Playing at Being a Sportsperson at the Winter Olympics

If the voices chirping up in the national conversation to express with pleasant surprise just how much they’re currently enjoying the Moguls or the Curling sound familiar, that’s because you heard them four years ago, the last time the Winter Olympics rolled onto our television schedules. You may also have heard these voices more recently, when the summer Games came to London and turned an unexpected percentage of our population into Handball and Taekwondo fanatics. But the winter Games, at least in Britain, are more immediately associated with the primetime airing of sports nobody has heard of or understands. Increased funding to Winter Olympic sports, addressed recently in an interesting column by Guardian sports writer Sean Ingle, might be working to change this as partisan participation becomes more attainable for British audiences, but until the ice-bound equivalent of a Victoria Pendleton or Chris Hoy emerges, the question remains: why do we watch alien sports so intently? Or, to pose a more easily-tackled question, what do we see when we watch them? After all, even if we can piece together the rules for an unfamiliar event over the course of an afternoon’s viewing, the narrative element will still be lacking: as journalist David Conn notes in his book The Beautiful Game: Searching for the Soul of Football, it is not the ‘earnest strivings of millions of people out there playing it, week after week’ that defines the national game; rather, the narrative armature of heroes and villains, league points gained and lost, ‘came to be what we all think of as football itself.’ How do we orientate ourselves, and enjoy ourselves, without this body of knowledge? 

In Man, Play and Games, first published in France as Les jeux et les homes in 1958, Roger Caillois drew up a definitive taxonomy of play. First, Caillois names a continuum between paidia, most closely associated with the unstructured play of young children, and ludus, the structured adult play found in ritual and organised sporting contexts. Four categories then nestle into this stratum: ‘One plays football, billiards, or chess (agon); roulette or a lottery (alea); pirate, Nero, or Hamlet (mimicry); or one produces in oneself, by a rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness and disorder (ilinx).’ Sport as we know it, Caillois acknowledges, actually consists of a blend between terms one and three: agon, which deals in superiority,and mimicry, which deals in make-believe. When a footballer performs, he or she is not only playing football, but also playing at being a footballer, since stepping onto the field of play involves a kind of metamorphosis in which the rules of the game become not just a means by which one individual may exhibit their superiority over another in controlled conditions, but also a code which momentarily redefines the scope of possible action. Agon is actually relatively mute without a supplement of mimicry: Cristiano Ronaldo’s 400th career goal would seem less of an indicator of inherent superiority had he scored all these goals in training, away from the theatrical stage of the sanctioned match.

When we watch a sport with which we are unfamiliar, this aspect of mimicry shifts disarmingly into focus. The concentration etched on the faces of the curling stone-handler (see above), or the furious activity of the broom-wielder, appear comically arbitrary at first. Gradually, the terms and conditions of the contest become clearer, justifying the investment of the participants. But these terms and conditions would remain murky without some prior knowledge of organised sport: it is only by leaning on elements gleaned from other sport-worlds that we are able to make sense of something so seemingly arcane as curling. This tuning-in process can throw up some strange juxtapositions: curling is a lot like bowls, in that the aim is to land round objects close to other round objects, but also a bit like baseball in the variety of points that can be scored with a single action, and even a bit like American football, in the importance placed on brute-physical blocking. Even during this process of familiarisation, then, tropes of sporting mimicry drift somewhat free from their customary applications. This turns the experience of viewing a curling match (or whatever) into something akin to the Olympic ideal of glimpsing sport itself, but in a way that Games founder Pierre de Coubertin couldn’t have possibly predicted. While scrambling around for tools with which to construct a skeleton of meaning around the obviously intense but oddly amorphous performance playing out before our eyes, what we witness is a play of principles, a floating parade of contingent formulas that structure the relationships we entertain with our favourite sports, but which tend to hide in plain sight as a result of our fixation on narratives. In our encounter with an unfamiliar sport we find ourselves moving back and forth somewhere between paidia and ludus, and as with nearly all experiences which carry us back to the kinds of engagement we experienced as pre-adults, we find we actually quite like it there. 

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