Sportscape

Introduction

2822963411_baf25e1da8_bI am taking part in a CSIRO Cafe Scientifique event on Canberra Day (11 March). I am delighted to be a panel member with David Rowe and Paul Fairweather. Stefan Hajkowicz is the facilitator.

The topic is What is shaping the future of Australian sport?

Background

I have been thinking and writing about the future of sport of late. Recently, I have posted:
A year ago I wrote about Stefan Hajkowicz’s work on the Future of Australian Sport. I noted then that Stephen and his colleagues had identified six megatrends in sport in Australia. These were:
  1. From extreme to mainstream (the rise of lifestyle sports)
  2. New wealth, new talent (economic growth and sports development in Asia)
  3. Everybody’s game (demographic, generational and cultural change)
  4. More than sport (attainment of health, community and overseas aid objectives through sport)
  5. A perfect fit (personalised sport and tailored training systems)
  6. Tracksuits to business suits (market pressures and new business models)
2577007801_5756fdd242_bI have been thinking about these megatrends. I have been thinking about some earlier work undertaken by Stephen and his colleagues that looked at Megatrends and Megashocks. CSIRO published Our Future World: an analysis of global trends, shocks and scenarios in April 2010. This report noted that a megatrend “is a collection of trends, patterns of economic, social or environmental activity that will change the way people live and the science and technology products they demand.” The report identifies five interrelated megatrends:
  • More from less. This relates to the world’s depleting natural resources and increasing demand for those resources through economic and population growth. Coming decades will see a focus on resource use efficiency.
  • A personal touch. Growth of the services sector of western economies is being followed by a second wave of innovation aimed at tailoring and targeting services.
  • Divergent demographics. The populations of OECD countries are ageing and experiencing lifestyle and diet related health problems. At the same time there are high fertility rates and problems of not enough food for millions in poor countries.
  • On the move. People are changing jobs and careers more often, moving house more often, commuting further to work and travelling around the world more often.
  • i World. Everything in the natural world will have a digital counterpart. Computing power and memory storage are improving rapidly. Many more devices are getting connected to the internet.

The Report identified eight megashocks relevant to Australia (a ‘megashock’ is “a significant and sudden event; the timing and magnitude of which are very hard to predict):

  • Asset price collapse
  • Slowing Chinese economy
  • Oil and gas price spikes
  • Extreme climate change related weather
  • Pandemic
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Terrorism
  • Nanotechnology risks
During this period I have followed discussions about the Crawford Report and the more recent discussions about the Winning Edge. I have been particularly interested in thinking about the ecology of Australian sport during this time. I found it fascinating to consider the synchronicity of the launch of The Winning Edge and the publication of Tim Flannery’s Quarterly essay, After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis.
I am following the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”. I think we can learn a great deal from deliberation about learning loops. This week Beth Fulton, Steven Cork and Nicky Grigg have shared some of the work of the 2050 Group.

Other Voices

3675431410_4f2a1d179d_oIn thinking about the future of Australian sport, I have been re-visiting a number of authors. These include:

George Orwell’s (1945) The Sporting Spirit.

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.

Johan Huizinga and his writings on Homo Ludens.

One of his five characteristics of play is “play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it”. He argues that “civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it”.

Roger Caillois and his discussion of Man, Play and Games. Callois presents a taxonomy of play and games and proposes that there are four play forms and two types of play. The forms are: agon (competition); alea (chance); mimicry (role playing); and ilinx (pursuit of vertigo and altering perception).  A Wikipedia article on the 1961 translation of the 1958 French text points out that these four forms of play take place on a continuum of two types of play (ludus and paidia):

from ludus, structured activities with explicit rules (games), to paidia, unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness), although in human affairs the tendency is always to turn paidia into ludus, and that established rules are also subject to the pressures of paidia.

Caillois observes “It is this process of rule-forming and re-forming that may be used to account for the apparent instability of cultures”. He points out (in 1958) a tendency for a corruption of the values of play in everyday life.

John Hoberman‘s discussions of Sport and Political ideology (1984), Mortal Engines (1992) and Testosterone Dreams (2005). John Hoberan has had a significant impact on my thinking in the last thirty years. He prompted me to think deeply about sportive expressionism and dehumanisation at a time when I was actively involved in international sport, seeking to optimise performance through probabilistic models of success.

At times like this I return to Gregory Stone. Fifty-eight years ago, his paper, American sports: Play and display, was published in the Chicago Review (9: 83–100). In it he observes:

Play and dis-play are precariously balanced in sport, and, once that balance is upset, the whole character of sport in society may be affected. Furthermore, the spectacular element of sport may, as in the case of American professional wrestling, destroy the game. The rules cease to apply, and the “cheat” and the “spoilsport” replace the players.

