Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!

 

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Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.

Rebecca.

Reference:

Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

A Philosophical Account of ‘Summer Storm’

This year, as part of my module called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ I gave my students the option of writing a philosophical analysis of a sports film. Below is one of the best ones, written by Jehmeil Lemonius (and is reproduced here with his permission).

A Philosophical Account of Summer Storm: Masculinity, Identity and Coming out in Sport.

Traditionally, participation in sport has been viewed as the epitome of masculinity.  Research has suggested that, in western societies throughout the twentieth century, sport has become a proverbial litmus test for what it is to be perceived as ‘manly’ (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1992), creating an institution where hegemonic masculinity, heterosexism, and homophobia continue to fester (Anderson, 2002; Connell, 1995; Hekma, 1998). As a result of the apparent hostility to behaviour not usually associated with masculinity, openly gay people continue to be hugely under-represented in sport, and those hiding their sexuality are subject to a range of pressures to conform which have otherwise been brought close to extinction elsewhere in society. As a result of the uniquely challenging experiences of gay people participating in sport, a minority of films have aimed to address the issue head on; ‘Summer Storm’, a coming-of-age movie and the subject of this essay, is an example. This essay will seek to examine the film’s portrayal of sexual orientation and sport in the context of wider academic literature.

Summer Storm (Sommersturm), a German movie released in 2004 and directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, is a comedy-drama which follows Tobi, a confident, popular teenager who is the captain and social leader of the RSC rowing team, set to the backdrop of a yearly rowing regatta. Tobi and his best friend, Achim, are team-mates, and share a close relationship, at times bordering on physical intimacy, but always falling short of direct sexual contact. Whilst Tobi harbours strong feelings toward his best friend, Achim’s affection lies elsewhere with Sandra, a fellow rower and participant in the competition, and Tobi himself is the subject of advances from Anke, the attractive female friend of Sandra.

The story unfolds at the summer rowing camp, where teams from all across Germany descend on the ground for a week of training in the lead up to the final rowing race. Behaving stereotypically, the male team are excited at the prospect of camping with a female rowing team from Berlin. However, the girls’ team cancels, and are replaced by “Queerstrokes”, an all-gay youth rowing team who take vocal pride in their homosexuality. As hostility and competitiveness between the two groups becomes fierce, Tobi is forced to confront his feelings for Achim, come to terms with a blossoming relationship with Leo, a member of Queerstokes, and declare his sexuality to his team-mates.

Superficially, ‘Summer Storm’ follows a generic ‘coming out’ story narrative, structured around successive periods of tension, crisis and resolution. The predictability of such storylines are reflected in commentary; Gove (1996) argues that films dealing with teenage representations and ‘coming out’ narratives almost universally deal with gender stereotypes, given the symbolic value of adolescence as a key moment in the development of a person’s gender and sexual identity. The genre of films dealing with revelations of sexual orientation during adolescence are, by their very nature, concerned with positive representations of gay people – Bronski (2000) goes so far as to argue that such films are ‘inseparable from the idea of pro-gay propaganda’ (P.20). Homophobia is portrayed exclusively as backward and unacceptable in the film, with Anke even commenting, on hearing Achim express his need to be ‘informed’ of a rower’s sexual orientation, ‘Why don’t we just ask them to sew a pink triangle into their jackets?’ (25:28).

Bronski also views the experience of protagonists in such films as unrealistically positive, with the story failing to reflect the harshness of homophobia in the real world, and ending conveniently after the triumphant declaration of the characters’ sexual orientation without any exploration of its possible consequences (Bronki, 2000). This opinion is reflected in much critical commentary on Summer Storm, with many criticising its unoriginality, predictability, and over-emphasis on wish-fulfilment rather than reality.

