding folk song and folk music has experienced a characteristic shift in the 1960s from conservative traditionalism to an expression of oppositional attitudes. Evidently, people, folk and the popular are neither unambiguous nor identical.
What is "popular" in the field of body cultural practice, is not only diverse in relation to the political dimension where the range goes from German vlkisches Turnen (popular gymnastics) with its xenophobic and racist connotations on the one side to Russian narodnaya fizicheskaya kultura (popular physical culture) in the frame-work of Soviet Marxist ideology on the other. The diversity concerns also and basically the practical dimension itself. Flemish volkssport (popular sport) refers to old games from - mostly - urban culture while Swedish and Swedish-Finnish folklig idrott (popular sport) describes traditional rural games and Swedish idrott som folkrrelse (sport as popular movement) is used to describe the modern mainstream sport of competition. Danish folkelig idrt is, in contrast, historically derived from modern (Swedish Lingian) gymnastics, while the attention to sport in the frame-work of English popular culture, as it is studied in the tradition of the Birmingham school, is mostly directed towards soccer fan behaviour. Italian discourses about sport e cultura dei popoli (sport and culture of the peoples), culture ludiche, tradizionali e popolari (traditional and popular cultures of play and game) and giochi popolari (popular games) describe - similar to the French jeux populaires - a broad range of mostly regional games, whilst sport popolare (popular sport) during many years was a part of the communist concept of people\'s sport or mass sport, linked to the pattern of achievement sport in a popularizing, but also contradictory way. This latter seems also to be true for Volkssport in the German socialist and GDR tradition whilst the Austrian Volkssportverband is mainly organized around wandering. In the Third World, the "popular" - as in Libyan People's sport or Public sport - is often characterized by anti-colonial connotations.
The fact that the reference to "the people" is so multi-faceted, may, however, not be misunderstood as if all was possible in this semantic field. The folk sport or folk culture has always distinctive features as well. In Denmark, the folkelig idrt has since one century been understood as part of a kulturkamp (cultural struggle) which cannot be separated from the struggle of social classes against the dominating elites. And more generally, "the popular" can even be understood as a predominantly critical term, contrasting a "non-popular" practice - how ever this may be defined in detail.
Furthermore, the Danish word folkelig with its traits of cultural (social) distinctiveness has the derivative mellemfolkelig at its side as an important ingredient of Danish political culture; mellemfolkelig idrt can describe international sport exchange on the grassroots level (eg. Danish-Tanzanian) as well as sport contacts involving ethnic and migrant minorities in Denmark (eg. Bosnian refugees). The Danish umbrella organization for developmental grassroot cooperation with the Third World has the name Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (cooperation between the peoples). Mellemfolkelig (something like: inter-popular, inter-ethnic or inter-folk, between the peoples or from people to people) is, however, difficult to translate adequately to some other languages.
Seen in intercultural comparison, there is both Unbersichtlichkeit and distinction in "folk" - both a non-panoptical dimension, to express it with Michel Foucault, and a meaning. The significance of folk is that there are also other folk, not only "my own one". And this otherness means relation, dialogue, togetherness.
How this can be expressed, however, in this point the languages and cultures have developed many different ways. For the simple purpose of understanding each other when talking about our specific experiences of collective identity and otherness, we have a lot to learn from each other.
Popular culture: conflict, spirituality, and laughter
Maybe, the non-verbal language of sports, games and dances can help us better to understand the fundamental category of "the people" and "the popular". Popular culture is - as the history of popular sports tells - not a homogenuous unity, but a variety in movement. The understanding of popular culture has to pay attention to at least three dimensions - conflict, identity and life.
Popular culture is never free from difference, from inner tension and conflict. Sport has likewise always developed in a field of conflicts, especially conflicts between the people and the elites in power. Culture is cultural struggle. The conflicts will never end - their end would be the death of the culture - but the way conflict is treated is decisive for the peace dimension of sport and culture.