A Future for Sport?

As my contribution to the discussions at the Cafe Scientifique, I will propose that for a sustainable future for Australian sport, we should:

  • De-emphasise the acquisition of nation state status through sporting achievement  and recognise the intrinsic value of play, games and sport.
  • Accept the 2000 Olympics as the high-water mark for Australian sport (other than the professional football codes).
  • Think very carefully about providing opportunities for late specialisation in sport.
  • Accept that the quest for television coverage has commodified sport and recognise that we are responsible for this.
  • Lament that despite all our efforts there is cheating in sport and we have hypokinetic diseases.
  • Re-calibrate our thresholds of repugnance.

I think we should celebrate:

… and listen to some of the least privileged children in our society:

AS0000154F06 Primary school children, sports day

In December 2012, the New Zealand Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty presented its Priorities and Recommendations. There were seventy-eight recommendations in total. I was particularly interested in Recommendation 72 from the children interviewed by the Advisory Group. They recommended that:

all local governments ensure that parks, playgrounds and public spaces are safe and welcoming for children, and free leisure and recreational activities are available, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Photo Credits

Surf Life Saving (New South Wales Maritime, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Rough Sea (Victoria Rachitzky, CC BY 2.0)

Geen hulp voor Giusto Cerutti (Natinaal Archief, No known copyright restrictions)

Primary school children, sports day (Anthea Sieveking, CC BY 2.0)

Play and Playfulness

I have written a good deal about play and playfulness in this blog. In June I wrote about Sliding to Catch a Train and more recently wrote about Play and Display.

This morning I received an RSS feed from The Scholarly Kitchen with a delightful example of the play spirit central to Johan Huizinga’s play elements of culture (Homo Ludens, 1938).

The Scholarly Kitchen post took me back to Roger Caillois too. Caillois suggests that play is:

  • Not obligatory
  • Separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space
  • Uncertain so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved
  • Unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins
  • Governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players
  • Involves make-believe that confirms in players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.

In Les Jeux des Hommes (1958) he identifies four play forms (competition, chance, role playing and vertigo) and places these on a continuum that extends from structured activities with explicit rules (games), to unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness).

This is The Schorlarly Kitchen post that prompted these thoughts!

This one is dedicated to the parents out there. In this recently rediscovered clip of Mary Carillo’s rant about backyard badminton, every parent can take a moment to recall a day like this, which has certainly occurred at your house or at a house near you. Best line? There are many, but my vote goes for, “Then you see Christopher Berg — and it’s always Christopher Berg”.

Mary Carillo demonstrates in this video some of the cultural universals of play and playfulness. The video started out as a run of the day report from the 2004 Olympic Games and evolved into an absolutely delightful improvised story about backyard badminton. It is a story that will resonate with any parent and teacher. (Please excuse the quality of the audio!)

I thought it was a wonderful playful story about playfulness. It took me back to a remarkable experience my two children and I had in a park in Monmouth in South Wales in the mid 1990s. It was our first attempt to collect some conkers (horse chestnuts) in the park. We were happily throwing sticks at the conkers in the tree with very little success when I caught a glimpse of a policeman approaching.

Thinking we had broken some local bye-law we awaited our fate with trepidation. When the policeman got to us and uttered that time honoured line “Ullo, ullo, what’s going on here then?” We admitted that we were failed conker getters. I am not sure if it was the sad look on the children’s faces but the policeman decided to help us.

I have no idea what possessed him to throw his helmet into the tree but he did … and it failed to come down. Heroically he decided to throw his truncheon after it … and that got stuck too. At this point the children and I were desperately trying not to laugh but we were caught up in that uncontrollable fight with and enormous laugh trying to break out that sounds like a very large vehicle’s air brakes.

To his great credit the policeman did not give up and asked me to give him a bunk up into the tree to retrieve his equipment. I did so but to my great dismay he wedged his foot in the bowl of the tree. I am not sure if you have ever been in this situation but I wonder what message you would send on a police radio you are not supposed to use to request the fire brigade to extricate a policeman from a tree he should not be in retrieving equipment that should not have left his person.

Mary Carillo brought these memories back so vividly!

Photo Credit

Badminton (33)

Engines Running: Reflecting on David Crawford's Review of Australian Sport

Introduction

This has been a fascinating week for Australian sport. It started with Tiger Woods’ victory at the Australian Masters golf tournament and is ending with visceral debate about play, games, physical education and sport in Australian society. Although I have written two posts about the Independent Sport Panel’s Report I have been mindful of Todd Sieling‘s manifesto for slow blogging. He suggests that slow blogging is “an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament”.

Slow blogging is an art at a time when the immediacy of the Internet offers the opportunity for “daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines”.

