Swedes among other bodies and other games – a conference report

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John Berg and Isak Lidström
GIH – Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Stockholm


The journey to a slightly chilly Paris given the time of year, began at Stockholm Central Station, on the Monday after the EU elections. On the platform, the Green Party’s spokesman Daniel Helldén waved off party colleagues who, after a successful election campaign, were in the process of taking the night train out into the European diaspora. The destination for us was Paris and the conference D’Autre Corps, D’Autre Jeux (in English Other Bodies, Other Games) which took place at Université Paris Cité, one of the country’s more than fifty higher education institutions within the STAPS (Sciences et Techniques des Activités Physiques et Sportives) network.

Travelling by train to conferences in Europe is still a test. Administrative staff and travel agencies are engaged to achieve an advanced route, which nevertheless fails directly due to delays, which are the rule more than the exception even in a country as regulated as Germany. When I (Isak) was about to sign for my breakfast package on the morning train to Hamburg, the news came that the train was considerably delayed. In front of me sighed the newly (re-)elected MEP Isabella Lövin, who supposedly saw the delay as constituent for the next five years’ transports between Sweden and Brussels.

After a full speed rade at the station in Frankfurt, we were back on track with our itinerary and barely made it to the last and most important connection, the TGV towards Paris. Once there, we navigated our way through the metro system and finally arrived at the small hotel in the fifteenth arrondissement. After a pizza at a nearby restaurant, we retired.

The next morning, we walked the two kilometers up to the university and the first day of the conference. It would take place at a tumultuous time, to say the least. It was the Paris of the hangover that came to meet us. President Macron had dissolved the parlement français and called new elections because of the results of the European parliamentary elections. On top of this, the final preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics were underway, which was particularly noticeable on the campus, which was being transformed into some kind of Olympic village during the ongoing conference. However, we quickly settled in and registered at the university entrance. With name tags attached to our breast pockets and carrying goodie bags, we were ready to meet researchers from countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and of course France, who had all gathered to share with each other sports science and sports history research from different angles.

The conference itself was also in the name of the Olympic Games. During the first day’s keynote presentations, Carine Duteil (Université de Limoges) and Gilles Lecocq (Université Picardie Jules Verne) spoke on the theme “A deep dive into the linguistic sources of Olympism”. As if to further emphasize the theme, both key notes and the research presentations with the clearest connection to the Olympics were held in the so-called Coubertin Hall, named after the founder of the modern Olympic Games.

Younger researchers demonstrate traditional techniques…
… which is then commented on by Parlebas.

The second leg on which the conference rested was “Traditional games”. The sessions in this field included topics such as, for example, games from the Canary Islands, playful fights of Asian descent, Senegalese folk wrestling and the sportification of kung-fu. The best presentation was given by Aurélie Épron in her keynote. With excellently applied theoretical perspectives – including glocalization – to well-found empirical observations, she convinced the listeners of the relevance of making traditional sports visible worldwide. The Nordic countries are really lagging behind in this area. As a Nordic visitor to a French academy, it was also clear how anglicized social science and humanities sports research is in Sweden. The French used concepts that seemed relevant, but difficult to translate.

As a recurring theme in the French-language presentations, the word “ethnomotricité” ran unfamiliar to us but well established among French sports historians, cultural anthropologists and ethnologists. A quick search of research databases revealed that no equivalent expression occurs in English-language research, which signals that the Anglo-Saxon research tradition provides a relatively poor conceptual apparatus when sporting phenomena beyond modern and global sport are to be understood. Traditional or popular sports are usually described in terms of what they are not, i.e., they are not rule-driven, bureaucratized and rationalized forms of competition where the result is the goal – not the activity itself. My (Lidström) presentation about the Gotland pärk game was to some extent related to this discussion. As the best example of a traditional sport in Sweden, pärk, but also other similar sports, should not be regarded as static anachronisms with astonishing survivability in a modern, and eventually postmodern, society. Rather, attention should be paid to the adaptability of such sports; that its cultural, social and geographical significance can shift and change over time, even though the practice, rules and terminology remain reasonably persistent.

John Berg involved in longue paume.

Ethnomotricity seems to be a collective term under which motor skills are formed in interaction with the surrounding cultural environment and social context. Instead of focusing on how sports are standardized towards universal measurability, it is rather the common denominator of cultural diversity that is in focus. It’s appealing! However, the definition just given was a simplification. The definition, direction and development of the concept were debated in French fashion quickly, loudly and with intellectual and philosophical flair – sometimes beyond the comprehension of the Swedish delegation (school French was not always enough to capture the nuances). The originator of the term, Pierre Parlebas, was also present at the conference. His impact among French sociologists, anthropologists and historians is clear, and he was thus treated with reverence and the greatest respect. Just turned 90, he gave an engaging keynote that certainly challenged the organizers’ time frames, but still left an enraptured auditorium behind.

The third theme of the conference had been named “Biopolitics”. The feeling was that the participants whose papers did not fit under the Olympic theme or “Traditional Games” were simply squeezed under the immensely broad “Biopolitics”, which according to a general definition is about the relationship between biology and political behavior. However, the sprawl did not make the sessions less interesting, quite the opposite. A recurring element among the presentations was about the relationship between humans and their environment, packaged in topics ranging from movement patterns in Japanese street basketball to proposals for ontological positioning to understand the climate issue through sports. I (Berg) can also be said to have belonged to this group. My presentation was about how long-term preservation of the cultural heritage of sport can be understood through a post humanist lens that emphasizes the interaction, as well as the struggle, between humans and their environment. In addition, the presentations dealt with a little bit of everything with a sports science focus, such as the sportification of baseball in Taiwan and thoughts about a more inclusive categorization of para-athletes. Another difference from the other two themes of the conference was that the presentations in Biopolitics were predominantly held in English. Of course, this made it easier to understand. At the same time, it was refreshing that the national language was given a proper place. In some ways, it felt like an act of resistance, as if they did not want to give in to the anglicization of academia. More of that, please!

Athletics schoolchildren at a miniature athletics facility, situated in the middle of the city, next to the university.

Sitting down and listening to presentations two days in a row is demanding, especially in the stuffy air of worn-out classrooms. Thoughts float away, restlessness makes our legs squirm. The first day’s evening activity therefore came as a very uplifting surprise: the longue paume, a piece of practical sports history in the form of a, even in France, rather unknown ball game with deep roots in Picardy. As an outdoor variant of the high medieval jeu de paume (Real Tennis), the similarities between the longue paume and the Gotland pärk game were obvious to the Swedish guests, who knew very well how to mark a “kas” (Gotlandic) or “chasse” (French). Otherwise, the game was extremely complicated. Every stroke with the sport’s unique and slightly silly racket gave rise to a lively debate about how the rules should be applied. As a souvenir, we received a ball, also unique to the Picardian game. A light thing made of cork and wool, it seems small and pitiful in comparison to the tightly padded park-ball with a deerskin casing, which in turn is reminiscent of the diversity of balls in games that medieval tennis has given rise to during up to 900 years of diffusion processes.

Just before our break-up, we were applauded by the alderman Parlebas who handed us some texts from his own pen – I (Lidström) had, the day before, asked for English-language texts with French mindsets. All that remains is to introduce the French concepts into Swedish sports research!

Copyright © John Berg & Isak Lidström 2024


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