Intima samhällsvisioner: Sporten mellan minimalism och gigantism

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)


Ambitions and Clarifications

The book takes its point of departure in the "intimate visions of society" that are significant of contemporary social life. This concept refers to the tendency to apprehend good social relations as personal, close and warm, while bad relations correspondingly are perceived as impersonal, cold, distant and alienated. Exemplary categories, such as closeness, warmth, community and love, tend to merge and denote identical or similar modes of emotion and experience. Since these qualities are supposed to be put into practice in actual life, intimacy can be said to constitute a norm and an ideal.
This quest for closeness can be observed in many arenas. The book analyses its consequences, ramifications and paradoxes in the world of sport, where, for example, notions of collectivity are permeated with the ideal of intimacy. Since it appears as a norm, however, it is also threatened by contradicting tendencies. This is the inescapable destiny of norms. If they were unrefuted, there would be nothing to correct and thus hardly any demand for disciplinary mechanisms. Hence, norms fight for decency in a world where the immaculate cannot be taken for granted.
In sport, the power that contradicts norms of intimacy consists of commercial interests. It is obvious that modern sport has become a gigantic industry, distinguished by sponsor money, abundance, spectacle, globality, publicity and extravagance. Sport can therefore be seen as trapped in a field governed by "minimalistic" and "gigantistic" forces. "Minimalism" is then used synonymously with terms such as "intimacy" and "intimate vision of society," underlining both the experience of intimacy as something of small scale and its contradictory relationship to gigantic large-scaleness.
The intention of the book is to increase the understanding of the conditions of this paradox. It strives to do so by breaking the isolation that is characteristic of many sport scholars, who tend to withdraw from central debates in order to create a research community of their own. Furthermore, the discussions and analyses in this book refer primarily to a Swedish context. Many of the issues are, however, characteristic of sport in general in modern and postmodern society, but some of the notions of intimate collectivity seem to be dependent, at least to some degree, on the history of sport as a people's movement in a Swedish context.

Intimacy as Vision of Society

The theoretical framework of this study is based on the work of several scholars, of whom many are sociologists. However, especially significant are the analyses of Jürgen Habermas and Richard Sennett on the relationship between the public and the private spheres. The public sphere, they argue, has undergone a decline in modern society. It has increasingly become conceptualized as an inhuman space, whereas the private realm correspondingly has been revalued as a zone for human emotion, closeness and warmth. Whereas the public sphere once served as the space where bourgeois citizens discussed politics and claimed influence in public affairs, it has, in the course of modernity, been drained of meaning. Public man has withdrawn to privacy, to the living-rooms of the suburbs, in secluded and unexposed environments.
Perhaps theses of decline should not be exaggerated. And maybe one should especially avoid seing the divergence between public and private spheres as a result of such a decline. On the contrary, it has sometimes been argued that every society has some kind of arrangement for privacy, some kind of secluded zone, walled off to the outside as an arrangement, for example, of personal security or equality. However, the modern private realm seems to fulfil yet another function. Privacy is perceived as a space where people can act out their true identities, where one can "be oneself" and appear without wearing a mask.
In modern and postmodern society, intimacy can thus be said to serve as an ideal and as a realm where truth is dwells. In this sense it is opposed to the public. The problem of intimacy can also be seen as structured by several closely related dichotomies, such as private/public, backstage/onstage, Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft, community/disruption, personal/impersonal, warm/cold, small-scale/large-scale and close/distant. Since these qualities can also be ascribed to spatial dimensions, for example, by regarding the countryside as an environment where the human bonds are closer and more personal than in the alienated city, one could also add spatial polarities, such as interior/exterior, country/city and periphery/centre. Since intimacy serves as an ideal, these dichotomies contain a tacit moral policy, where the first term in each is associated with "good" and the second with "bad."

