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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

A Sport is an Ongoing Search for Common Ground

By OOI KEE BENG, April 2020 Editorial, Penang Monthly.

IT IS STRANGELY hard to decide what a sport is; and when we do settle on a definition, it is only acceptable if we do not consider the many forms of human activities – usually from other cultures and times – which we therewith have excluded.

Lexico.com tells us that a sport is “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

That is a succinct enough description of how we think about sports nowadays. But is it a fair caption? How ethnocentric is it? How narrowly “modern” is it?

Just as the concept of Religion today adopts the Abrahamic faiths as its most illustrative definition; and just as Philosophy is defined by the dialectics of European thinking, starting with the Greeks, Sport as we understand it today is also a notion that is prescriptive more than it is descriptive.

In Asian countries, when government officials today demand information from their citizens about their “Religion”, those outside the Abrahamic faith fall into a quandary. And as they reply “Hindu”, or “Buddhist” or “Taoist”, they tend to feel either that they are being forced to lie or that they are being coerced. This is because the term “Religion”, whether used as an academic or a technical and administrative term, is not as encompassing of the beliefs of people as one might think. Theism itself, is a related problem, as is its negation.

Philosophy too. Until quite recently philosophy was not a term that could easily include traditions of thought and belief based outside territories influenced by the Greco-Roman Empire. Only for reasons of political correctness, did some academic institutions and scholars recently take to using that word as a neutral and all-encompassing term. The problem remains though: the wealth of human experience and discourse does not easily allow for such simplifying globalist neatness.

Just as the concept of Religion today adopts the Abrahamic faiths as its most illustrative definition; and just as Philosophy is defined by the dialectics of European thinking, starting with the Greeks, Sport as we understand it today is also a notion that is prescriptive more than it is descriptive.

When it comes to Sport, there is a different tenor to its dissemination. It has a lot to do with the rise of nationalism, and naturally, internationalism, and we cannot underestimate the important role the modern Olympic Games played in defining what the term “Sport” means today in the minds of most people in the world.

There were many attempts in Europe to recreate what the Greek warriors did “for sport”, as it were. In the early 1600s the “Cotswold Olimpick Games” were being held annually in Chipping Camden in England. In the late 1700s Revolutionary France held L’Olympiade de la Republique. The Swedes also held their so-called Olympic Sports, in 1834, 1836 and 1843. In the little town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England, the Wenlock Olympian Games, started in the 1850s, are still being held today. In the 1860s Liverpool held its Grand Olympic Festival annually. It was open to “gentlemen amateurs”, and this inspired in 1866, the national Olympic Games, held at London’s Crystal Palace. The British Empire was at its peak.

At the other end of Europe, the Greeks were struggling to break away from Ottoman control. The revival of their ancient Games was first proposed in the 1830s, and by 1859, Olympic Games were being held in Athens again. The whole matter went widely international with the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1890 by the Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, inspired apparently after visiting the Wenlock Olympian Games. With the Greek writer Demetrius Vikelas as its president, the IOC organised the first Olympic of modern times in 1896, in Athens.

Be it in understanding Philosophy, Religion or Sport, or any other key concept that appear in global conversations today, for that matter, it is always wise – and always inspiring and absorbing – to try to fathom what connotations, either from the past or from similar concepts in other cultures, have been overshadowed by our eagerness to believe that humans have more in common than they have deep differences; as if differences are a negative thing.

Globalisation seeks simplicity. But now as China, India, and other powers arise, sub-global (a word I just made up) conversations will take place that can fruitfully challenge the globally received notions of the last two centuries.

Since we are talking about Sports here, let me end with a philosophical point concerning human activity. Let us take the words “exercise” and “practise”. When we exercise or practise, we can either mean that we are training/learning, or that we are simply acting out a skill already acquired. When we cycle, we are practising cycling and exercising our acquired ability to cycle. We can do exercises, meaning learn; and we can exercise some skill or knowledge already learned. Skills have to be maintained, and that is done in the act itself. Therefore, learning and doing cannot be separated.

This reminds me of the Chinese term Kungfu, which combines those two meanings of practising and practising. Kungfu simply refers to the level of skill as presently exercised. In exercising, you can exercise your level of skill.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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