Giving the Extreme a Sporting Chance

Patrick Laviolette, SVMC Massey University
When the major national and international sporting competitions get underway, entire populations are glued to the television in support of their home sides. Sport enthusiasts travel for miles at great expense across borders and continents, to personally witness their sporting heroes in their favourite games. The competitive edge of bookies’ favourites dominate discussions in the media whilst myths are propagated about the moral and physical prowess of the players and their coaches.
In deep Cornish waters, summer 2007

The spread of competitive (mostly team) sports such as football, rugby, cricket, hockey, rowing and tennis is historically linked to their adoption in institutional contexts – in educational establishments, in business corporations and for civil defence. Learning institutions forged alliances with sports in Britain through the public school system, so that by the late 19th century competitive team sports were included within the ideal of educating for a ‘mascular Christianity’. This represented ideal physical and spiritual attributes of manhood for moral and military leadership – part of the training for the leaders of an expansive Empire. The spread of sport has therefore had a long relationship with the processes of colonialism.
Today, the globalisation of sporting spectacles benefits from a different type of Empire, massive financial sponsorship. The huge economic associations that they entail and the grandiose scales at which they operate are difficult to take in. The World Cups of football or rugby, the Ashes, Masters, Opens and Olympic Games are indeed as internationally known, standardised and systematically broadcast as are some of the world religions.
Anthropologists have long shown an interest in sport. We inherited a rich body of ethnographic knowledge on sportive activities as embedded in particular social settings such as, for instance, Firth’s (1983) work on hallowed types of dart/spear matches in Tikopia, Geertz’s (1973) depiction of Balinese cockfights and Kildea & Leach’s (1976) representation of Trobriand cricket through ethnographic film. A handful of scholars such as Mauss (1935), Bourdieu (1984) and Deleuze (1992) additionally produced influential theoretical analyses of sport, games and gambling.
There’s also an anthropological legacy in studying extreme behaviour. Needham’s work on headhunting (1976) and Chagnon’s (1968) research on Yanomamo feuds for instance. But the idea of bringing the two together, however, of ethnographically studying the extreme as well as the sporting world – is a fairly new phenomenon (Wheaton 2004; Anthropology Today 2007).

When risk emerged as a topic within the social sciences, attention was, as it often still is, directed to phenomena other than leisure. The dangers of sport have never been very high on the agenda. Some anthropologists have looked at the safety of ethnographers and informants in dangerous places or aggressive fieldwork situations. Unfortunately, however, they often limit their considerations to risk mitigation strategies, chiefly to violent scenarios. But is violence the only companion to risk taking? Ethnographers might intentionally embark on the study of physical or emotional risk as a topic in itself, as in the investigation of possible dangers in urban exploration rather than street crime, for example (as Veronica Davidov reminds us in a previous posting).
Even though the genre of non-competitive sports might frequently be performed individually or in small groups of two or three people, they are highly significant to social scientists. And of particular interest here, they have considerable potential in informing us about methodology, ethics and the tensions between such things as theory and practice, mind and body. For our purposes, the genre in question shall refer specifically to non-motorised activities, even though countless other kinds of risk sports are highly reliant on energy intensive, mechanistic technologies. Indeed, one of the most decisive episodes in the world of stunts dates back to the early 70s when the American motorcycle daredevil Evel Knieval was making his famous leaps.
Most of us will have witnessed such spectacular activities. These days it’s hard not to notice the Jackass phenomenon made popular by MTV. Or the ‘French spiderman’, Alain Robert, who has been scaling high structures for years despite being arrested crossing the 60th floor of the Malaysian Petronas Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world. Or even free-runners and skateboarders who weave across pavements to perform street acrobatics by hopping over barricades, debris and other obstacles (Borden 2001).
On high – Alain Robert, Petronas Towers
Kuala Lumpur, spring 2007

The social sciences are now slowly showing an increased interest in the study of these less orthodox games or forms of recreation – those that go beyond the usual traditional team sports (Rinehart & Sydnor 2003). Since many of these activities involve a degree of risk in that its practitioners go up against the elements of nature or architecture in a manner that relies on personal skills for survival, these practices are breeding grounds of institutional concern for insurance companies, ethical committees and funding bodies alike.
Insurance companies may be right to feel that fieldwork often presents unanticipated hazards of all kinds, especially at the very beginning, when facing what are initially unfamiliar peoples, often speaking unfamiliar languages in unfamiliar environments while doing unfamiliar things. Unfamiliarity does not last forever, however. As fieldworkers gain experience, most risks are drastically reduced by learning the appropriate skills and behaviours to cope.
In that sense, ethnographic participant observation comes close to an extreme sport with the added dimension of academic analysis and reflection. Certainly, I have myself examined issues of embodiment, identity, narrative, risk and the materiality of the elements in relation to coastal extreme practices like caving, rock climbing and cliff jumping. Despite participating actively in these activities, I’m still alive to tell the tale. I of course never took my participation so far as to cause more than a few bruises and near misses. I have come to know my own limitations and respect the abilities of those who excel at these activities. By taking things only so far as skills allow, it is often possible to mitigate the worst dangers.
I would therefore encourage ethnographers and other social researchers interested in sport to follow in the steps of people like Allen Abramson at UCL who believes that we need to take the study of alternative sports much more seriously (Abramson & Laviolette 2007). When studying the world of dangerous sport, social anthropologists obviously examine the networks, cultural concepts and life-trajectories involved through interview and observation. What is more problematic for academic ethics committees, funding bodies and insurance companies is when we participate fully in the fleeting moments of euphoria that such practices provide. These are part of the new methodological frontiers that anthropologists now need to explore more comprehensively. We might therefore endeavour to sail a little closer to the wind with our interpretations, theorising and data collection so that the genre of alternative sports and indeed the discipline itself can remain active.
Abramson, A. & P. Laviolette 2007 Cliff-jumping, world-shifting and value-production’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society. 32 (2), 5-28.
Anthropology Today . 2007. Special Issue ‘Hazardous Sport?’. 26 (6)(guest edited by P. Laviolette)
Borden, I. 2001. Skateboarding, space and the city: Architecture and the body. Oxford: Berg.
Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Trans. R Nice. London: Routledge.
Changon, N. 1968. Yanomamö: The fierce people. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Deleuze, G. 1992. Mediators. In J. Crary & S. Kwinter (eds). Incorporations. NY: Urzone.
Firth, R. 1983. A dart match in Tikopia: A study in the sociology of primitive sport. In Play, games and sport in cultural contexts. J. Harris & R. Park (eds) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Press.
Geertz, C. 1973. Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. The interpretation of cultures. NY: Basic Books.
Kildea, G. & J. Leach 1976. Trobriand cricket: An ingenious response to colonialism. Berkeley: Berkeley Media LLC.
Needham, R. 1976. Skulls and Causality. Man, NS 11 (1): 71-88.
Rinehart, R. & S. Sydnor. (eds.) 2003. To the extreme: Alternative sports inside and out. New York: SUNY Press.
Wheaton, B. 2004. (ed.) Understanding lifestyle sports: Consumption, identity and difference. London: Routledge.

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