The Geography of Intimacy

Sport stages geography. Nations, localities and other places are represented by teams and athletes and thereby conceptualized through sport and sporting events. These places are furthermore competing in football and ice-hockey leagues and can thus be said to be engaged in "place conflicts". For example, different ways of playing football might be perceived as Swedish, Brazilian or Italian. Football teams also carry the names of different places and supporters identify themselves with them on the basis of a common soil. Thus, the place, is where one can be "at home" or "away".
However, not only places are conceptualized, but also the relations between them. The sport stories of the Swedish youth magazine Rekord-Magasinet, popular during the 1940s and '50s, are to a great degree constructed around polarities between the country and the city, where the former, with its small-scaleness, rootedness and close bonds, epitomizes superior morality while the latter rather is depicted as the site of corruption and the lack of norms.
This idea of the countryside as the home of moral qualities closely associated with ideals of intimacy and the city correspondingly with the opposite, is more or less evident in the world of sport in general. Teams from the countryside that manage to compete at an elite level are often ascribed qualities like "football culture" or "ice-hockey culture." Furthermore, sporting stars are depicted (and sometimes depict themselves) with references to geographical origins, especially when these origins are rural. Thus, Ingemar Stenmark's Tärnaby has attracted a lot more media attention than Björn Borg's Södertälje. In cases where the sports hero has grown up in the countryside, this is commonly perceived as a positive resource and sometimes even as an explanation for the success in the sports arena.
In sport, there is a propensity to apprehend the world as a reversed geography, where the moral centres coincide with rural peripheries. This pastoral thinking, this "green movement" within the world of sport, sometimes functions as "social criticism". The periphery and its Gemeinschaft is then presented as a good example in contrast to the sport at top level in the centre, distinguished by commercialism, bribery, drug-taking and hooliganism. During the 1990s this tendency has increased with Swedish failures on the international sports scene. When the Swedes are successful everybody is happy and there is no reason to condemn sport. But in times of misfortune, the entire world seems corrupt and the demand for this kind of "social criticism" is reinforced.

Rivalry and Familism

Intimacy and rivalry are often associated as different phenomena. Since intimacy presupposes small-scaleness, however, such a notion is not entirely adequate. If everybody were included, feelings of closeness would drown in experiences of alienation and anonymity. The intimate collectivity therefore has to draw boundaries between "us" and "them". Besides, intimate virtues can be used in the production of identity. Swedish national teams provide a good example of this principle. In domestic media, they are frequently defined in terms of "team spirit", "team morale", "cameraderie", and "solidarity". They are also often depicted as "families."
Since self-images depend on difference, they have to be juxtaposed against opposing images. The most prominent Other of Swedish "team morale" used to be the Soviet national team in ice-hockey, commonly defined in military and machine-like terms, such as "the Russian team machine," "the Russian robots," or "the soldiers from the East." For many years, the Russian team was governed by the legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, who was depicted as the dictator ruling with a rod of iron. These pictures of the Russian team insist on distance and alienation as characteristic features. Since they seem to fulfil a compensatory function, they cannot simply be regarded as reflections of old political habits. Machine-like or military metaphors are sometimes also used in the descriptions of, for example, the German national soccer team. It rather appears as if these depictions are ascribed to superior and insurmountable opponents, who make it impossible to ignore the Swedish inferiority. Correspondingly, nobody has ever heard of Danish or Polish "team machines" in ice-hockey.
In delineations of the collectivity of Swedish teams, the individual is portrayed as an "ordinary guy" and a "great pal". Since "ordinary guys" are not distinguished, they are also tailor-made for intimate closeness and collectivity. This collectivity is perceived in terms of the family, which constitutes an ideal and thus has a propensity to serve as a model for other kinds of groups and organizations as well. Since more or less all social life can be idealized with references to internal warmth and closeness, familism is thereby manifested outside of the family itself. For example, one can sometimes hear business executives proudly proclaim that "In this company we're all like one big family!" Thus, principles of intimacy are offered as solutions to questions of how life should be led outside of the private realm. Intimacy then functions as the constitutive element in homologies between such diverse areas as private life, football teams, business companies, workplaces,
neighbourhoods and organizations, that is, as long as these entities are conceptualized in ideal terms. This emotional appeal of Gemeinschaft might also be projected on imagined communities and sport then often serves as the vehicle connecting nation to emotion.

