What if….. planning sport emphasised pleasure? Rethinking sport in Covid-land


We are living in strange times (it’s late May 2020), times that can become circumstances to fantasize about the way it might be in whatever life with Covid-19, with SARS-Cov-2 to give it its generic name, might look like. At the moment, we just don’t know. So, indulge me, grant me a moment of utopian thinking.

As states begin to ease lockdown provisions – as we look enviously at those rarities like New Zealand where community transmission seems to have stopped, at least for the time being – there is an increasing language of ’return’, or ’getting back to normal’ (alongside many critics who suggest that perhaps normal-before-March wasn’t necessarily all that great). This normal seems to be widely phrased in a way that sets aside work and labour, noting that for many globally not changed much other than becoming more precarious as purchasers and agents cut payments to suppliers. More often, that ’old normal’ we’re trying to get back to is being presented as social and cultural life – restaurants, bars (coffee or otherwise), visiting friends and kin, and playing and watching sports. It seems that for many of us who can work from home, the office isn’t a place we’re rushing back to.

’Returning to sport’ seems to present us with a real challenge on several fronts. The push to ’get it going again’ is powerful. There are no doubt very many reasons for this, but two strike me as particularly significant. The first is our desire for some secure reference point. Sport matters socially and culturally to a huge number of people, whether they play or not. Without getting too Durkheimian, it provides the glue that binds together social networks and groups – the practice, the chatter, the experiential common – and as such sport is beloved, but it is also a sign of a known stability, a known order of things. It is a place of cultural and ontological safety.

The second significant reason it seems to me is that sport is big business, with high degrees of turnover (liquidity might be a different story) – there is a lot of cash flowing through much professional and some ’amateur’ sports – and with high levels of fixed capital investment, in stadia, in contracts, and in other long term commitments: crucially this is both private and public capital. So, for many of us we see a known, while for a much smaller number of much more powerful people the issue of protection of their wealth.

What’s most interesting about all of this is that when I read my newspaper, or listen to the pundits going on about ”getting sport going again”, they’re not talking about the practice of we the awful, the mediocre, the adequate, the not too bad; no, they’re talking about the big business of sports. This is the Bundesliga, the Premiership, college football in the Big Ten or the SEC. It is overwhelmingly sports for men, and increasingly looks like it will be at the expense of women in many male dominated sports. Even so, it’s not all elite sports: I’m writing this the week that England Netball has announced that it’s canceling the rest of its 2020 professional season. What is missing from almost all of this is the ordinary sport of most players’ (the awful, mediocre or adequate) everyday life, or maybe that is simply being overshadowed by stadia where sex dolls or cardboard cut outs stand in for audiences.

The big challenge in all of this, looking at the sport most of us get to play, comes with the possibility of a continuation of some form of physical distancing, and that’s assuming we get some kind of viable and effective vaccine. At best, this possibility leaves many of our most popular sports classified as risky practice. It also might mean that some of us will be looking for alternatives, in either the short or long term – given that modern sports have developed in a context where bodily contiguousness is unproblematic, and, in many, expected. Of course there are some where bodily/physical distancing is easy – but quite a few of them such as dinghy sailing, single sculls, equestrian sports, and croquet, are not really mass participation; I feel an argument for free public tennis courts coming on.

I expect that in developing alternatives, we’re likely to look to tweak existing sport forms, adjust rules and the practices resulting from those rules. But that leaves us with the problem of the implicit, the unstated, the taken-for-grantedness of bodies in or almost in contact. This grounding in sport’s existing form is understandable – it is what we know, it’s our taken-for-granted experiential definition of sport, but it also seems to be limited and limiting.

What if we consider that the point of sport is not whatever counts as winning, whatever gets the most points? What if the point of sport is that it matters, that it is a social and cultural good? What if sport matters primarily because it makes us feel good? (The ’what if …’ question is a fundamental aspect of playful and utopian thinking, as thinking about what might be, a becoming rather than a ’what is’. Indulge me, as I sail remarkably close to the shoals of the ’it’s the taking part in counts’ myth.)

This social and cultural mattering, this feeling good, is not something we can easily express or pin down, if at all. A whole range of approaches have been tried – psychologists often discuss emotion and affect; the same term, affect, has been picked up in some strands of cultural studies as a way to discuss audience feelings and often bodily responses; other traditions have drawn on notions of jouissance as transgressive, excessive pleasure. Many of these approaches are underpinned by psychoanalytic discussions of desire, which means they’re dominated by ideas of lack, of absence, rather than as the reasons for coming together in the first place,

These are all, at best, attempts to represent the unrepresentable, or rather the more-than-representable; the excess of any activity, an excess that is both preter-conscious and unarticulated (and probably unarticulatable). It’s the excess that seems to impel many of us to seek out links, networks and associations. We find it in the ’buzz’ of the game, and in spectatorship it is the ’we’, the collective, in some cases an imagined community, that seems to win and lose: it is for most I suspect the reason we play in whichever way we can, and why we engage with and support elite sports. The terms are also all we have, because we are dealing with the more-than-representable.

Metaphors they may be, but they’re our best try at representing the unrepresentable. So, what if in planning physical activity in a SARS-Cov-2 world we focus on what might encourage those sensations rather than start from the presumption that our best option is to tweak the rules of sports that are premised on a different set of bodily relations? Of course, to do that we would have to slough off the constraints of thinking along current lines, but more so we would have to resist the power of those heavily invested (financially and socially) in the existing sports industry and who seem to be currently doing the running. Turns out, that’s a big ask.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. He is currently serving as Academic Director of the Doctoral College at University of Wales Trinity St David, and has academic appointments in Australia, South Africa, and Gibraltar. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements, and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and former Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport, and is currently Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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