15 October 2015

COMPETITION VERSUS COMMUNITY: THE CONUNDRUM OF A SPORT’S IDENTITY

Daniel Gallan

No one loves cricket more than Indians. The same could be said of New Zealanders and rugby. Ditto for Canadians and ice hockey. Certain nations have forged a part of their identity around a particular sport that it's impossible to mention one without the other. But how would a new sport wriggle its way into the psyche of a population and forge its own identity in a community besotted with a particular pastime? CONQA Sport explores this conundrum by finding out whether this is done through success in competition, the formation of a community, social upliftment, youth development, or an amalgamation of different variables.

Majora, (real name Marwan Elgamal) demonstrates free-running in front of the London Eye. Freerun, is based on the theory of Parkour, which uses the body to get from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, but its practitioners place greater emphasis on individual expression, creative flow and artistic merit. Image supplied by Action Images/Luke MacGregor

Majora, (real name Marwan Elgamal) demonstrates free-running in front of the London Eye. Freerun, is based on the theory of Parkour, which uses the body to get from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, but its practitioners place greater emphasis on individual expression, creative flow and artistic merit. Image supplied by Action Images/Luke MacGregor

Diego Maradona’s Hand of Godis the most famous act of cheating ever seen in competitive sport. In the 1986 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal against England, the diminutive genius outjumped goalkeeper Peter Shilton and nudged the ball into the empty net with his hand. The goal stood and Argentina would go on to win the match 2-1 on route to their second World Cup triumph.

After the match, Maradona said that the goal was scored, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. 12 years later, a group of devout Argentine football fans took those sentiments to heart and formed the Iglesia Maradoniana, or, the Church of Maradona. Today, over 120 000 members worldwide worship the retired athlete like a deity.

Football in Argentina is literally a religion and is ingrained in the collective identity of the Latin American nation. But it wasn’t always so. The game was introduced to South America in the late 1800s by British workers who came to the continent to drive industry during a time when Britain was the great trading nation of the world. By 1870, 40 000 British expatriates were living and working in Buenos Aries. They set up English style schools and sporting clubs and in 1883, Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish school teacher, formed the Argentine Football Association.

What started as a pastime for foreigners and the local elite soon became a part of the identity of the masses. Today, the sport is synonymous with Argentina itself.

In exploring how a sport becomes part of a nation’s identity, we spoke with Matthew Hawkins, former captain and coach of the United States rugby sevens team, and Eugene Minogue, Chief Executive of Parkour UK, who hold contrasting views on this subject.

For Hawkins, “it is very difficult for a sport to establish itself in America without having a national team that is winning.” He adds, “Americans are supposed to win all the time, every time.”

According to Hawkins, without success, there is no fan base. He sees the strategy as complex but straightforward, “create a development platform that drives identity, youth participation, and a fan base.” And yet, with these structures in place what remains vital is winning. 

Minogue has a different perspective. “I’m not sure what competition has to do with sport,” he says. “I don’t think they’re intrinsically linked.” Relative to rugby and other traditional sports, parkour is a young sport which has only been around for thirty years. Consequently, the sport has adopted a modern philosophy based on non-competitive principles.

Japan's Ayumu Goromaru evades USA's Phil Thiel during their group game encounter at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Japan has surpassed the USA on the global stage and has developed a strong rugby identity in their nation. Image supplied by Action Images/Andrew Boyers.

Japan's Ayumu Goromaru evades USA's Phil Thiel during their group game encounter at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Japan has surpassed the USA on the global stage and has developed a strong rugby identity in their nation. Image supplied by Action Images/Andrew Boyers.

Minogue is adamant that “if you look at traditional sporting structures, they are built on fundamental principles that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, and a lot of those are moribund now. “ For Minogue, forging an identity is all about community and recognising that it is so much more than a sport: “it’s an art, it’s a discipline, it’s a dance, it’s play.” By broadening the definition of what parkour can be, Minogue challenges the conventional wisdoms that Hawkins typifies.

For a sport to take hold of the psyche of a large proportion of the population, a sense of community needs to be established. Within that community, individuals need to feel a sense of belonging and share a unified vision or goal. Traditional sports like rugby or football drive communities along linear lines in tournaments and leagues where winning is the desired outcome. The success or failure of the team is felt by the fans who identify with the athletes and team they follow.