Transformations of Heroism

As the audience, we have a propensity to seek the "truth" about stars and heroes. We would like to know how they "really are", to meet their "true selves" and get to know the reality "behind" the public performance. This quest for authenticity has a regulative effect on the public perception. Mass media are the necessary precondition of the elevated status of stars and celebrities, but it is paradoxically also the instrument for the scrutinization of their personalities, and consequently, for the bringing-down of modern heroes. Whereas ancient fame was primarily the property of princes and warlords, the media today expose famous people with the same hardships and tribulations as everybody else and sometimes even while they are making fools of themselves. Thus, the Great Men belong to the past.
The antiquation of classical expressions of heroism is intimately connected to the evaluation of its opposite — the ordinary. When heroes are made common, this ordinariness or unaffectedness is exalted. Thereby, the heroic charisma is transformed and the modern hero tends to serve as an object of identification. However, the medial construction of the sporting star often combines extraordinary skill with average personality. Sport is a producer of charisma, since it institutionalizes circumstances generating charisma. While the champion is the carrier of the gift of grace, he is, nevertheless, also frequently depicted as an "ordinary guy", who is "just like everybody else". However, this ordinariness is also a precondition of the "team morale" that is perceived as typical of Swedish teams. This brings us to a phenomenon which I call heroic unaffectedness, a quality that blurs the boundaries between the stars' roles as hero and average person, due to the fact that heroic unaffectedness emerges when the ordinary becomes a constitutive element in the charisma.
The medialization of society has led to the exposure of formerly hidden roles and spheres of celebrities. Especially television, with its backstage bias, has increased the public focus on emotional expressions. Questions like "How does it feel?" and intimate close-ups of people who are thought to "show their feelings" have become frequent in the media construction of sport as well as in reports on wars, catastrophes or accidents. In particular, the shedding of tears of joy or sorrow is apprehended as authentic behaviour and, thus, the medialization of weeping has become common in the presentaions of celebrities. The quest for authenticity, however, does not only imply a great interest in their "inner" emotionality, but also include close attention to family life.
Through this focus on the secret lives of heroes, privacy is made public. This eager attention to the hidden indicates that we live in an age of curiosity. While people in premodern societies led stationary and place-bound lives, modernity has implied mobility and fragmentation of everyday life. We tend to commute, not only between various roles, but also between the stages where these are performed. Thus, in the contemporary world everybody harbours numerous stashes, to which importance and truth can be ascribed and which thereby can be tranformed into desirable secrets. In a world distinguished by intimate visions, the private sphere is exalted and seen as an area of personal truth. Thus, information about these hidden recesses becomes indispensable for stipulating identities.

Excess in Public Space

Intimate visions of society and their norms are well anchored in the world of sport. However, it is self-evident that sport in many respects epitomizes contradictory principles. It is a global event which actively strives for public exposure, spectacle, wealth, abundance, money and large-scale dimensions. In sport, normative "minimalism" therefore goes hand in hand with "elephantiasis". Olympic Games and World Championships in different sporting events praise the lodestar of "gigantism". They boast of billions of television viewers, sponsor contracts, ostentation and firework displays and can thus be seen as centres of public attention. The World Championship in athletics in Gothenburg in 1995 was such an occasion, which serves as a case example in the chapter.
There are two different principles of the ascription of significance and newsworthiness. On the one hand, actions can be defined as events, for example, as "deeds", "exploits", "miracles", "sensations", or "catastrophes", that is, occurrences that are not apprehended as trivial, but rather furnish the agents and places involved with importance. I call this principle "event-oriented publicness". On the other hand, incidents can occur on a stage or be performed by a person that is already in the public focus, which thereby bestows a significance that otherwise would have been unthinkable. Hence, the significance is not inherent in the actions performed, but in the agents or the places where the actions are performed, and it is only through the contact with such a source that these actions are rendered public recognition. This principle will here be defined as "staged publicness".
Global sporting events can be seen as institutions of "staged publicness". The arrangement of championships implies the production of sensations, news and remarkable things worth seeing. Sporting events declare their importance and dignity through expensive opening ceremonies, which can be seen as potlatches where values are conspicuously consumed in front of global audiences. These events are allocated to certain localities through competitions and elections and are apprehended as excellent means for the marketing of places. By arranging sporting events, local politicians and others hope to gain "staged publicness", that is, to make the host city a magnet of relevance, an important place one would like to read about in news papers, watch on television, visit on holidays and locate one's companies and enterprises in.
The visiting of public stages create feelings of being in the centre of the world. Suddenly one finds oneself on the stage that "everybody else" is watching on the television screen and reading about in the papers. Thus, the audience of the big event tends to experience itself as part of the action, which is also facilitated by the construction of the arena. Furthermore, the audience has increasingly become included in the Event as it is defined in the media. Dedicated supporters are frequently focused on by the TV cameras as representations of the atmosphere on the stand, and reporters portray the Feast by interviewing intoxicated bons vivants in the street.
The presence of a crowd makes the sporting event and its host city an excellent interface with the "people", the "masses", or the "constituencies". Since "everybody" is there, global sporting events attract sponsors, social movements, religious groups, politicians, sandwich-board men and air balloons with company logotypes. Since public attention is focused in a certain direction, it is important to occupy its visual field. This instrumentalization of the sporting event cause protests from other parties, who reject the "spectacle" and the "ballyhoo", preaching the need for the purification of sport. Hence, when sport disposes itself as a vehicle of the public relations of other parties, the need for better goodwill of sport itself increases. Global sporting events therefore market themselves by promoting uncontroversial issues, such as peace, health and environmental ideals.

