A model for what sport should be, a philosophical critique, a shameless parody or all three?

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Malcolm MacLean
University of Gloucestershire


Medlar Lucan, Durian Gray (with Alex Martin & Jerome Fletcher, eds.) The Decadent Sportsman 226 sidor, hft. Satry, Cambs.: Deadalus Press 2013 ISBN 978-1-907650-55-0

Medlar Lucan, Durian Gray
The Decadent Sportsman
226 sidor, hft.
Satry, Cambs.: Deadalus Press 2013
ISBN 978-1-907650-55-0

Writers and analysts of sport (we academics, journalists and the like) do not seem to realise just how narrow our frame of reference is; as is the case in many other fields of popular cultural analysis, it is widely assumed that we like – are even fans of – our subject. This is also the case with those who study film, popular music (but not classical or opera – they’re buffs if colloquial but aficionados in most settings, not fans). What makes sport different from these other forms of popular culture is that we, as analysts, are expected to play and to have been serious players. Being a player/fan/liking sport often seems to be held to give us special insight and makes our work more credible, whereas we assume the opposite of analysts of fascism for instance: there are many such paradoxes in scholarly life.

More limited as a frame is not the conservative outlook that ‘you can only know what it is about if you’ve played it’, this rejection of empathy, but the assumption that sport has instrumental outcomes – it teaches us stuff, like decency, fair play, teamwork and how to be a good citizen. This is such a taken for granted that these outcomes are either seen by most as a good or by a few as a sure sign that sport trains us for capitalism’s prison of measured time. Feminist critics quite properly point to sport’s role in the maintenance of the gender order that sustains patriarchal (although in sports’ case this is more fratriarchal) dominance while post-colonial critics highlight, among other things, the overwriting of indigenous and colonised body cultures. Very few of sports’ critics propose that the problem is sport, although from within there is a small body of literature that suggests this might be the case – consider, for instance, Tara Magdalinski’s book 2008 Sport, Technology and the Body: The Nature of Performance, Deborah Shogun’s 1999 book The Making of High Performance Athletes: Discipline, Diversity, and Ethics or John Bale’s 2007 book Anti-sport Sentiments in Literature: Batting for the Opposition – but these are rare in our field. We can see this limitation also in the philosophy of sport which is dominated by ethics.

It is onto this field that this entertaining, sharp, ferociously critical and extremely amusing discussion of sport steps in to propose a new model of sport, based in Decadence. For Lucan and Gray (surely not their real names, but I note that they are ‘edited’ by Alex Martin & Jerome Fletcher) decadence is simple; we are told in p 151 that “Decadence is all about transforming one’s life – however sordid (in some ways, the more sordid the better) – into a work of art. Decadent Sport implies a similarly visionary approach to the body.” Stylishness is an essential part of this transformation.

v1 – a model for what sport should be

Amid all the work being done in analyses of sport the dominance of the outlook that sport must have instrumental outcomes and must be ‘good for us’ seems to have marginalised fun, pleasure and enjoyment. Most people who are physically active and even most people who play sport do not consciously do so because it teaches them morality or makes them a more efficient member of their work team or any of the countless other good things sport is supposed to bring to us; anecdotally, most if not all play sport or engage in other forms of physical activity because it brings them pleasure, joy and delight – but then we can’t measure those (I expect that there are psychometric tests that set out to do just that) so we do not speak of them. For many of us, our parents’ instruction to go out and have fun/play seldom distinguished ‘sport’ from ‘play’ yet somewhere along the line we began to do so. What is more, in the world of increasingly instrumentalised sport, things like pleasure and joy seem just a little too hedonistic. It might be OK for Alex Comfort and his ilk to write about joy, but the world of sport seems to say that we are a dour bunch for whom preparation and performance of sport is a serious business.

Lucan & Gray’s sport, however, seems an awful lot of fun but more especially anti-puritan: the chapter in praise of duelling opens with the line “the problem with sport these days … is the lack of fatalities” (p 79) while in their discussion of gymnastics (all full of praise for the Greeks) they launch an assault on a desire to win as vulgar: “Sport, in any civilised understanding of the word, is about play, not work.” (p 135) In this, they propose a model of sport grounded in an appreciation for and understanding of the meaning of pain (the sports historian Doug Booth once wrote a piece for a popular sports magazine about the agon motif in sports journalism, where pain becomes one of several sites of contested status; although the editor professed to liking it, he felt he could not publish it in the magazine: it was never published but Booth presented it at a conference in Australia in 1999), voyeurism (sport is, as many have noted, erotic) and the significance and appreciation of failure. Here they cite the case of former (American) footballer Dave Duerson who when he took his own life made sure his brain remained intact – it became part of the collection of badly damaged brains of former footballers that has triggered the extensive debates in the US over the dangers of football. Their point is that Duerson’s football success created his later failures in business and marriage leading them to conclude that “failure is so much more subtle and complex than victory” (p28). How much more interesting would our programmes of sport science be if we focussed on pain, voyeurism and failure? How much more accurate a representation of the way most of us engage with and experience sport would our analyses be if these tropes were the focus.

