Australian male sport is facing increasing public scrutiny in relation to ethics, conduct, and cultural legitimacy. Our sports media is saturated with reports of drug-enhanced desires for speed and strength, unsporting off-field behavior, as well as crises in the boardroom and Olympic village “jokes” gone wrong.
As Italian philosopher Umberto Eco once said, we live in a hyper-real “sports-cubed” cultural landscape. Sport is now played, watched, and discussed via multiple digital forms.
For many critics and sports feminists, Eco’s words are somewhat ironic given the attention paid to men’s sports has increasingly revealed the dark side of sports cultures and the quest for faster, stronger, and more competitive (and commercial) bodies.
So, is this a key moment in which to ask what are the alternatives to the cult of speed and wining? How might sport be re-imagined beyond the normalized form it takes today?
The majority of the population is not elite athletes. In fact, most of us struggle to meet the guidelines for physical activity. Millions of dollars have been spent over decades on social marketing campaigns that urge individuals to embrace activity: “Life. Be in it.”, an “Active Australia”, and most recently “Swap It, Don’t Stop It” come to mind.
Yet, as the recent CSIRO report The Future of Australian Sport identifies, participation in most organized sports has declined or stagnated. Several “megatrends” are noted including the growing demand for individual and group fitness activities, lifestyle sports, indoor technologies, and outdoor adventure in the pursuit of health benefits, desirable bodies, social connections and enjoyment.
While men have a greater participation rate (42% men vs 37% women in 2010) in organized sport and physical activity more generally, women participate more “frequently and regularly” in non-organized activity. Non-competitive, enjoyable “sport” and physical cultures offer a potentially more inclusive space for women, men, younger and older persons, people with disabilities, and those from different cultural backgrounds who embody different sports values.
With our changing demographics, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga may emerge as future trends alongside the lifestyle sports of cycling, parkour, and slacklining. With an aging population, these questions about the provision of diverse sports opportunities and active spaces become even more important. Yet much of the sport, physical activity, and recreation research and policy ignores the diverse socio-cultural context shaping the bodies that engage in (or reject) sport.
So, how might we play differently and embody a different sports ethos? Is there another Australian sports narrative to be told that embraces sport as slow, social, and sensuous?
Over the last decade or so we have witnessed the rise of “slow cultures” in the activities and publications of various “slow living” movements – food, media, cities, sex, and tourism are examples. “Slow” signifies an ethos that is critical of hyper-consumerism, hyper-competitive workplaces, and social scenes, in the search for “alternative hedonism”, as described by British philosopher Kate Soper, through downshifting, voluntary simplicity, and everyday forms of embodied mindfulness.
In my research into cycle touring, I completed an ethnography of a nine-day ride over 600km to explore how women experienced “slow” forms of movement. Cycling 80kms every day with 1000 other people was valued because it was “not a race”. You could ride at your own pace, socialize and enjoy a convivial, leisurely experience that was challenging and well-managed.
Many of the women described cycling as their every day “sport”, and when it felt safe, as a commuting preference. Some left their husbands at home because they were too focused on the arrival, not the journey, others rode alone and made new friends while existing cycling groups made the trip their shared time together.
I recall the most challenging day as we cycled (then walked) up the hills of Maleny, near Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, with a 10% gradient. Cyclists of all ages encouraged each other with banter as they went past and a woman in her late 60s shouted out: “I’m getting there in my own time, but not bad for an old girl, hey”.
The pleasure of cycling was not derived from owning expensive bikes, wearing lycra, or achieving a fast time over a hard course. It was the embodiment of the “slow” ethos – a sensory engagement with the world, feeling exhausted and elated at what the body can do (despite age, injury, or disability), and the creation of a mobile community. Competitive sport has its place for those who enjoy the thrill of the chase and the contest.
Yet, there is a far richer array of sports and physical culture experiences that we need to explore through different poetics of the body in movement. And speed is a relative concept – it is still possible to embrace the slow ethos and enjoy an exhilarating fast downhill ride.