Quantity and Quality

In the world of sport, values are quantified in at least two ways. First, as professional athletes are actors on a market, they are also commodified. Hence, their market values are defined by money equivalents, quantitative measures of the exchange value of their skills. Second, exploits and performances are measured as quantities, in number of seconds, centimetres, points, sets or goals. In some events, these measurements are the basis of records, which are always quantifications of performances. The record is founded on the principle that the higher, the longer or the faster, the better. Thus, the idea of the record supports the principle of gigantism.
Quantification in sport can, in different ways, be related to the dimensions of incomprehensibility. Extremely large quantities are inconceivable in the sense that their extensions cannot be experienced by the senses. They have to be conceptualized by the abstract language of the numerical system. For example, it is impossible to rely on experience if one is to grasp the proportions of 50 billion dollars, since we would not be able to spend it all if we actually possessed such an amount of money. The sum is too large and its concrete, defining boundaries are out of experiential reach.
The quantities of records and exploits in sport are always comprehensible since seconds and centimetres are small enough to be experienced in the everyday. However, as the world-record holder is admired for his touching of the limits of humanity in its struggle against nature, and as his deed is the most outstanding performance ever, he achieves something no one else has ever achieved before. Thus, his exploit is perceived as almost illusory, as a manipulation of reality. Accordingly, the world record is constantly defined as unintelligible. This goes not only for the performance, but also for its quantitative equivalent. Hence, the world record is often refered to in terms like "Beamon's unbelievable 8.90", "Powell's amazing 8.95", "Edwards' incredible 18.29", "Reynolds' astounding 43.29" or "Johnson's fabulous 19.32". The greatness of the exploit demands an extreme language. A deed that is not incomprehensible cannot be a deed. Hence, performances, exploits and world records are honoured metaphorically by denying their conceivability.
The increased circulation of money in sport has implied a professionalization of the athlete. This development has transformed the roles of soccer players and other sporting stars. They nowadays serve as employees and not as representatives of the soil, the place which has given the team its name. It is rather the supporters who are "rooted" in these localities. The amounts of money involved in sport have become incomprehensible. The incomes of, for example, Shaquille O'Neal, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan, exceed by far the sums spent in everyday life by common people. This development is heavily criticized by the advocates of intimate ideals, since commodification tends to dissolve the "traditional" and unplanned forms of social organization that are apprehended as more "natural". The history of sport might thus be seen as a process of decay. However, it seems as if the indignation has been relatively constant over time. Whereas the agitation used to be directed against the very presence of money in sport, it is nowadays rather directed against incomprehensible amounts. Small sums are increasingly seen as harmless, while millions and billions make us feel that the development has got out of hand. This supports the notion that intimacy is in the eye of the beholder rather than in reality itself.

Sport Between Minimalism and Gigantism

Minimalism and gigantism are two different moods, two different attitudes to the world. Minimalism implies a quest for security, confidence, familiarity, homeliness and constancy. Its preference for small scale and intimacy is evoked when the world feels too large and characterized by anonymity. However, the reverse of minimalism is boredom and claustrophobia, the suffocating experience that is likely to emerge if life is fixed in an immobile status quo. Gigantism occupies an antithetic position. It strives for a break with routines and is therefore a creative principle. It often appears in the form of carnival revelry, with magnificence, ostentation, fireworks and ballyhoo, evoking sensationalism and desire.
Intimate visions of society often permeate ideological figures of thought and then constitute the principle of "good". Gigantism correspondingly appears as a temptation and therefore evokes feelings of ambivalence. Like all temptations it is both seductively inviting and inexcusable and thus arouses desire as well as moral hesitation. Its promise of sensations implies physical excitations. Whereas intimate visions of society rather find elaborate and eloquent expressions in language, the verbality of the sensational is often restricted to simple, spontaneous exclamations, like "AAAH!" and "OOOH!" These cries express something inexpressible. Thus, sensations defy the pregnancy of language. Since gigantism tends to ally itself with the sensational, its pleasure is "felt" rather than "thought." The fascination of the gigantic is, however, often seen and conceptualized from the opposite perspective. Measured by the norms of intimacy, the gigantic is confined in a language based on reason and thereby deprived of "valid" arguments. Hence, gigantism is hard to advocate in "serious" discussions.
The world of sport is a battlefield of the forces of minimalism and gigantism. Although permeated by the norms of intimacy, its popularity is so obviously dependent on its capacity to arouse sensations and mesmerizing experiences. Sport creates feelings of community as well as proclaiming the greatness of these communities. It serves as a vehicle of both the emotionalization and the megalomania of nations. Thus, sport is a deeply ambivalent and paradoxical phenomenon.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Ethnology
Original languageSwedish
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
Award date1997 Apr 4
Place of PublicationStockholm/Stehag
  • Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion
Print ISBNs91-7139-351-x
Publication statusPublished - 1997
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Awarding institution: Etnologiska institutionen, since 2009 Division of ethnology