However, in many such films, gay teenagers are represented as unpopular, sidelined, and lacking in confidence – their emotional journey leads them on a journey of discovery and eventual belonging to a gay subculture. Summer Storm not only portrays its central character as a popular, masculine, and confident with women, but it does this in the context of sport, a rare backdrop for the genre, and one which provides a variety of challenges for Tobi to overcome. Sport has, in the past, been seen as the bastion of traditional masculinity; Davis & Weaving (2010) suggest that the sporting environment facilitates the reproduction of masculine character qualities which are embroiled within a patriarchal society. These qualities consist of behaviours that are stereotypically associated with alpha males such as aggression, competitiveness, and suppression of emotion. With these attributes being closely associated with success, this discourages participation from those who do not identify with such qualities, reaffirming an environment which can be considered segregated, homophobic, and sexist, and glorifying masculinity through a thinly disguised misogyny (Anderson, 2008).

Such behaviour is portrayed in the movie, when many of Tobi’s teammates talk openly and explicitly about their intentions to seduce female participants at the regatta, and the initial reaction, on Queerstokes members revealing their sexuality, is one of repulsion and hostility. If gay people do participate, Price (2003) argues that they resort to extensive measures to present an image of “normality”, conforming to traditional heterosexist structures and endure discriminatory practices to maintain acceptance in this setting.  With Tobi’s adoption of a role as the class clown and alpha male, and his efforts to maintain a heterosexual relationship with Anke and avoid socialising with Queerstokes, the viewer is confronted with the intense pressure to conform as a player of a team sport. The matter of conforming is also the subject of some conflict within the Queerstokes team, with one character commenting that his team-mate should exercise more control over his propensity to ‘behave like a girl’ (40:05).

Georg, a member of the RSC rowing team, represents Anderson’s (2008) classic archetype of traditional masculinity – he is openly hostile toward the Queerstokes team on account of their homosexuality, objectifies women, and engages in traditionally masculine banter with fellow teammates. Georg engages in an open conflict with Queerstokes’ own captain, Malte, who pursues Georg sexually in response. However, rather than portray the relationship as a one-way educational experience for Georg, the film shows Malte as a direct reflection of him – his overtly sexual, humorous, sporty, and domineering personality illustrates all the hallmarks of the same hegemonic masculinity adopted by Georg. The film is therefore unafraid to portray the alpha-male equivalents in both the heterosexual and homosexual groups, and the resulting relationship between them, culminating in Georg feeling horrified by Malte’s eventual sexual advance, is amongst the most interesting in the film. At this point, the only thing separating the two characters is the gender of their sexual targets – stereotypes about sexuality have been broken down entirely.

One of the film’s major dramatic plotlines comes from the central friendship between Tobi and Achim. Many such films contain a similar relationship, some of which serve to portray the heartbreak of unrequited love, with others providing the plot device through which the protagonists romantic dreams are fulfilled. Summer Storm represents this differently – whilst Tobi’s sexuality is not openly acknowledged, the two share explicitly intimate moments, and Achim is on some level aware of Tobi’s proclivities. The storyline eventually climaxes as Tobi leans in for a kiss, but is spurned by Achim who, tellingly, responds with ‘You expect too much of me’ (45:00). The viewer is efficiently made aware that, whilst potentially experimental, Achim is heterosexual, and is unable to fully reciprocate Tobi’s feelings. The film demonstrates restraint in refusing to portray the advance as a shock to Achim, and, whilst the friendship begins to break down in the final act, this can be attributed to Tobi’s jealousy of his friend’s relationship with Sandra, rather than any genuine homophobia on Achim’s part. Such a representation – placing the emphasis on the protagonist as the engineer of his own problems in the face of a relatively accepting response – is an original take on a common story arc, and presents the idea that gay people can experience the same inner turmoil even in the absence of strong intolerance. This is shown most effectively in Anke’s barbed response to Tobi’s continued efforts to hide his sexuality, after Tobi had confided in her his secret: “I have to accept that you are in love with a boy – I cannot compete with that. But do you want to make a comical act out of yourself? Do you want to continue lying to the others?” (1:04:45).