David Crawford’s Review of Australian Sport has offered remarkable opportunities for comments and responses. I have taken some time to read the Report and in this post I would like to explore some of what I consider to be the important issues raised. Before I do so I need to declare some interests.

Personal Interests, Private Troubles

I have had a lifelong interest in sport and physical education. I have played, taught and coached a variety of sports and have been fortunate to have been involved in international sport since 1980. I qualified as a teacher of physical education in 1975. My own pathway in sport has been enriched by a profound sense of the educational value of physical activity and a passionate, personal, intrinsic commitment to sport from a very early age. I completed my PhD (a sociological account of teaching physical education) in the late 1980s in England at a time when teachers were withdrawing from after school activity in state schools. I witnessed at first hand the break of the umbilical connection between teachers and pupils. I believe this had immense implications for the organisation of sport and the loss of an educational ethos in physical activity. From 1978 to the present I have had a profound interest in the social and cultural aspects of sport and for over a decade taught courses in sociology and cultural studies.

My academic life gave me access to the work of Norbert Elias through Eric Dunning’s sociological approaches to sport. Elsewhere in this blog I have explored themes of play and playfulness and these aspects were nourished in me by Ione and Peter Opie‘s work as well as by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. Some of the early sociologists of sport encouraged me to reflect on play, display and spectacle and I was particularly influenced by Gregory Stone, Allen Gutmann and Fred Inglis. Like any student in the 1970s and 1980s I had access to many of the writings of leading Marxist thinkers. I was fascinated by John Hoberman‘s work too and much more recently by Andy Miah.

This passion for sport has infused much of my life. I am a product of sport providing a social inclusion opportunity and I hope I have not forgotten the importance that sport can play in life changing experience. Whilst at the University of York (1973) I completed what I believe to be one of the first undergraduate studies in Apartheid and Sport. This fascination with the power of sport as a form of expression continues today with my enchantment with the possibilities midnight basketball holds.

I came to Australia in 2002 to join the staff at the Australian Institute of Sport and have had remarkable access to elite sporting environments and cultures in Australia. My sport journey started standing behind the goals at Buckley Wanderers trying to save the heavy leather laced balls missed by the goalkeeper, through thirteen years of school physical education to working with the Welsh rugby team to coaching on river banks in Australia. Recently I became a member of the Board of Australian Canoeing.

I am hopeful that these private troubles (as C Wright Mills called them) have some bearing on the public issues raised by David Crawford’s report.

Public Issues

Just before I read David Crawford‘s report I came across Nikolai Bohlke and Leigh Robinson’s (2009) paper Benchmarking of elite sport systems. I did not have access to the full paper but noted from the summary that their research “used semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis to investigate the elite sport services offered by two successful Scandinavian sports”. They found that “a number of the services that led to the success of the two investigated systems are strongly context dependent”. they propose that “benchmarking is only appropriate as a tool to further understanding of elite sport systems if it is approached as a way of learning, rather than copying”.

So as the Crawford Report was released I was thinking about within and between sport system comparisons and the kind of evidence (and time) one might need to understand a sporting culture. I liked in particular Nikolai and Leigh’s point about learning. I found Chapter 1.1 (Defining Our National Sports Vision) of Crawford particularly interesting in setting a context for me to read the report. I was drawn to some points made on page 8:

In all, we need to consider what we can afford to invest and how we appropriately balance this investment to support a broader definition of sporting success. This will mean more explicitly defining elite sporting success in the context of prioritising those sports which capture the country’s imagination and represent its spirit and culture. These are the sports where our performance on the national and world stage is important to our sense of success as a nation.

There should be debate about which sports carry the national ethos. Swimming, tennis, cricket, cycling, the football codes, netball, golf, hockey, basketball, surfing and surf lifesaving are among the most popular sports in Australia, a part of the national psyche. Many are team sports and are the sports we are introduced to as part of our earliest education and community involvement.

If more money is to be injected into the system then we must give serious consideration to where that money is spent. If we are truly interested in a preventative health agenda through sport, then much of it may be better spent on lifetime participants than almost all on a small group of elite athletes who will perform at that level for just a few years. (Emphasis is mine.)

These three small paragraphs are the essence of the debate for me and appear to have been a raw nerve for some people’s sense of the world whilst reaffirming others’ core values. I have tried to capture the range of responses to the Report in an earlier post (Engines Started …) This introductory section (1.1) led me to think about:

  • 21st century approaches to fitness and health
  • How a nation state defines priorities for the allocation of the public purse
  • Whether funding is a right or a privilege
  • Whether history is destiny
  • The imperatives for ethical sponsorship
  • The advantages of a common wealth approach to social capital

I have combined these into three themes: insatiability, connectedness and deference.

