The Apolitical Sportive Stance, or the Spectre of Pierre de Coubertin

Sylvette Babin
I write these words as the Montréal Canadiens play and win the Stanley Cup Semi-Final for the first time in twenty-eight years. My writing is punctuated by cheering hockey fans gathered at neighbouring bars. My indifference toward competitive sports then gives way to a more active interest in people’s reactions, and I start following the score to the rhythm of the shouting and uproar. I even find myself peering through hockey analyses and archives to better understand the stakes of the game. For example, I learn that the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl (Western Conference), exceptionally given to the Canadiens (Eastern Conference) for this victory, is named after the NHL president who suspended Maurice Richard from the playoffs in 1955, causing a riot at the Montréal Forum that historians consider to be one the sources of the Quiet Revolution. Spectator sports have always been a source of strong emotions (and certainly of violence), but also vectors of more fundamental social uprisings at times.

Sports institutions still perpetuate the idea conveyed by Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, regarding the so-called apolitical and universal nature of sport. Yet in reality, this “principle of political neutrality” conceals a form of erasure of the various narrative identities borne by athletes and their fans. Reflecting on the Olympic Games, philosopher Alain Deneault writes that “sport was set up as a social model because it can neutralize any semblance of collective engagement while taking on an egalitarian external appearance. The pre-existence of rules gives the sports disciplines the fantasy of being fair playing fields in which the best team wins. At the same time, this pre-existence normalizes, in a subtle, underlying manner, a necessary lack of political deliberation.”1 1 - Alain Deneault, “Vendre les Jeux olympiques,” Faire l’économie de la haine: Essais sur la censure (Montréal: Écosociété, 2018), 168 (our translation). In another chapter, Deneault adds that the spectacle of sport “is designed to reinforce the authority of ideological structures that contribute to people’s suffering rather than reducing them for a time.”2 2 - Alain Deneault, “Qu’entendre par ‘Du pain et des jeux’? ”, op. cit., 184 (our translation).

In light of this thinking and by observing the workings of the sports industry a little more closely, it is difficult to consider the encounter between sport and art other than through a critical lens. Although historically the application of sport to art has been done mainly through a celebration of the athlete’s body or a study of movement, over the course of various aesthetic trends, artists have never completely subscribed to the idea that sport is devoid of all sociopolitical dimensions. More recent art practices clearly challenge the neutrality of the world of sport by highlighting the shortcomings of its organizations, leagues, or teams. The excessive spectacularization of sport and its connections with the supremacy of capitalism, tokenism, the overvaluation of performance, discrimination, misogyny, and heteronormativity are just some of the factors that stimulate the thinking of artists whose works can ultimately serve as drivers for social change.

The Sportification issue sheds light on these issues by analyzing various aspects of the sports industry, its visual culture, associations, and built heritage. For example, we examine the architecture, in this case of Olympic stadiums and venues, by considering the interaction between artists, citizens, and these bulwarks of spectacle. Sports facilities, which can also be regarded as political mechanisms, are in fact the source or theatre of many social problems such as the relocation of communities and the gentrification of neighbourhoods, economic and racial segregation, and even, in some cases, political oppression by dictatorships. On a more positive note, citizens sometimes reappropriate these sites (the vestiges of Olympic structures, in particular) through various daily activities or through play, giving them new symbolic value. Play is also the means through which many artists try to deconstruct the gender and heteronormative codes of sport, making room for queer bodies or bringing in sensitivity, desire, and other affects that are generally victimized by the cult of masculinity and performance. We also look at “infinite games,” which are open to cooperation and have a non-competitive spirit in contrast to the traditional aim of winning and being victorious. Potentially liberated from the financial empire that rules the sports industry, this type of game is definitely more a matter of an artistic utopia rather than the real world — a utopia in which we actually play for pleasure and even attain that famous Olympic ideal. By reappropriating the rules, strategies, and dress codes of sport, artists try to deconstruct the clichés, but also symbolically give voice to those who have suffered from systemic racism and discrimination in the world of sport. For example, we look at works embodying struggles that have to be pacified so that events like the Olympic Games can gain visibility, or others offering spaces of rest to queer or racialized bodies that have to fight for recognition or meet the expectations imposed on them. It would be presumptuous, however, to deduce that athletes do not themselves take a critical stance on their associations. In fact, artists draw some of their inspiration from social movements initiated by athletes. A good example is the “take the knee” movement, which responds to the commodification of Black bodies.

Ultimately, in examining the coexistence between art and sport, is it possible to rediscover the joy of sport, team spirit, and playful expressions that we also had in mind for this issue? These aspects are certainly present in the aesthetic research of the works, in which the beauty of the images and gestures stands out, as well as in the various games invented by artists, many of whom seek to break down social barriers and redefine a sense of community. They also possibly remind us of the cathartic power of gatherings and their potential to inject the collective imagination with new stories and, perhaps, new realities.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

This article also appears in the issue 103 - Sportification
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