Having been spurned by Achim, Tobi joins the Queerstokes team for an afternoon by the lake. In this scene, the audience witnesses a traditional moment of belonging and realisation – the character feels kindred to those around him for the first time. He develops a relationship with Leo, and shares his first gay kiss. With an employment of pathetic fallacy, against the backdrop of a summer thunderstorm, tensions result in Leo confronting Tobi about his homosexuality in front of his fellow team-mates. Back at the camp, as the storm threatens to destroy their tents, a tree is uprooted, crashing to the ground and separating Tobi from the rest of the camp – Tobi looks at his team-mates through the rain, the imagery reflecting his feelings of isolation and loneliness.  The group eventually find shelter in a local hostel, where Tobi argues with Achim, and ends up in the arms of Leo.

The next morning, Tobi arrives in the breakfast lobby to be greeted by two tables – one occupied by his RSC team-mates, and the second by Queerstokes. After a moment of hesitation, and with the audience expecting him to choose the group who reflect his new-found homosexual identity, the film surprises when Tobi sits with his original circle of friends. At the table, Tobi kisses Anke on the cheek, and asks, casually, ‘What, I can’t kiss girls now, just because I’m gay?’ (1:22:40). His team-mates react with bemusement, but give a wary smile of acceptance, before Toby returns to his leadership role by giving a motivational speech to his team. The scene is in keeping with Summer Storm’s alternative take in choosing to represent sexuality as incidental to personality, and, suddenly, Tobi’s ‘act’ appears real. This challenges the viewer’s own stereotypes that his role as alpha-male had to be a pretence due to his homosexuality – Tobi is able to be both gay and traditionally masculine. As the film ends, Tobi and Achim reconcile, and in a final nod to acceptance and diversity, a last-minute injury results in the gay and straight teams mixing for the regatta race.

Although Tobi’s experience of acceptance has been the subject of much criticism by reviewers, many of whom have declared it unrealistic, the storyline’s realism is actually supported in recent academic research. Studies have attributed homophobia in sport to the lack of experience of, or knowledge of, openly gay male athletes (Wolf Wendel, Toma, & Morphew , 2001), implying that the introduction of even a single gay athlete could produce a significant reduction in homophobic attitudes. Anderson (2009), historically a major advocate of sport being inherently hostile to homosexuality, has noted a significant and recent change in attitudes to gay people within sport. He now refers to many sports as being ‘inclusive’, and considers the hegemonic form of conservative masculinity to have lost its dominance. This assertion has led to Anderson developing newer theories on an ‘inclusive masculinity’ – and that numerous masculinities can co-exist without any hierarchical arrangement. The theory supports the existence of multiple masculinities, and the rejection of homophobia, compulsory heterosexism, stoicism and sexism (Cashmore & Cleland, 2012). Further, Clayton and Harris (2009) state that males who now engage in behaviour which, in the past, would have been deemed to be homosexual, do not face any threat to their heterosexuality. This build up in new evidence goes some way to suggesting that attitudes across sport and wider society may be changing.

In this vein, criticism of Summer Storm’s representation of a gay teenager’s coming out in a sporting environment may be unfair – in some ways, despite following a predictable broader path, the film presented an entirely original philosophy of homosexuality in sport. The concept that traditional masculinity is present in both the homosexual and heterosexual male communities, for better or worse, suggests that far more unites male sport participants than divides them. Indeed, Tobi’s internal melodrama, which continued to exist despite no genuine hostility from his best friend, his girlfriend, or his team-mates, presented the idea that the process of coming to terms with homosexuality can be independent of homophobia – this point is a brave one to raise. Regardless, in choosing to address the issue of sexuality in male sport, Summer Storm is a member of a very small club, and one which should grow if the stereotypes and clichés associated with gay teenagers, in part propagated by coming out films themselves, are to be challenged and abandoned.

 

References

Anderson, E. (2002) Openly Gay Athletes : Contesting Hegemonic Masculinity in a Homophobic Environment. New York: SUNY

Anderson, E. (2008). Being masculine is not about who you sleep with…:” Heterosexual athletes contesting masculinity and the one-time rule of homosexuality. Journal of Research, 58, 104-115.