Insatiability

For some time I have been concerned that it is possible to have an insatiable appetite for funds to support elite sport. In fact my arrival in Australia in 2002 coincided with a major dilemma for the Australian sport system … how do you progress after a successful home Olympics that was the focus of enormous investment? I still wonder if 2000 was a justifiably proud high water mark for Australian Olympic endeavour. Thereafter we had to compete with the energy of new host nations and the growing presence of the United Kingdom with significant financial resources at its disposal. Australia shared its expertise with the United Kingdom post-Sydney Olympics and many other nations warmed to the Australian model of success. It seemed to me that the only way to compete with these nations was to assume all Olympics were home Olympics so that Australia could resource a small demographic with sufficient long-haul training and competition opportunities.

I believe the Crawford Report provides an opportunity to debate these issues in a transparent way. I think the Report makes a strong case for “a nationally agreed plan for sport which encompasses all relevant areas of government and engages all tiers of government” (Summary of Findings 2.1 point 6). What interests me in particular is the timescale is required to agree and operationalise a plan that impacts on our lived (rather than aspirational) experience of sport in Australia. The development of a national policy requires stability of political will. This is exactly the problem facing young scientists in the World Economic Forum … how do you develop an ecologically sound energy policy for 2030 when there will be multiple changes of government in that time scale?

Connectedness

I believe fervently in a sustainable sport system that is funded ethically and that has an educational vision. I believe that the essence of sustainability (as an alternative to insatiability) is the family and the local community. I live in a rural community near to Braidwood in New South Wales and am becoming more and more aware of how a community can include and support its members. Local communities have local heroes and these have enormous influence over behaviour.  Successful communities are connected and grounded.

I take another key message from the Crawford Report to be how Australia wide connections can be made. If we are to have a vision for a healthier Australia then it must start in the family and at school. Any policy must deal with rural and regional Australia as well as urban and metropolitan Australia. These issues were at the fore of the recent SEGRA Conference in Western Australia. I think there are very important messages in the Crawford report about capacity, educational policy, access and inclusiveness that should stimulate our discussions about connectedness.

There is enormous sense in having a national service for elite sport as there is for having a national approach to voluntary effort. I do believe that one of the major (unintended) consequences of resourcing full-time positions in sport has been for volunteers to think that paid staff can deal with all eventualities. This is a time, as Charles Leadbeater suggests, to think of working with one another and thinking of pebbles rather than boulders.

I think a connected system that has a scalable collaborative ethos can achieve remarkable outcomes. In a sustainable sport system it will be the aggregation of effort that makes optimum use of human and financial resources. This necessitates our whole sport system accepting that there is an alternative to zero sum models of sport success. This alternative goes beyond the social traps identified in the tragedy of the commons.

Deference

There are numerous descriptors for the behaviours of voracious individuals and groups. I believe the Crawford Report invites us to reflect on possessive individualism and to contemplate a non zero sum approach to the flourishing of the sport system. Robert Wright has written about non zero as the logic of human destiny. He shares insights into reciprocal altruism that resonate with ideas developed by Peter Singer.

This to me is the ultimate challenge in the Crawford Report and the Prisoner’s Dilemma for our sport system. What if we can transform all the energy we invest in sport to enable all Australians to flourish? What if we take this one step further and have a global approach to sport as an ethical domain in which activity flourishes and that our part in it is to contribute to sport as a form of mutual recognition. What if sport will be about the triumph of the human spirit and its continuation as a life choice possibility throughout the twenty first century when we will face much more important challenges than whether we win gold, silver or bronze. Some years ago, Bill Clinton observed that:

The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions…. Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well – so we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other.

Conclusion

I have really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on David Crawford’s Report. Over the last few days an editorial comment from The Age has kept intruding in my thoughts.

Australians will celebrate any gold medal won in 2012, even if it is in a sport they never think of between Olympics and even if it is won by someone they have not previously heard of and might never hear of again. Nor can anyone begrudge individual athletes their success. But, as the report notes, the present system funds such success at the rate of $15 million per gold medal. The nation’s self-esteem is surely neither so low nor so brittle as to require this level of investment, and it is money that in some instances could be more wisely spent. A shift to funding high-participation sports at grassroots levels might not result in the same surge of collective euphoria every four years, but it would contribute in a more sustained fashion to national wellbeing. (My emphasis)

I am hopeful that the educational possibilities contained in the Report, the suggestions about using existing facilities more effectively, and the valuing of local heroes are celebrated and ultimately accepted by the Government. Late in the evening here in Mongarlowe I am wondering if we have found something in the Crawford Report rather than lost something.

The aggregation of our efforts in Australia is possible and I do believe it is our pathway to sustainability. We can be a non zero sum sport system if we have the collective courage and the political will.