Hawkins’ theory on the growing enthusiasm of soccer in America has its roots in the success of the women’s national team. 24 years ago, the US won their first of three FIFA Women’s World Cups and brought glory to a nation that demands success on the world stage. Subsequently there was a massive rise in youth participation in the sport. That youth grew up with an affiliation to the game and today, Major League Soccer (MLS) matches are sold out shows featuring some of the biggest names in the sport.

The US sevens team achieved the nation’s first significant victory in any form of rugby when they won the final leg of the 2014-2015 Sevens World Series in England in May. Though Hawkins is optimistic for the future of rugby in America, that success hasn’t translated as yet to the 15 man game. The US have won one match in the last three World Cups, losing all four games this year. Hawkins is certain that with sevens rugby included in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio next year, the sport will enjoy more attention, but is once again adamant that success is vital.

Without a World Cup or Olympic participation at the sharp end of the sport, parkour has been able to market itself without the burdening weight of expectation.  Parkour UK drives programmes and initiatives that use the sport to tackle crime, antisocial behaviour, and mental health issues. In impoverished housing estates where parkour has taken hold, results have shown a 69% drop in youth crime and antisocial behaviour.

Minogue argues that whenever a non-traditional sport tries to establish itself in a new environment, it is easy to get distracted by competition. He says that sport is about changing communities and giving people something to participate and belong to. “All the things that are intrinsic to sport are often forgotten when we try and market it and package it,” he says. “So many people are put off by sport and we have identified a new demographic and appealed to them in order to grow our community.”

Social media is a massive driving force behind this. Parkour’s rise in popularity has gone hand in hand with the growth of social media and the ease with which content can be shared. YouTube videos shared on Twitter and Facebook expose the sport to a global audience. Young people are not engaging with the world around them through TV and mainstream media like generations before them and parkour has tapped into a new demographic that hasn’t shown an interest in traditional sports.

But that is not to say that a non-traditional sport cannot win new fans that already identify with an existing traditional sport. As Hawkins says, sports fans love sport, and there is no limit to how many disciplines an individual can identify with. Hawkins himself is both a fan of the National Football League (NFL) and rugby and believes that all it takes to create new fans is exposure.

He says it is important where you place a non-traditional sport and it is vital that you don’t compete with existing traditional sports. He cites the way Japan has developed the game of rugby as an example. “The Japanese league has found a void in the calendar so their players can play in other competitions around the world and so their audience is not being drawn away by other more established sports and leagues.” This has driven enthusiasm and in four years’ time, Japan are set to become the first Asian country to host the Rugby World Cup.

Creating an identity around a sport takes time which is why driving young people towards the sport is vital for sustainability. Parkour, with its strong ties to social media and the fact that there are set no rules and regulations, has managed to create an avenue where young people can forge an identity. Rugby in America however, struggles to bridge the gap between young people participating in the sport and adults who have no outlet. Athletic youngsters gifted in an array of sports will almost always choose a traditional sport such as baseball or basketball over rugby. College tuition is expensive and the allure of scholarships offered to athletes in traditional sports is often too enticing. 

“In America, there is no professional league,” says Hawkins. “I have no team to support, I have no massive stadium to go to, there are no star rugby players playing in this country.” There are roughly twenty Americans who play in foreign leagues, but when the ceiling in the country is set at college rugby and a small amateur club league, creating a national identity becomes extremely difficult.

What matters is the product. No one is going to try a new sport and go so far as making it a part of their identity if that sport is not entertaining and enjoyable. This year’s Rugby World Cup has been one of the most enthralling sports events in memory and has no doubt paved the way for a multitude of new fans. The US's victory on the Sevens World Series can't be ignored and might prove the catalyst that is needed. Parkour as a spectacle is breath-taking and documentaries and videos demonstrate the captivating acrobatic ability of professional practitioners. This video has over 7 million views. In fact, parkour and freerunning videos had over 200 million views worldwide and the numbers continue to grow.

Certain nations and communities are so inexorably tied to the games they play that it is hard to imagine how a new sport could penetrate their collective psyche. We take it for granted that Indians love cricket, that Canadians love ice hockey, or that New Zealanders love rugby. But there are so many ways to find an outlet in this world and so many people looking for something new. All it takes is a sense of community, a level of success, and a willingness to try something new.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016. 

Comment