plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Posts tagged ‘sport’

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Tokenism’s leak into the real world

I had a brief brush with one of those ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms this week. They’re usually decorated with a line to the effect of the giving of such information as ‘ethnic origins’ being voluntary, and I usually volunteer no such information. This week though, on the form proffered to me before seeing the dental consultant, I decided I’d keep to my oft-vented tub thumping that ‘I was born in England, that makes me White English not White British’. I amended the box and handed it in.

Later I realised that what I should have written, rather than ‘White English’, was more accurately: ‘White ish, also nominally English, of various extraction via the possibility of Spain, Scotland, Ireland — maybe — Morocco or Algeria, depending on the accuracy of my late Grandmother’s stories, and then, four or five generations back, or more, it’s anyone’s guess really, though if Stephen Fry is to be believed (via that font of all reliable modern trivia, QI), descended, as we all are by the principle of mathematical certainty, from King Charlemagne of France ish; also maybe Mongol via Genghis Khan’. That is, in summary, member of the human race. That, or something quite like it, is what I should have written. Maybe next time.

The point here is that I have always abhorred tokenism. These ‘equal opportunities monitoring’ forms have always seemed somewhat tokenistic to me. What does it matter how many people of Caribbean, Bangladeshi or Chinese origin (whatever that turns out to be) are pumped through the sausage machine of any given service? It may be possible that I’m entirely of the persuasion that amounts to ‘missing the point’. However, in the real world (by which, here, I mean the diverse children’s playground), in my experience, children are generally oblivious to the overtures of tokenistic adult agendas.

Sure, there are tensions between children in such playgrounds, and some of these tensions can then dissolve into a focus of ‘difference’ in appearance or beliefs or ways of being, but in the more diverse community of west London I’ve not yet come across racial tension. It may be that I’ve not yet heard any comments between children, or directed at children by other children; however, from what I see, the children treat each other as just other children, irrespective of their skin colour, family language or country of origin, and why shouldn’t they?

It’s in the play settings of, say, 95% white communities where the true scale of token effort and affect come into play. I’ve never heard a child in west London revert to the ‘race card’ that is: ‘Is it because I’m black?’ In contrast, I’ve heard this a fair few times more from children in settings where they’re the only non-white child in attendance or on the roll. Children suck up the sensibilities of the adults around them: so, when they’re fed a diet of ‘you’re different to the majority here and we’re going to highlight that’ (albeit under the banner of ‘equal opportunities’), it isn’t any wonder that they start subverting that message via a persecution complex.

The message is out there constantly. The other day I was reading the Metro newspaper on the train. On the sports pages there was an article about how Clarence Seedorf, a Dutch footballer, had been appointed manager of AC Milan in the Italian top division. When I first heard that news the day before on the TV, I thought ‘OK, I remember his playing days’ and thought no more on it. The Metro chose to highlight that Seedorf was only the second black manager in the league’s history.

It’s a general statement on professional football and a specific one on the Italian league, sure, but the reinforcement of such statements only helps to perpetuate the potential for feelings of persecution. There are racial issues in sport, communities, society, yes; however, this approach of the media and institutions (who want their equal opportunities forms filled in to tick some boxes, no doubt), is counterproductive.

Allow me a moment of facetious indulgence: does the same box ticking happen in New Delhi; in Kingston, Jamaica; in Abuja, Accra or Addis Ababa? Is there a concerted effort in those places to monitor and ‘help’ the isolated white community members in some token gesture of equal opportunities?

The other day I was at an after school club setting, just visiting. The main room was jam packed with children; it was getting hot in there; the children went about their play in genteel manner. Something, however, was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. I looked around the room, at the children playing, at their play, but it wasn’t necessarily the calmness of it all that was the oddness. Then it hit me: there were forty white faces in one room. That’s not the fault of the setting — if the make-up of the community is like this, then this is what it is.

What this observation did do though was spark the thinking, later, on how quite a few settings I’ve seen ‘address’ the 95% or 100% white face scenario with a token play resource (very much the singular): a black baby doll, a sari, or suchlike. They’ll have a watered down nod towards Diwali or the Chinese New Year, or invariably a poster saying ‘Welcome’ in 32 different languages like Urdu, Swahili and Welsh. That’s it — job done. Box ticked. It drives me mad and has done for quite a while. I’m pretty sure the Diwali Festival of Lights amounts to more than a few paper lanterns and pretty patterns sprinkled on the floor, as I’m pretty sure Chinese New Year (and, by extension, Chinese culture) is about more than a blank colouring-in sheet of a dragon.

Token gestures and misplaced media focus can’t be helping the matter that is the equality of opportunity for all individuals. Let’s not ‘treat everyone the same’; let’s treat each other as individuals. When I’m out and about interacting in London, when I watch the football on TV, or when I observe and listen to the children on the playground, I’m thinking of those people of my focus as those people of my focus. I’m not thinking black, white, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and so on. In the tokenistic world where there are white majorities, however, messages are distributed and absorbed. Children, as we know, can be like sponges.
 
 

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The Olympics: ritual, politics, war and play

The Olympic torch passed through my town today. Apparently. On some level – indicative to some, perhaps, that I might have too much time on my hands – the Olympic Games trouble me. Why do people get so excited about it? What are the modern Olympics really about? Is it play?