By popular culture, a community works on its identity. "Who are we?" - this is not an abstract question, but a practical and bodily participation in the foregoing conflicts. The conflict may be - as in the Tatar spring time sport - the struggle between neo-colonial oppression and a people\'s striving for national and democratic self-determination. Or it may be - as in the folkelig sport in Danish villages and suburbs - the struggle for the survival of local life under the alienating impact of a technological and capitalist society.
Popular identity, therefore, can not be treated as a category to assort people from above or from outside. The folkelig identity of a person is what the individual her- or himself claims to be. My cultural identity cannot be defined by another person - and not at all by power. The notion of folkelig identity includes even the freedom, not to feel folkelig at all. That is why the Danish folkelig movements in history have treated the aristocracy liberally. If a nobleman or a monarch does not want to be a part of the folk, than he may do so - it is his problem, not ours. We know, he is not "better" than the common people. The same in sports: if somebody wants to be "elite" and not involved in popular sport - o.k. - let him be. We know, he is not "better" than the others. Identity is up to the person itself.
"It is up to you" - this means also that there is always a more profound dimension in popular festivity and sport, more profound than politics and programmes. It is the direct human relation of life. Popular sport is also displaying what is inside the individual - the spiritual dimension of existence. This is what - in a paradoxical way - the carnivalism of sports expresses. I stumble - we laugh - and by this togetherness in bodily convulsion "it" happens. What happens?
The event, the encounter, the dialogue
What happens is the event. The event is unique. It is once and will never happen again just like this. It is the situational, the moment which will resist every reduction to a system or a logic. It is here and now.
This may sound trivial, but in fact it contains subversive points - when compared with the practice of the dominating sport system. Disciplinary sport tries to press all activities into some narrowly defined and bureaucratically organized structures. The sport environment makes it visible: All shall be standardized and under control. The place of play and game is turned into sport space. Where folk once had played the game on the village green, on the cemetery, on the street of the suburb, in the landscape across the boundaries of property ... , the sport is now transferred into a pre-fabricated container, following international norms. The event of sport is turned into sport system.
The resistance to this systematization is a subversive experience of popular sports - subversive and spiritual at the same time. Here and now, the situational event, "our own" game - this means, we are directly linked to our experience. No intermediary authority can control what is popular in sport. Folk sport can have leaders - yes, indeed - and champions too, like the Tatar wrestlers' batyr. But the base of folk sport is what the people themselves do. There is a point where sport is not vicarious - just as we cannot make love vicariously for others. In popular sport, the people are "direct to God".
However, the character of the event in popular sport can be described more precisely. What is the decisive point in sport event? It is not primarily the result of the competition, understood as the production of data in centimeters, grams, seconds or points. This would be the It of sports, its objective side.
Nor is sport restricted to something concerning my individual fitness,the reproduction of my personal health. "My health" is a legitimate motivation, no doubt, but it is only the subjective side of sports, the I or Me.
Popular sport, however, is more - it is a practice of the third way: meeting the other and saying "you" to each other by bodily movement, game and dance. Here we are in the dimension of Thou, the relational side of sports. By the reciprocity of "you and me", popular sports contribute to folk community, grassroot activities and local network. What Grundtvig called "the living word" or "the living reciprocity" appears in the body language of the games as well. In the relation between I and Thou, in the dialogical principle, as Martin Buber has called it, the deepest qualities of human being can be found.
Under the aspects of event and Thou, festivity is the outstanding feature of popular sports, but there is popular sport also outside the festivity. Folk sport is at home in the folkelig forening, the local association as well as in the folkehjskole, the popular academy. Festivity, association and free school have this in common that the process is decisive, not primarily the product ("it") or the reproduction of the Self ("I"). The popular in sports will be found everywhere where the encounter is what really matters. Festivity as the eminent event - the holiday as holy day - expresses the dialogical quality of sports, the "holy" quality of saying "you" to each other.