The chapter in praise of duelling opens with the line “the problem with sport these days … is the lack of fatalities”.

But more to the point, how much easier would it be to engage and keep people in sport and physical activity if it was about pleasure, joy and fun. Lucan & Gray’s sport is not the earnest Coubertinian notion of it not being the triumph but the struggle, the public school ideology of it being the taking part that counts or other forms of puritanical justification for there ‘having to be’ a winner. Certainly there is much in Lucan & Gray’s story that is violent – 18th century prize fighting, for instance, but there is also much that is awesome and sublime (as in much of the chapter ‘The Hydrophile) while maintaining that erotic edge that continues to draw us voyeuristically to play and watch.

v2 – a philosophical critique

What does a philosophy of Decadence add to sport? To answer this question we need to accept that there is a philosophy of Decadence that is not marked by the hostility of the critics of those late 19th century thinkers and cultural workers (a decidedly anachronistic label) associated with Symbolism and with the Aesthetic Movement – that is, we need to accept Decadence as a positive thing. Ironically, given the positivism and instrumentalism in sports studies and science, there is a close link between Decadence and British sport (and perhaps others). The first Decadents were not Montesquieu or the Romantics, and they certainly pre-dated Hugo, Wilde, Grosz and Deitrich and neither were they associated with a decline in standards that the term so often implies. In the UK, at least, the most high profile early Decadents were the dandies of late 18th century Sporting Fancy with their Beau Brummell styles, their love of sport, their promiscuous gambling and hedonism that the bourgeois, puritanical dominant story of modern sport has marginalised in its rush to form clubs, regulate and control sport in the push to civilisation that some contemporary approaches to sports studies take to be the driving force of modern sport.

A close look at the Fancy, implicit but not highlighted in Lucan & Gray’s extensive discussions of prize fighting, gymnastics and horse-racing, might show a strong presence of Decadence throughout the history of sport, and the obsession with ethics and morality, fair play and sportsmanship may even constitute the unspoken centre of much sport philosophy. If nothing else, Lucan & Gray’s philosophy points to a significant critique of the liberalism that pervades sport policy and politics: “From a Decadent’s perspective, the most interesting duels – apart from those that one fights oneself – are those which overturn the established order of things; the occasions, for example, where rather than being the cause of a duel, a woman might be the perpetrator.” (p96) They note, then, not only the entryist politics of sport participation (the “all will be fine, if only we can all play on the same terms” approach of liberal feminism for instance) but also the extent of disruption that entryism should bring about if it is to enhance sport.

v3 – Parody

The literary critic Louis Henry Gates has defined parody as when “an original … is distorted, with a minimum of … change, to convey a new sense, often incongruous with the form.” Think of Monty Python’s philosopher’s football match. Sports writing is full of this sort of parody – C L R James, for instance, writes of a working class Trinidadian cricketer, Piggott, who “never or rarely wore a white shirt, but played usually in a shirt with coloured stripes without any collar attached. He did it purposely, for all his colleagues wore white shirts.” Piggott was a superb (although possibly unethical) cricketer, which allowed him to get away with this challenge to the rules of the game and in doing so expose the limits of their application. Sport, because it takes itself so seriously, is a prime candidate for the sort of parody identified by Gates, and Lucan & Gray reveal themselves to be arch exponents of the form.

The principal target of their parody is the Olympic Games (given the publication date it is safe to assume that this was written during the UK’s orgy of Olympic onanism in 2012). There are three moments where the parody cuts to the quick of the self-congratulatory world the Olympic Games have conjured up. In the first they propose that Fornicastics (sexual athletics) be admitted to the Olympics under an International Federation – the Féderation Internationale de Copulation Athlétique (FICA) – and proceed to show how this ‘sport’ meets the IOC’s rules for admission with laws derived from 120 Days of Sodom. They also explore the Chap Olympics with events including relay martini mixing, umbrella jousting and pipe smoking (while suggesting that its accompanying form is the Paralyticolympics) before proposing a new Olympic programme to include, among others, the Chap Olympics, Roman Games and Posing, Dandyism and Couture. In these new Olympics there are only two rules: the nation offering the largest bribe gets the games, and style is everything (which has the advantage of making doping futile, although does make acceptable cheating stylishly). These three proposals (although the Chap Olympiad exists) expose many of the absurdities not only of the Olympic Games but of organised and regulated sport.

I’m not sure that Lucan & Gray necessarily set out to provide this trifecta of programme, philosophy and parody; their intent doesn’t really matter. Rarely has a book about sport engaged me to the extent this one has with its sharp critical insights, its laugh out loud moments (these provoke nervous glances while reading on busses, trams and in pubs) and its ability to suggest an alternative and rich mode of thought about sport. This makes it that rare beast, an ironic book about sport that although on the surface being able to be read as a flippant and aristocratic if erudite discussion of pastimes: it is also a potent critical text that should both provoke and amuse.

Copyright @ Malcolm MacLean 2014

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