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The great sport myth

By Vaneisa Baksh

The great sport myth is how researcher, Jay Coakley, described a series of widely embraced assumptions about the role and benefits of sport as he made a case for sport studies. Coakley, a professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of Colorado in the US, was delivering an address at the first sport conference of its kind in T&T.
I did not attend, but having looked at a number of the presentations, I could not resist sharing, particularly Coakley’s: “Sport Studies: A 360° Window to the World”.
Coakley begins with the observation that there is a tendency to narrow the field of vision in sport studies so that curriculum and research priorities shift to high performance and commercial sports, with grass roots, community-based sports seen as less significant. He attributes this to funding patterns, external influences and what he calls the Great Sport Myth (GSM). He defines GSM as beliefs that sport is inherently good and pure; that those who play or consume sports share in this purity and goodness, and that sport inevitably leads to individual and community development. These beliefs, he contends, lead to the conclusion that the matter is so settled that there is no need to study and analyze sport because its essence transcends time and place and it is already as it should be.
“A key task for sport studies is to critically examine the foundational beliefs of this myth by doing and publishing quality research on the reality of sports and sport participation,” he says. Without this kind of critical probing, “existing sport forms, especially those driven and promoted by private capital, come to be taken for granted as a focus in sport studies programmes and used as a model for all sports rather than studied with a critical eye,” and students are trained to reproduce the status quo.
Bringing it into a very relevant context, he noted that the GSM has been used to justify the allocation of public resources to fund sports and sport programmes, to construct costly stadia and arenas, to host sport events (think Brazil), and to influence family and personal decisions about sports and sport participation.
We know how easily State funds can be wooed into the coffers of sport moguls. Within the region, the cost of stadia for the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2007 topped US$300 million—just stadia. Brazilians are protesting over the hosting of the FIFA World Cup which is reportedly already costing more than US$12 billion. Coakley produced figures for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi ($4.1 billion), Olympic Games London 2012 ($15 billion), Olympics Sochi 2014 ($51 billion!), and you have to concede this deserves some thought.

We have seen how politically attractive it is to dispense vote-money through sport’s good name: Hoop of Life comes readily to mind. A year ago, the Prime Minister was boasting her unproven conclusion that the basketball tournament had kept its 1,000 participants away from criminal activity for the nine months of its duration. She then upped the ante for the first prize to $1.5 million. The tournament had already cost $12 million in its first year; with weekly $250 stipends being offered to players.
The LIFE-sport programme, launched amidst much fanfare in June 2012 by the Ministry of Sport, has this rationale on the website: “Given the increasingly high levels of criminal activity being experienced in our communities, the Ministry of Sport designed this programme to impel unemployed young men to get involve [sic] in sport, in order to redirect their lives into productive activities and positive engagements.” It also says, “The ultimate objective of this programme is to reduce crime.”
These programmes have cost millions; well-intentioned or not, there is little to suggest that either has done anything to reduce crime. Newspaper reportage over the period featured several comments from participants, coaches and community members to the effect that they were not making any differences. With the spotlights away from them, it is even possible that the programmes no longer exist. An e-mail to the person named as the contact on the LIFE-sport website came bouncing right back.

The point is that the sums of money involved demand a more critical approach to the world of sport, and although Coakley may have seemed blasphemous to some, his presentation is thought-provoking. He was the feature speaker at this conference on Sport and Higher Education: An Interdisciplinary Approach, organised by The UWI, First Citizens Sports Foundation and the Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago Ltd.
As the name suggests, it sought to bring together perspectives and research from several disciplines on sport. For instance, Margaret Ottley’s presentation noted the reluctance of Caribbean athletes to work with sport psychologists, based on negative stigmatisation. She also suggested that coaches were reluctant to share plaudits with psychologists.
Safiya Beckford looked at nutritional knowledge and attitudes of local adolescent swimmers and her survey revealed that most didn’t even know the basics, but were open to learn.
They talked about law, politics, media, big games, small games, medicine, social and economic implications, and seeing the different perspectives was not just fascinating, but it made a strong case for the development of sport studies in a structured way.
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