That is why we have the saying about Danish folkelig oplysning, that there is no popular enlightenment without personal development. And there is no personal development without the folkelig dimension. This is true for popular sport as well.
Civil society - the people of democracy
Popular sport makes, thus, visible what the folk is, or in psychological terms: what popular or cultural identity is, respectively in sociological terms: what civil society is with its principles of voluntary action and do-it-yourself. By casting light on this, popular sport can, finally, contribute to a deeper understanding of democracy as a life form. And a deeper understanding is characterized by thinking oppositions.
Whether expressed in Greek language as demokratia, in Danish as folkestyre (people's rule) or in German as Volksherrschaft (people's power), the concept of democracy points into two fundamentally different directions, according to a perspective from above and from beneath: the people and the power. When kratia, the power, is chosen as starting point - according to a certain perspective from above - democracy can be analyzed as a system of rule or government. The discussion will be mainly about the constitution of the state, starting from the classical Greek contradiction between oligarchy, democracy and monarchy and leading to the modern questions of direct vs. representative democracy, parliamentary vs. presidental democracy, Jacobine majority rule vs. pluralist democracy of minorities etc.
When, in contrast, demos, the people, is chosen as analytical starting point - the perspective from beneath - the focus will mainly be on civil society as a precondition of state formation. The historical description of democracy will in this case not start with states and state theories, but with pre-state processes, whether it may be the self-organization in clan societies, the roots of revolution in modern civil society - or sport and popular culture as pre-political fields of a people's self-mobilization.
The importance of clarification about what "the people", demos, is, becomes visible by the problematical place of the Peoples' Right of Self-Determination in relation to democracy. On the one hand, the peoples' right of self-determination has been declared again and again as fundamental for democracy, prominently in 1918 by US-president Th. Woodrow Wilson. On the other hand, sociologists have seen a fundamental contradiction between the people of democracy, demos, and the ethnic people, ethnos. One has confronted ethnos as an exclusive principle with the inclusive content of demos, and the peoples' right of self-determination could in this perspective appear as basically non-democratic or even anti-democratic. However, the ethnic people and not the population inside a state-defined frame-work is the collective acting subject of the right of self-determination. As an attempt of intermediation, one has therefore used the word demotic to describe social movements combining popular, ethnic and democratic elements in their striving towards self-determination (Anthony K. Smith).
Evidently, the ethnos-demos question has a background in a certain sharpening of ethnic conflicts which could be observed during the last decade - whether we talk about the nationality conflicts in what once was the Soviet empire, about the ethnic eruptions in post-colonial Africa, about "racial" unbalances in Indio- and Latin America or about the immigration problems in European metropoles (among these also in Denmark). Further challenges can be expected from the actual globalization of the markets and the threatening break-down of the modern state as a guarantee of social welfare. The relation between civil society (folk), state and market is changing dramatically. Anyway, a clarification about democracy can scarcely be expected without a clarification about who is the people of democracy.
Under this aspect, popular sport and culture constitute a field of extreme importance for an understanding of what "the people" is in practice. The Tatar folk festivity manifests the Tatar people's will to self-determination and at the same time the attempt to display diversity - Tatar, Bashkir, Finn, Russian - in cooperative and peaceful forms. The Danish village holiday expresses the local will to self-organization, in reaction to the alienation of every-day life which has followed with the institutionalization of welfare (by the state) and with capitalist commercialization (by the market).
Democracy can neither be reduced to a set of rules of representation nor to a superstructure of public institutions. But it has its base in practical social relations. Popular sport with its festivities and associations is an indicator for this democratic potential. And it is a field where living democracy can develop, by encouraging people: You can do it yourself!
This task is never finished and fulfilled. Indeed, the Danish sport association seems actually to be at crisis. Associational life is threatened by immobility and may develop on one hand towards a sort of public, bureaucratic institution offering "sport for all" and health motion for certain social groups; on the other hand it is attracted by market sport along the guidelines of competition, result production, sponsoring, money investment and doping. So there is no reason to create pictures of false harmony. But in spite of its inner contradictions, civil society and folkelig life with their bodily-practical aspects of engagement, festivity and community remain the source of living democracy.
