by Jean Jacques BARREAU / Laboratoire de micro sociologie, Université de Rennes 2 (France)


The attention given to traditional games and sports could be seen as a sign of the times. Are we here to point out the old-fashioned charm, face to face with the largely orchestrated Sporting events which in front of our very eyes, never cease to draw our attention or capture and recapture our interest; and places us in an atmosphere where we don't forget to voice our eternal regrets ? Or perhaps we need to learn to focus on their strength and their timelessness in order that we can study their resistance to the cultural factors they have been exposed to and which could, in the long term lead to an acknowledgement of their existence or even a Renaissance.
In the majority of the regions of Europe and also further afield, a movement is beginning with the purpose of safeguarding on a local level the continuation, development and promotion of such sporting events.

Indeed, a very evident factor is the extreme difficulty in distinguishing the destiny of such traditional sports from that of modern sports when their relationship is so complicated ; a factor we must address if we are to attempt to consolidate this Renaissance.
If we do not wish to see a number of these sports becoming extinct; reinforcing a sort of collective amnesia which certain people would call modernity, there remain other solutions which aid us in understanding the implications of such a Renaissance.
Globally for traditional sports and festivals, apart from complete extinction, there are two other alternatives :

1. Emphasis on the "Traditional" aspect of traditional sport :

That is to say the redefinition according to the needs and requirements of the politic of tourism. This situation does not only apply to the regions of Europe, such as the carnival of Nice, France, the "Binche" in Belgium, the Highland games in Scotland, or the "Palio" of Sienna in Italy, but also of African, Latin-American and Asiatic countries.

2. Emphasis on the "Sport" aspect of traditional sport :

That is to say, a transformation of the sport itself, without identifying it as characteristic of it's specific region. But is it possible perhaps to envisage another solution?



Recently, on French television, in the opening commentary of a rugby match which took place in "Parc des Prince" in Paris, a reference was made to "a demonstration of Basque strength".
This comment should be remembered and should also cause us to think. Was this an attempt to incite the exhibition team and test it's strength, or was it simply an attempt to utilise the "traditional" to create another "match of the century"?
At the very least, it appears to be a rather curious initiative and connection between two types of exhibitional sport, different in the forms which they represent; especially in the spirit of the game. The former is a sporting festival while the latter is a spectator sport and due to a difference in their social and cultural impact we may form a dividing line between the two. If it is true that there exists a real tendency to commercialise all sports, traditional sports and events are therefore at risk.
The difficulty in this for us is that there aren't two completely separate sporting worlds to be taken into consideration , on one hand traditional festivals, and on the other, large sporting events. In all truth, they hold in common something which the world as a whole shares. The need to compete and take part in combative sport. These epitomise the most obvious traits of human nature. According to Johan Huizanga,"Homo ludens" is older that "homo sapiens". This eminent historian who specialised in Prehistory, could not disprove the theory of a degeneration in combat sport, a culture which certain researchers now refer to as "the culture of laughter".

The same theory was expressed twenty five years earlier by the American sociologist of Scandinavian descent, horstein Veblen, when he examined the effects of social expansion of leadership sports in American society.
Hizinga is perhaps mistaken; but in this case as in others, we are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation. The untold number of daily sporting events parades its successes in front of our very eyes to the detriment of the true spirit of sport, known as "Coubertism".



The Baron of Coubertin dreamt of a sport driven by the ideal of peace and the four educative principles which would progressively lead the youth of the entire world towards tolerance and mutual respect (by learning the principle of fair play), more fellowship (by the bringing together of peoples and nations), more impartiality (by maintaining the statute of amateurism) and finally by nurturing more self respect (by the fact that the skills of sport could enable them to know their own limits in accomplishing physical fitness). We know the outcome of this programme, the drive towards physical fitness is transformed into obtrusive exhibitionism . Self respect is replaced by drugs which destroy the body, the Temple sellers have condemned amateurism to death and as far as fellowship and tolerance goes, we have but begun to count the cost of their disappearance. We should remember the Olympic Games of the Reich in 1936, when Hitler abruptly left the ceremony, refusing to shake the hand of one of the heroes of the games, four times medal winner American Jesse Owens, on the grounds that he was black; just as he had already organised with the active participation of the Nazi beaurocrats of sport the expulsion of all Jewish athletes in the National Team, knowing that there wouldn't be widespread International condemnation.

