In defense of serious play

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Erkki Vettenniemi
Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä


Jonny Hjelm Idrott, tävling och allvar: En kritisk granskning av svensk idrottsforskning 196 sidor, hft. Malmö: Bokförlaget idrottsforum.org 2015 (Malmö Studies in Sport Sciences, Vol. 18) ISBN 978-91-85645-18-3

Jonny Hjelm
Idrott, tävling och allvar: En kritisk granskning av svensk idrottsforskning
196 sidor, hft.
Malmö: Bokförlaget idrottsforum.org 2015 (Malmö Studies in Sport Sciences, Vol. 18)
ISBN 978-91-85645-18-3

When the going gets serious, how serious does it actually get? Is it possible to define the pinnacle of seriousness?

The Finnish satirist Bisquit’s (Seppo Ahti) query is relevant not only in Finland; it ought to be posed in neighboring Sweden, too, as implied by Jonny Hjelm’s pamphlet Idrott, tävling och allvar. While tävling means competition and allvar seriousness, idrott is best translated as physical exercise. Hjelm himself is a professor of history and his “critical review” (as the subtitle puts it) comes with hundreds of footnotes. Yet the authorial voice is that of a debater, and there is nothing wrong with it. Let’s call it an academic pamphlet, then.

To put it mildly, Hjelm is unhappy over the state of sports studies in Sweden. Influential colleagues of his cannot even define the multifaceted key word idrott; instead of engaging their mental faculties they hasten to denounce competitive physical activity in toto. Down with competition, long live lovely little games! After having perused dozens of academic titles by prominent scholars, Hjelm presents more than twenty mostly misleading translations of “modern sport” (p. 92–95). The dizzying list proves at least one thing: sport is in the eye of the beholder.

As I see it, Hjelm is perfectly entitled to lament the terminological confusion and its consequences. According to him, sloppy scholarship has contributed to an excessively negative understanding of sport, which, in turn, has made a lasting imprint on Swedish decision-makers. For a long while, “playful activities” have been uncritically extolled in Swedish schools at the expense of sportive contests (and the trend is similar elsewhere in Scandinavia). Play can be a serious affair for kids and competition is not necessarily bad for their health, Hjelm insists, and I have no reason to challenge his judgment on either count.

Hjelm has sprinkled the compact text with delightfully argumentative passages, as befits a pamphlet. On page 19, for example, he suggests that criticism of sport reflects our “late-modern” society’s “hedonistic” current. I always thought that there were far more hedonists on the other side of the fence! Further, on page 118 Hjelm conceives football and other team sports as “social activities” the main purpose of which is to provide opportunities for “moral growth”. Few people would oppose anybody’s moral development, I guess. Judging by recent headlines, however, the most prominent products of the football industry are greed and corruption. Is that an acceptable price for some lucky boys’ and girls’ moral advancement?

Since the bulk of the book is comprised of previously published essays, unnecessary repetition occurs here and there. That the author has chosen to focus on Sweden is, of course, a legitimate choice, but when he briefly refers to non-Swedish scholars, the outcome is an eclectic list of illustrious names ranging from Huizinga and Bourdieu to Eichberg and Heinilä (pp. 19–20, 78, 132). In addition, Finnish historian Seppo Hentilä is mentioned twice but Kalevi Heinilä only once, which must be a blunder. Hentilä’s publications are not relevant in this context.

On the very last page, Hjelm pleads with his colleagues to show more respect for the “subjective feelings” of athletes and other moving bodies. It is a fair demand, though I don’t quite understand why participants should possess the ultimate truth of any “social activity”, let alone sport, which can also be conceptualized as a social construct. One does not have to be a postmodern advocate of hedonism or extreme constructivism to recognize the power of discourse. Some might even recall the good old notion of false consciousness. Elite athletes, too, have mastered the art of “fun talk”, whether their battered nose is still bleeding or not. They just love sport, it is the enjoyment that really matters, and what’s wrong with putting up a good show, anyway?

All of which takes us back to the original query. What might be the pinnacle of seriousness? It is the precise moment when your favorite sports commentator suddenly blurts out, “But it’s only a game!”

Jonny Hjelm’s contemplative pamphlet is far from being playful; it is an earnest call for nuanced scholarship, and as such it deserves to be taken seriously by students of sport and all manners of physical activity. No academic discipline has ever suffered from an overdose of self-reflection. May I expect Hjelm to extend the dead serious debate to non-Swedish sources?

Copyright © Erkki Vettenniemi 2016

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