Culture of difference - a third way to peace
Popular sport as an essential element of democratic life - this means that sport should not be regarded as an instrument of pacification from above as it is often treated in administrative and Olympic terms: disciplining, streamlining, adjusting the people to the existing power structure. Peace is more than control - and more difficult to establish and to preserve. Peace follows another logic than institutional power.
The folkelig aspect of sport and culture lies in the bodily expression of the right to be different. The local and the regional life with its distinctive characteristics is important for identity in a "warm" society, and the peoples should have the right to go their own way. Popular life and inner peace of society means: to accept differences, to accept the possibility of conflicts.
It cannot be overlooked however, that in our time some peoples are clashing in bloody conflicts - just by referring to "folk" principles. War, massacres and concentration camps have reappeared, and some ethnic revivals have developed towards "ethnic purge". In the Bosnian war for instance, a Serbian militia acts under the name Srpski Sokoli, Serbian Falcons. By this they refer to the remarkable tradition of the 19th century's Panslavic gymnastic movements Sokol - but now they deliberately use the abbreviation "SS" while killing and terrorizing in a cruel manner the Muslim and Croat population. The connection of chauvinism, sport and "folk" rhetorics is a serious challenge to any work in the field of popular culture and sports.
From a humanist approach, the logic of the violence and the "ethnic purges" cannot be tolerated. However, problems rise as soon as one tries to find "the right solution" for these conflicts.
An immediate reaction - which is often expressed by intellectuals and administrators in our days - is denial that something like folk identity does exist at all. Isn't all popular culture just "invented", "artificially constructed" and moreover a dangerous threat against peaceful coexistence? Properly, it is said, popular culture even does not exist, but only elite culture on one hand and industrialized mass culture on the other, and both are on the way of globalization towards a uniformity of "anything goes". This argumentation is flanked by Olympic sport ideology with its illusion that there is only one sport in the world - i.e. the Western type of achievement sport - and with its conclusion that the uniformity of this sport should be a guarrantee for the peace in the world.
Popular sport is based on the experience that there does exist a third way also in this case. The alternative of either worldwide uniformity or massacres cannot be accepted - and in fact, it is not even an alternative. The recent ethnic massacres have been a consequence of earlier systems that have denied the peoples their cultural identities and instead shaped uniform pictures of an abstract human being; the homo Sovieticus referred explicitly to the homo Olympicus.
The right to difference is an alternative way to peace. It is based on the fundamental accept of difference and multiplicity not only between the national cultures, but also inside the folk cultures. That means: protection of minorities and a basic understanding of the relational, mellemfolkelig dimension of identity. The way towards this new internationalism is not easy. But it is encouraged by the universality of popular sports and by their deep human and spiritual dimensions. We can play the game together. Your games and our games.
In this respect its is neither artificial nor threatening nor only a strange exotism that we can experience capoeira in Danish folk academies or among young Dutch in the streets of Amsterdam, that we can hear Tanzanian Sukuma drums booming over the fields of Jutland or can practice Breton traditional gouren wrestling in a French judo hall with the pictures of Japanese masters at the wall. Popular play and games have never recognized borders. But now, under the new conditions of globalization, a new level of Unbersichtlichkeit, of non-survey develops - and new quests of identity and distinctiveness. These quests, we have in common.
The work on peace as a folkelig and democratic peace culture is based on a new understanding of what culture is in the new age we are entering. Culture is not only a superstructure of ideas, symbols and codes, it is neither "only invented" nor airy and abstract. Culture is rooted in the human bodily existence itself. Popular culture centers around body culture.
And - last but not least - culture is much more than the luxury we can afford after we have fulfilled our "real needs". The ranking is not: first the wealth and than some culture. Culture is not less than the way we live our lifes. So culture is basic. It means: being rich - together. Culture is an alternative definition of wealth.