Vicky recently wrote on her blog, asking whether professional football is play or work to the footballers involved. Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of perspective. A small tangent: René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe (‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) and the title (‘This is not a pipe’) highlights ‘perspective’ to me: the artist is drawing our attentions to the fact that this is not an ‘actual’ pipe, but the representation of one. Marcel Duchamp, I believe (although I will stand corrected if need be), said that a work is a work of art if the artist says so. So, is play ‘play’ if the player says so?

What’s all this got to do with the Olympics? I need to work back through my three questions – but, before I do that, a little history (with a sprinkling of legend).

The first Olympic festival is commonly understood to have taken place at Olympia in 776 BC. There were three other Pan-Hellenic festivals, held every two or four years, also taking place in the area at this time: the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, claimed that Heracles initiated the Olympic Games in celebration of his defeat of the city-state of Elis and the killing of King Augeas. Or, if you prefer mythology, Pausanias (a Greek traveller), claimed that Zeus and Cronus fought over the ownership of heaven at Olympia; Zeus won and declared the Games to take place there. We can go back further, to before the first Games: in the Iliad, Homer described the funeral of Patroclus, and such funeral rites and honouring of the dead have been linked to the origins of the first Games. From honouring the dead to killing rivals and honour of the city-state, or to contest over ownership of other-worldly realms.

So, from ritual or mythology or acts of warfare, came the first Games. At that time, in the region we now know as Greece, city-states competed with each other for power and prestige. Sparta, a city-state set up for the perfection of war-skills, was dominant. The city-state of Elis had assumed control of the Games at Olympia, but Sparta muscled in. In the resulting alliance, Sparta took on the role of ‘protector’ of the Games (a way of advertising their power and prestige), whilst Elis had control of the religious aspects.

Out of this construct and background of city-state politics and war came the idea of the ‘sacred truce’, i.e. competitors from all parts of Greece and its colonies could come to the Games even during times of war. This was the way of things for many quadrennial Olympiads. The Games at Olympia continued right up until 392 AD.

Fast forward several hundred years. It’s interesting to note that, over the course of the modern Olympics, the ‘sacred truce’ has been spoilt on several occasions: the 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but World War I put paid to them; the Antwerp Games of 1920 did not include competitors from the defeated powers of the war; the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled; in London, 1948, Japan and Germany were not present; in Melbourne, 1956, Sweden, Spain, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands boycotted as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, whilst Lebanon and Iraq withdrew over the Suez crisis; Mexico City, 1968, suffered from threatened boycotts by African and black-American countries and competitors, resulting in South Africa’s expulsion, in protest at apartheid; Munich, 1972, was marred by Palestinian terrorists’ attack on the Israeli compound;  in Montreal, 1976, African countries boycotted the Games in protest at the New Zealand football  team’s tour of South Africa; Moscow, 1980, saw protest by the United States and over 30 other countries regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in Los Angeles, in 1984, the Soviet Union and some of its allies reciprocated a withdrawal with claims of insufficient security; the 1996 Games in Atlanta were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing; human rights activists called on the 2008 Beijing Games to be boycotted.

So, whilst the ancient ideal of the ‘sacred truce’ has been well and truly ignored in many modern Olympic Games, the old heart of the piece seems to run through it: that is, ritual, political machinations, warfare. In a word: contest.

In his book, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element [of] in culture (various editions 1938-50), Johan Huizinga claimed ‘contest’ to have the characteristic of play. ‘Like all other forms of play,’ he wrote (p.49) ‘the contest is largely devoid of purpose.’ By this he means that the contest gets enacted out, start to end, and beyond that, before and after that, the result doesn’t matter. ‘The outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group.’

Except that the outcomes of contests such as war and sport and athletic prowess do matter: people’s reputations and honour and incomes can depend on the outcome of contests such as the modern Olympics. Yet, just like the perspective of whether something is art or not, whether some act is play or not, it only really matters to the person who’s doing it. Right? The Olympics only really, truly matter to the athlete.

So, why then do people line the streets in every town and city that the Olympic torch passes through on its way around the UK? (Or rather, an Olympic torch, a manufactured symbol with many other similar copies). Why do people get so excited about the ritual of watching a symbol pass by them for thirty seconds on the street, let alone the ritual of the Games itself?

Is it play for the spectators in the watching of the torch as it passes by? If it is play, then it’s with some irony that the play of a streaker yesterday has been brought up quickly by the legal system: ironic because the original Games were performed in the nude. That aside, is the play of the spectator the reason why the torch relay (and also the main event) is being embraced by many? If play is doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, where does the potential social obligation for watching this whole affair fit in? Of course, just because I don’t care for the Games, it doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way. I am slightly troubled by the unthinking embrace of the whole affair though: an embrace on the grounds of some form of nationalistic pride subtly being suggested to us (by the media and politicians).

Why do people get so excited about the Olympic Games? Genuine or subtle suggestion of nationalistic pride? What are the modern Olympics really about? Ritual, political machination, warfare, contest. Is it play? At some level, maybe. At another level – well, I’m not an Olympian . . .
 
[Historical source: Collier’s Encyclopedia]
 
 

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