Can sport be radical?

In closing let me say that it is our hope in these our games to stiffen the backbone of these our boys by teaching them manliness, good temper, and unselfishness – qualities amongst many others which have done so much to make many a Britisher, and which we hope to instil into our boys in such a way as to make them strong men indeed. Our belief is that our games may be, when properly controlled, a mighty channel through which God can work to the uplifting of this race.

1909 in the East Africa Protectorate (today, Kenya) and Scottish missionary John William Arthur reflects on a ‘great football match’ he had organised for some Kikuyu boys. People in East Africa had long engaged in physical competitions but this contest involved novel things like a measured pitch, a stopwatch, a score-sheets, and a referee. In fact the ‘great football match’ was one of the earliest organised sports competitions in East Africa. And it was  a part of a broader, global, process experienced in many places all over the world as Brits and other Europeans sought to (re)produce the sports culture of the metropole in their new colonial locations.

The Commonwealth Games are a thread in the entangled history of sport and empire. The Games underline the fact that many of the world’s most successful sporting nations were once British colonies. Running in Kenya, sprinting and cricket in the Caribbean, cricket in India, rugby in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands: people in these places have redefined the very activities people like John Arthur (who, incidentally was born in Glasgow) hoped would ‘stiffen backbones’ and ‘make Britishers.’ They are no longer, as Arthur believed, ‘our games.’

As the overbearing, indeed triumphant, presence of the Queen during the opening ceremony of this summer’s Games forcefully reminded us, some things however, have not changed. A more subtle and less contested imperial legacy is the abiding belief in the capacity of seemingly frivolous activities such as kicking balls and running in circles, to make better citizens. This was, after all, the point of Arthur’s football match in 1909: not the production of elite athletes, but rather ‘good-tempered’, ‘unselfish’, ‘manly’ Christians.

Read today, Arthur’s words might raise an eyebrow: the unshakable confidence he had in the civilising capacity of sport seems out-dated and naive. Nevertheless sport continues to be promoted by public figures for many of the same reasons. It is good, we are told, for young people, particularly poor or supposedly dangerous young people, because it teaches ‘correct’ behaviour and is a ‘productive’ use of time. Sport has been promoted too, on the grounds that those who play sport are more likely to vote. In short, it is supposedly its utility as a ‘disciplinary technique’ that makes sport socially desirable: to subdue people, to make them more obedient. A sub-feature to this narrative – evidenced in the refrain of white collar professionals who ‘do exercise’ in order to relieve stress or help concentration – is that sport makes people more productive (and thus ‘better’) workers.

There are hardly any radical narratives surrounding sport in popular culture. The voice of the establishment has claimed sport in a way which is unique among other pastimes and pursuits. Unlike reading, film-making, or learning a language, you never really hear people championing sport because it allows for an alternative lifestyle, or because it promotes critical engagement with society and the environment. Yet this is exactly what sport can offer. Even at a basic level, whether training, competing, or simply playing for fun, doing sport can lead to alternative ways of thinking about oneself, others, and the world. Sport has much more to offer society than solidifying the status quo.

The commercialisation of sport (and sporting competitions) and the exploitation and abuse of construction workers which has underpinned the staging of recent sporting ‘mega events’ must give us reason to ask whether sport can ever be radical. Any movement in this direction must begin with the recognition that sport itself does not have to be, as Arthur presumed in 1909, inherently controlling.

This post was written by Tom Cunningham.

Tom is entering the second year of a PhD in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Muscular Christianity: A History of the Body and the Church of Scotland Mission to Kenya c1906-1938’, is funded by an ESRC 1+3 studentship.

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