In such ruins, we should be content with the fact that the ideal of peace has not been completely destroyed and that there rest elements untouched by such a disaster. Indeed, it wasn't sport that declared war. We should remember that under such conditions it seems that the forces that have de stabilised sport the most and have therefore placed in jeopardy it's credibility are an integral part of each and every sport and not an external factor. An attempt at compensating for this de stabilisation is by proposing more and more attractions. This nevertheless places the Coubertin dream nearer to Rome and it's circus than to Olympia and it's gods.



We can assume nothing of the sort in our study of Traditional sports, in as much as the objections and protestations we could see come essentially from the exterior. For reasons which are understandable, certain sports, especially those which lead to acts of cruelty against animals, such as rating, bull-baiting, bear-baiting and cock fighting are banned either partially or totally. Cock fighting still takes place today in the Philippines and remains a clandestine sport in Europe and Spanish bull fighting is an integral part of Spanish culture. But as far as we admit to the presence of regional sports and their development and describe them for the chroniclers and witnesses, it would be better to marginalise them in order to denounce any excesses and also to condemn the efforts of the corrupt who maintain their own corrupt version of their regional sport.

We should not forget to mention also the anthems presented by Philipp Stubbs in his celebrated work "Anatomy of the Abuses", which was published in 1583. It illustrates this same point ,but from a less militant angle. It is indeed true that in France, half a century before Stubbs, a doctor and monk called Rabelais, sang the virtues of sport and he highly recommended study on the subject for his pupil, the Giant Gargantua and the members of the famous Abbey Thalami community. For Stubbs, it was not just fiction, but actual reality which he saw in the England that he visited. Indeed, he was alarmed by the customs that he saw there. For him, any action that wasn't dedicated to the glory of God lead directly to mortal sin. The universe of combat was created by the devil and this Satanic universe was spreading it's evil in all directions. The anatomy of abuses is first and foremost the abuse of the human anatomy.

Every aspect has been seen; gluttony, drunken debauchery and prostitution, extravagant clothes and hairstyles, crinoline robes and costly perfumes. What scorn was poured on the Saints of humility by the sinners in their Carnival costumes ! Stubbs was just as contemptuous of Fairs and markets, which were too often a pretext for licentiousness; Drama which satisfied only the most basic of human instincts, with nothing to inspire fear or dread as in the Ancient plays. The dances favoured promiscuity and finally the games themselves which were the last attack on morality-Whether it were cards, dice, tennis or skittles and in conclusion it was the turn of football to be debased. Stubbes could not accept any form of combat as amicable or any game as recreational, or any sport as a way of passing the time; All such activity doubly contravened religious principles and was "a murderly and bloodthirsty practice" . In addition, they often took place on the Sabbath. Stubbes was a Puritan and the in observance of the Sabbath was on principle wholly unacceptable.

Such condemnations gave popular games an unfavourable image. Stubbes did not reserve his criticism to rural and village areas, he also turned against the middle class who organised their own pastimes. Such ideas spread to the majority of the countries of Europe and imposed themselves forcefully enough to create a lasting oppression of the sports on those in public authority. With Stubbs it is spiritual authority which is voiced and later the authority of time which follows. We can see the official opinion against popular sports in their prohibition by Royal order, statutes by Synod or by the local police force and lastly the Earldoms of the Nations of Europe from the fourteenth to the Nineteenth century. It is historians who begin to change the situation by showing us that behind all these actions and the prohibition which it provoked. There was a radical change in the social structure; traditional games represent the last surviving bastion of rural social organisation.

Indeed the question of exercising the right to take part never got that far. The rights of common law were enough. Every member of the population was invited to take part in such events. No-one was excluded. The establishing of festivals and the fulfilment of sports took place with the approval and even active participation of those in positions of responsibility locally, even the Lord and Lady were present for some events. In Brittany, the Historian Henry See talks of the right of "soule" (an ancient form of rugby).

It is the emergence of a written law, helped by an instrument of civil coercion, the police in particular, which resulted in a considerable transformation of the State and thus the removal of the common law, which begins the process of the devaluation of traditions and festivals that Stubbs had anticipated.

With Industrialisation and the decline of rural areas it is this rural organisation which is brought into play and is the seed of a social conscience which only begins to weaken at the time of the Revolution. The passing of time changed this idea of organisation dramatically. Rural sports, which took place in free time in the farming season were a real social event in the rural calendar and were succeeded by other forms of sports, a separate time of urban activities and sports. After the remodelling of space and landscape, it is the social landscape which was to be progressively changed. Sport, according to R.Malcolmson, does not now depend on planned holidays, ruled by work on the length of the day, but rather on a timetable calculated by the production of industry. This results in a new social structure and the partial destruction of a tradition of competitive sports and local festivals. As a result we can see the break down of relationships between individuals; brutally removed from their familiar environment and artificially grouped together, but this time in large industrial cities; trying to trace a new path towards acceptable companionship. We know this situation and its trials and tribulations well. It is our own situation.