Anderson, E. (2009). The Maintenance of masculinity among the stakeholders of sport. Sport Management Review, 12, 3-14.

Clayton, B. &  Harris, J. (2009) ‘Sport and metrosexual identity: Sports media and emergent sexualities’, in J. Harris and A. Parker (Eds.) Sport and Social Identities. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cleland, J.A. & Cashmore, E (2013) Football fans’ views of racism in British football, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, OnlineFirst, pp.1-18, DOI: 10.1177/1012690213506585.

Davis, P., and Weaving, C. (2010). Philosophical perspectives on gender in sport and physical activity. London: Routledge

Bronski, M. (2000), ‘Positive Images and the Coming Out Film: The Art and Politics of Gay and Lesbian  Cinema’, Cineaste 26.1, , pp. 20–26, p. 20.

Gove, B. (1996) ‘Framing Gay Youth’, Screen 37.2, 1996, pp. 174–192, pp. 174–79

Messner, M. (1992). Power at play: Sports and the problem of masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.

Price, M., & Parker, A. (2003). Sport, sexuality, and the gender order: Amateur rugby union, gay men, and social exclusion. Sociology of Sport Journal, 20, 108-126.

Hekma, G. (1998). “As long as they don’t make an issue of it…:” Gay men and lesbians in organized sports in the Netherlands. Journal of Homosexuality, 35(1), 1-23.

Wolf-Wendel, L., Toma, D., & Morphew, C. (2001). How much difference is too much difference? Perceptions of gay men and lesbians in intercollegiate athletics. Journal of

College Student Development, 42(5), 465-479.

Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport – Review

Cesar Torres’ The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport has just arrived on my desk. Firstly I’ll say that I do have a partisan interest in it as I contributed a chapter towards the end on ‘Resources in the Philosophy of Sport’ which I’ll mention in more detail later.

My first thoughts on seeing it ‘in the flesh’ were ‘wow! what a great resource!’. If you are looking for a encyclopaedia on the philosophy of sport, this is it. It is different from all the other books in the field because it contains very short chapters on the whole range of issues by most of the eminent scholars working in the field today: Scott Kretchmar, William Morgan, Robert Simon, Jan Boxill, Angela Schneider, plus many, many others. These authors are serious experts and have reputations to prove it.

The structure is pretty straightforward and logical. It starts off with a brief history of the field, outline of typical research methods, consideration of key issues, detailed glossary of key concepts, before finishing with further resources and an annotated bibliography.

From a personal perspective I am really pleased to see space given to the different research methods used in the field. This will undoubtedly be helpful to my students who are often quite unsure and confused about philosophical research methods as they are often misled into believing that the only types of research in the study of sport are quantitative or qualitative; of which obviously philosophy fits into neither. The fact that a range of philosophic research methods are considered; Analytic, Continental and Eastern, means that I can give my students (and colleagues!) more direction as to what the philosophy of sport does and how it does it.

The largest part of the book is then given over to a consideration of current and future issues. This covers pretty much everything from fairness, equality, disability, risk, environment, aesthetics, knowledge, spirituality, technology and commercialisation. This strength of such a breadth is however unsurprisingly limited by a lack of depth, and it clear that many of the authors found it a challenge to cover arguments and discussion that are contained in hundreds of thousands of words, into just a short snapshot. I certainly don’t envy their task but generally they have done a really good job in setting out many of the key problems and providing some ways of solving them.

The glossary of key terms and concepts used in the philosophy of sport is really helpful and covers contested and difficult terms such as ‘cheating’, ‘deception’, ‘fair play’, ‘formalism’, ‘gamesmanship’, ‘rules’ and ‘sport’ itself. Again, the authors have had a tight limit as to what they are able to say but again, it provides a good introduction to these central concepts.

