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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 173 – August 2010
Before I start my critique of the sacred cow that is sport, let me first define what I understand it to be. The word sport originates from the old French desport which meant amusement, entertainment, recreation, pleasure. It became part of the English vocabulary in the 14th century as disport (hobby). Then, in the 15th century, disport shrank into sport but kept the same meaning.
Sadly, towards the mid 19th century, (di)sport began to distort into sport as we know it with its modern sense of ‘athletic contest’. Exit amusement, recreation and pleasure; enter discipline, rules and regulations, federations, institutions and organisations.
The fatal flaw in sport is that it is based on competition. With the introduction of competition, fun was removed from all sporting activities. Competition demands winners and winners need losers. Nobody likes to lose so competition tends to be fierce and ruthless and, ultimately, even the winners may become losers for winning at all cost cannot be achieved without some sort of physical and mental hurt.
The consensus shared by the majority of people is that sport is good for you, that it has many positive effects on health, education, culture, society and so on. An objective analysis of sport reveals a totally different picture; it shows that the alleged benefits of sport are just myths.
George Orwell looked into sport and concluded that: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
It is generally believed that competition is part and parcel of our human fabric. In fact, the introduction of competition in sport, which dates from the Industrial Revolution, mirrors the values of the capitalist system with its obsession with output, unlimited growth, excellence, records, surpassing others and oneself, and winning at all cost.
There are societies and cultures in which competition does not exist and this is reflected in the way its people play games. For example, the Gahuku-Gama of New Guinea have learnt to play football in an original and creative way that celebrates their value system. They will play several days running until both sides reach an equal score. In doing so they demonstrate a love for co-operation, equality and peace. We, on the other hand, exhibit a fighting spirit when we play sport based on domination, conflict and aggressiveness.
Far from being a healthy activity, sport is a conveyor belt that fills our therapeutic clinics with the ‘competition fodder’ of sport people, to borrow a term from Michel Caillat. It is for this reason that there exist sport medicine, sports injury clinics, sports therapy and sports massage.
Since 2000, several studies made by sociologists and epidemiologists have shown that violence and drug addictions go hand in hand with the intense practice of sport. Drugs are used to kill pain caused by excessive training and to numb the body when training exceeds the limits of endurance. The highly competitive frame of mind required in sport is a source of stress that, not infrequently, leads to alcoholism. Burn out at a relatively early age due to intensive training and conditioning is also common among sport people.
It is regrettable that the discourse of sport promotes mythical health benefits when long lasting health and fitness is easily achieved through moderate physical activity. Brisk walking for an hour a day is sufficient to keep the body in good shape. In point of fact, intense and excessive physical exercise, i.e., sport activity, is counterproductive. There is no denying that physical exercise is healthy but it is not the prerogative of sport. Unfortunately, sport exerts a hegemony over all forms of physical activity.
“No defs, no refs” (no definition, no referees) refers to playful physical exercise outside any federation. To avoid confusion and misunderstanding, it would be useful to bring back the lovely and useful word disport. When you are hiking, jogging, surfing, skiing, snowboarding, cycling, playing a friendly game of tennis or kicking a ball just for the fun of it you are not doing sport – you are doing disport. In other words, you are engaging in a healthful and de-stressful physical activity without incurring the side-effects associated with sport.
If sport people would de-clutter their mind from the competition notion and de-sport their physical exercises they would avoid much frustration and pain, and the world would be a better place.
Arnold Arnold. Winners and Other Losers in War and Peace. Paladin. London. 1989.
Michel Caillat. Le Sport. Le Cavalier Bleu. Paris. 2008.
Claude Levi-Strauss. The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press. 1968.
John Ayto. Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins. 1991.
George orwell. The Sporting Spirit. 1945.