All observations, especially those of ethnographers, show that society still has traditional festivals and a heritage of competitive sports. Such a tradition would appear to be more resistant when it is cemented by a collective desire to insure its' conservation. We could even ask ourselves if sometimes the efforts of certain communities tend towards a preoccupation with the festival and games themselves, only to be made aware later of its' constraints. It seems that contrary to the widespread modern vision adopted by the West, the ambitions of combat sports and festivals are more evident when the difficulties of living conditions are more evident.

This point is well illustrated in the research of Steward Culin for example, who concentrated on Oriental pastimes in Corea and Alice T.Cheska, who studied the traditional games of The Inuit tribe of North American Indians. We can clearly see similar traits in African dances and the Naven ceremony of the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea ,as noted by Gregory Batesin. During this ceremony, the cross dressing of the actors and the reversal of sexual roles reveals a complete reversal of normal relationships, or an even more extreme example of the "potlatch" game of American societies, which if not stopped, could bring about the material ruin of the society itself. As such events can make the contradictions and pain of life bearable, they show characteristics which modern past times have not been able to accept.

Different from sporting events which work towards a Cosmopolitan unity, traditional games and sports have never got rid of social contradictions which modern sport has a great tendency to exaggerate, because in a sense they are a result of these social contradictions and it is for this reason that we can always interpret them as the routes of research which show the desire to demystify the mystery of life.
In addition to this, the activity of sports and festivals are at the same time their justification and we are not surprised to find them borrowed by and adapted to modern sport.

Both village games and the sports which took place in fairs can also be seen in a modern sporting context. From the "Hornuss helvetique" and the "fioletto valdotain ", to cross country sports and sports like golf or all varieties of hockey, to Celtic Wrestling and combat sports, to Caledonian games and the famous Highland Games and then towards athletics. Or even the Morris-Dances or the dances of swords or knives, as are found in the British Isles and the Basque country could have a link to Rhythmic gymnastics. At a glance, there doesn't seem to be an obvious difference; indeed the road linking these sports together seems short but the technical definition of such activities does not give a full explanation of their singularity. The big difference is the definition of the purpose of such past times. The big sports event tries to maximise the gain while minimising the cost; the logic of economics is prevalent and it can be seen in the establishing of an audience. With traditional games and festivals, it is important to create and consolidate a collective and individual identity. In this case, it is a social logic which is at the forefront of the participation of every community member and is an indication of lively intercommunication in the community itself. The day of a festival ceases to be a contrived event, it is long awaited. Rather than ignoring it, we may go to socialise and soak up the atmosphere.



The success of a sporting event can, as we have seen , generate the conflict that the players or spectators of tennis are necessarily the players or spectators of a football match, a boxing championship or equestrian event etc. The more such rifts persist, the more they become deplaced. The dynamic of absorption is a characteristic of a sporting event through the cultural development which it encourages.
In the case of traditional games and festival sand in particular those which involve physical participation ; the sporting tendency is not just a tendency in itself.

In the light of this, one can observe the "jogging" craze of the Seventies, which introduced a deviation from the norm for sporting events. Some individuals, such as the sociologist P.Yonnet, saw this movement as a backlash against spectator sport, lead by anti-heroes. The large increase in other sporting experiences such as expeditions or a safari in Kenya, trekking in Nepal, or white water rafting in the Amazon brings about a dissatisfaction in what traditional sports can offer. Some sport entrepreneurs are still able to organise events such as Car rallies in the African desert, transatlantic navigation and circumnavigation, or mountain expeditions in order to create a sensational event or championship. We are now able to find research which mentions the development of non-sportive sporting events. We are arriving at a new cross-roads, where it is possible to make new the old forms of sport, depending upon whether those who are concerned with the organisation of sport will listen and help through financial support and organising sport on a more personal social level.



The availability of technical and financial help will not ensure the success of such a project, even if they are considered a priority. We have seen in the passing years a revolution on a grand scale which has given three reference points to society: liberty ,equality and fraternity. If we have indeed made progress towards liberty we should not complain that it is too often only on an official level. It is surely better to have official recognition of civil liberties than acceptance of repression. The same could be said for equality, although we are obviously far from achieving this goal, one could argue that we have advanced on many fronts. As far as brotherhood is concerned , there is much work to be done. The mountain of intolerance has not been conquered and in this context, perhaps a Renaissance in traditional sports and sporting events could be the means to an end.



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