The final part is further resources, careers in the field and key literature. My chapter on resources essentially provides a complete reference list of works in the field and divides them into thematic sections, such as: general texts; ethics, values and fair play; sport and play; sport and the body; doping and sports medicine; aesthetics of sport; political philosophy of sport; coaching and education; Olympic philosophy; and epistemology, critical thinking and research ethics. I then provide other resources such as websites, videos, associations, and social media. The challenge with these kinds of electronic resources is obvious but as far as I know, they are still up-to-date upon the book’s publication!

The section on careers is a tricky one and I’m not sure why the publishers thought it necessary to include it. Studying the philosophy of sport will (unfortunately) rarely lead to a job in that field although the author is absolutely right to highlight the use and merits of studying philosophy itself. The inclusion of several courses and the content they cover may encourage other academics and managers to include the philosophy of sport in their curriculum although perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part. Equally, the inclusion of various associations, conferences and the grants available may be of use to undergraduates and potential postgraduates who are unfamiliar with the field. However, this is the chapter that I think is the least useful and as much as I respect and value my friendship with Charlene, I think she was given a pretty hard task in making this fit with the rest of the book.

The final chapter is effectively an annotated bibliography of key papers throughout the history of the philosophy of sport. Again, the authors had an almost impossible challenge in picking the most important papers and I’m sure that there will be disagreements about which papers were included and ignored. Nevertheless, I think the authors have done a pretty good job in tracing the development of the field by highlighting particular influential works.

So overall:

  • Positives: absolutely brilliant resource covering pretty much everything and anything in the philosophy of sport and written by the best scholars in the area.
  • Negatives: the broad scope of the book means that it is just a snap-shot of the key issues, concepts and ideas and is unable to go into any real depth.
  • Audience: undergraduates and postgraduate students studying sport, undergraduate and postgraduate students studying philosophy; it might also be of use and interest to the general reader.

Every library that supports students studying sport should have at least one copy. It really is an incredibly useful resource in helping to understand what the philosophy of sport is and the types of issues it covers.

Technology and the future divide between the haves and the have nots

I’ve written a few times now about The Singularity and technological advancement and have just found this great TED talk that continues some of these ideas. In it, economist Andrew McAfee speculates about a likely near future and what it means for society. He gives some compelling data regarding the recent life-courses of those who have a good education, and are in professional, creative type jobs, and those that have had minimal schooling and have been limited to unskilled or semi-skilled manual jobs. Life has been good to the former whilst the latter have been marginalised and alienated as they have increasingly found themselves being long-term, out of work. Interestingly, an article on the BBC website only today reports an argument being made to the heads at the G8 summit, that more investment should be given to schools and universities in order to continue a prosperous economy. That education is the means to freedom and a better life is generally uncontested. But when this is considered in the light of McAfee’s predictions on a future high-tech society, it is clear that we should be taking this seriously in order to give everyone a chance of the good life that most of you reading this will already have.

Philosophical Sports Films

As part of my contribution to Cesar Torres’ ‘Companion to the Philosophy of Sport’ (due out next year) I wanted to include a list of films that covered philosophical issues in sport. I use a few for a module I teach called ‘Sport, Meaning and Value’ as films and documentaries provide a real wealth of resource for discussion. I quickly discovered that there were far too many to include in a book chapter so decided to collate a list of as many as I could find, put it online, and provide an electronic link to the list.

So here’s the list: Sports films relating to philosophical issues

Many thanks to all my friends and colleagues that have provided suggestions to this list, particularly to members of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, and the British Philosophy of Sport Association.

Some of the films I would not rate at all but obviously other people do (otherwise they wouldn’t have suggested them to me) so I’ve included them anyway.

