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Sports As Social Empowerment

By Ras Tyehimba
August 02, 2005

The history of sports stretches back thousands of years ago to Africa, where our early ancestors developed and explored ways to test human abilities and skills. In these societies, sports played a major role in rites of passage and in socialization processes. Many of the so-called modern sports were practised, including: hockey, gymnastics, martial arts, swimming, javelin throw, running, archery, high jump, boxing, weightlifting, chess as well as a variety of ball games. Many ancient inscriptions from Nubia and Kemet (Egypt) shown on this page, show these activities as they were carried out by both males and females. Though there is not a great wealth of information about the earliest sports, some important lessons can still be gleaned that can enable people to better participate in, and structure present day sporting activities.

In ancient sports, both winners and losers were celebrated;the first for being victorious and the latter for exhibiting spirit and good conduct. In contemporary times, where sporting activities have become heavily commercialised, a lot of focus is placed simply on winning, often by any means possible. Many persons are willing to cheat and injure opponents in order to win. Thus, the spirit of sportsmanship and the importance of good conduct is almost non-existent as winning takes predominance over moral conduct. Contrary to the principles of indigenous societies, people in Western societies are inclined to pursue win/lose outcomes where all the praise is showered on the victor, who is conditioned into believing that victory must come by any means. The implication of this is that when the importance of the means is downplayed in teaching sport to young people, they are apt to think that any behaviour is appropriate once the goal or target is achieved.

The sports industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with a complex web of wealthy individuals and clubs, media rights, merchandise, sponsorship deals, and lucrative player contracts. Within this complex web, the joy and possible benefits of sports are obscured. For instance, professional athletics are hampered by widespread use of performance enhancing drugs; so much so, that new world records are sometimes not taken seriously as there is the possibility that it could be discarded after the results of the drug-test are available. Aided by coaches, scientists and modern technology, professional athletes take these drugs in the hope of winning, not only the event, but endorsements, publicity and the attention of millions of sport fans worldwide. Regardless of conduct, those who are victorious are seen as heroes, showered with praise, and hailed as role models for the youth.

Sports is not apart from the social, economic and political realities that shape our space. Society influences sports and as well, sport influences society. The current impasse in West Indies cricket, demonstrates how corporate competition can spill over into sports, with detrimental effect. Though the two big multi-national communications companies involved (both vying for market share), say that they are committed to the development of West Indies cricket, their actions render their words hollow. Regardless of how much money is made available, without the right attitudes being encouraged at all levels, Cricket (and other disciplines) will foster acrimony, disappointment and bad will.

My discussion about the patterns of ancient and modern sports is not to suggest that we should reject modern life and revert blindly back to past behaviours. Understandably, the social context in which modern sports operate is very different from the context in which earliest forms of sport developed. Rather, what I am advancing, is that we can learn a lot from how the ancients conducted themselves and that the core principles that sustained indigenous societies can be applied in a modern context. This is the benefit of studying history.

Inevitably, the dynamics of sports reflect the attitudes and trends present in the wider society. The sportsman willing to deliberately injure his opponents to win is little different from the politician or businessman willing to allow corruption to ensure a deal goes through. As much as sport often operates to serve the status quo, there have been occasions where sports has [been]used to challenge the status quo and to make important points that, to some extent, raise awareness of certain issues. An incident that highlights the power of sports as a means of social protest is the 1968 Olympics in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos after winning gold and bronze medals respectively, stood bare feet on the podium with upright fists clenched in the black power salute. Refusing to acknowledge the American anthem and flag, these two athletes stood up for the dignity of Black people in a manner that highlighted to the world the racism and the oppressive conditions faced by African-Americans.

Similarly, the early West Indies teams displayed pride, great spirit and determination on the field, as they were asserting their humanity and dignity. In destroying their opponents on the field of play, they were simultaneously destroying many myths of inferiority that were attached to the Caribbean peoples. They were quite aware that they were representing the dreams and aspirations of millions of Caribbean people who were suffering under the burden of centuries of foreign exploitation. Players like Headley, Holding, Garner, Weekes, Sobers, Constantine, Worrell, Richards, Lloyd, Kanhai and others represented the West Indies with great pride and determination. Truth rising after being repressed, crushed and stamped into the ground is more motivating than the most financially lucrative contract possible. The present West Indies team displays some occasional flashes of brilliance, but they seem to generally lack the explosive passion of their predecessors. It is easy for many to get the impression that they are, in a sense, disconnected from the socio-historical significance of cricket to Caribbean people. The Caribbean spirit seems to have become hidden behind the media attention, females, and 'starboy' mentalities. In spite of these criticisms, the technological and administrative aspects of West Indies cricket also deserve scrutiny.

Given the range of negative influences that adversely affect the development of our youth and the society in general, sport, if practised with the right attitude, guidance and principles, can be of great benefit to those involved at different levels. For young people who are so full of youthful passion and energy, sports can be a useful means to channel such energies constructively. By giving of one's best, adhering to the rules and competing in good spirit, character can be molded and eternal lessons learnt. Within this, the means (process) is just as important as the ends (goal). It is in this environment where camaraderie, right conduct and sportsmanship is fostered, that win/win outcomes can be realized with far less insecurity, jealousy and bitterness than is usually seen. For sports to be a meaningful vehicle to mold the right attitudes, it must be linked to the bigger goal of continual self-improvement.

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