Nevertheless, here’s my top 5 and why:

  1. Dogtown and the Z Boys (2001) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0275309/ – There’s always been something about skateboarding that has fascinated me. The idea that within urbanisation there can be freedom and creativity. I’ve spent many an hour just watching skateboarders, either just hanging around at the South Bank in London, or in competitions on huge vert ramps. This film shows the history and development of skateboarding as well as the (often troubled) lives of some of the more famous names in the sport. It also highlights the relationship between technology, sporting performance, and creativity.
  2. Step Into Liquid (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308508/ – There are many good surfing films (and many that are more beautifully shot) but this is probably my favourite as it is so wide-ranging in the types of surfing that it covers, from the big (and I mean BIG) wave surfing, to children mucking about in the water. Coming from a surfing county (Cornwall) I grew up in the water so have first hand of the beauty, but also sheer power of the wave. Surfing really does have something to say about the sublime.
  3. Man on Wire (2008) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1155592/ – Technically this isn’t a sports film at all but I like to include it because it’s a very powerful and emotional demonstration of the human spirit and physical endeavour. You see this in the fact that those that took part are still brought to tears by the memories 35 years later. It is all the more poignant because it is set around the building of the Twin Towers in New York.
  4. Rollerball (1975) http://www.imdb.co.uk/title/tt0073631/ – Although many aspects of this film got the future (today) completely wrong, there is also a lot that does resonate with today’s world, particularly the power of multi-national corporations. There is also something to be said in the way that the commercialisation of sports feeds the base desires of the masses and that athletes are merely pawns in the entertainment world to be used and disposed of at will.
  5. This Sporting Life (1963) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057578/ – This is a dark and slow film that highlights the absurdity and mundanity of life (don’t expect any Hollywood special effects or fast action). It slightly plays on the stereotype of northern English life but it does demonstrate the relationship between sport, meaning and life more generally.

Is Lance Armstrong a bad guy?

Following the apparent ‘confession’ to Oprah Winfrey, have we actually learnt anything more about Armstrong? My inclination is to say no. What we know about Armstrong is that doper or not, cheat or not, he was still an exceptional cyclist. Yet, what the interview emphasised was his Machiavellian streak. He knows how to play people, to influence them and demand their loyalty and he’s never been afraid to get what he wants through using them and casting them away when they’re no longer needed. Unfortunately, as with all Machiavellian characters, the trail of destruction that they leave behind eventually catches up with them. The interview with Oprah was an attempt to wrestle some control back over his life and other’s perception of him. He failed miserably. The bitterness and betrayal that people feel towards Armstrong is so deep that only a genuine display of humility and remorse would have given any chance at redemption. Instead, his insincerity was apparent and he’s only managed to damage his reputation further.

Armstrong’s narrative will be used as morality play. It is the story of the bad guy who gets to the top and then suffers a dramatic and humiliating fall. But is this a fair representation? What ever you might think of Armstrong and his character, the fact is that he has raised millions of dollars for a cancer charity. If he hadn’t had doped, if he hadn’t had made a dramatic comeback from suffering such a debilitating and deadly disease this money might not have been raised and peoples lives that are afflicted by cancer might be all the poorer. So the utilitarian might calculate that the Armstrong story is actually a good one whereby his choice to cheat had more beneficial consequences than a choice not to.

My view is that Armstrong is a flawed character that has no empathy for others. He isn’t someone that I would want to spend any time with. But that is not to say he hasn’t done amazing or inspirational things. And he rightly says that he’s not the only one that is culpable in the doping scandal within cycling. A culture developed whereby doping was the norm and he used that to his advantage. If we agree with Armstrong’s view on cheating (which I don’t necessarily) and that cheating is the deliberate attempt to break rules to gain an advantage on others, and there is no real or theoretical advantage since ‘everyone is doing it’ then at the very least we can say that Armstrong is guilty of gamesmanship – in that he attempted to use the rules or the lack of the enforcement of the rules to his advantage. The perception of Armstrong being more bad (yes I know it’s not good English) than others (e.g. Millar, Hamilton, etc.) is that a) he lied more about his doping and with greater conviction b) he is still trying to manipulate his audience into believing and trusting him. But this doesn’t make him technically any more guilty than any of the other athletes who have been guilty of doping.

So perhaps rather than feeling vitriolic towards Armstrong, we should just recognise him for the deeply flawed person that he is. But we also shouldn’t forget the good that has come out of him.