Games that colonial powers played
HAVE you heard of any sport that was unique to, say, the Native Americans or the Australian Aboriginals? Probably not, because people who are conquered and practically destroyed have no voice. The sports they played, the music they created, the literature they wrote become insignificant, inferior, and not worthy of being propagated. The conquered people don't possess any cultural, social or economic capital.
Now, have you heard of a sport called “hurling”? It's a ball game, played in a football-like field, and is considered the fastest field sport. It makes for a thrilling spectacle and is quite addictive. It was first played in Ireland, where it remains quite popular, and it's still played in places across the world where the Irish people migrated to over the last 200 years. But hurling was not propagated systematically like the other British sports.
The reason is not difficult to find — the Irish themselves were people in conflict with Great Britain for hundreds of years. This conflict was a religious sectarian conflict that caused great violence right until the end of the 20th century. Great Britain harboured horrible prejudice against the Irish, best exemplified by the Irish Famine of the late 1840s. If the Irish had triumphed in this religious-military conflict over the English, hurling may well have become a huge global sport. Imagine this — we may have become a nation of hurling enthusiasts instead of cricket enthusiasts. Great Britain is, rightly, called the home of the modern sport. It's a fact that most of the world's most popular sports originated in England/Scotland. But how did their sports become global sports? It happened because Great Britain became, through military conquests, the world's first truly global empire. Armies carried the sports of the British to the different parts of the world; in conquered territories, British sports were played in the British army garrisons, and their civilian ruling class joined. They were also joined by the “native” elite, that is, the princely class of the conquered people.
Most world sports, thus, became world sports primarily because of the “hard power” the British conquerors exerted across the world. It’s important to note that most modern sports were codified and organised into associations in the 18th and 19th century, almost invariably in England, the seat of the world's greatest colonial power. In more recent times, there are examples of sports that have become large global sports because of soft power, too — two examples are basketball and volleyball, invented in the US in the 1890s. Though it did control a few Spanish colonies after the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US was never a coloniser like Great Britain or France. Basketball and volleyball became popular worldwide after the project of decolonisation began — they became popular because of the American soft power. When the Modern Olympics began in 1896, they included events that were played in the Ancient Olympics, like javelin throw and gymnastics; they also included the new European sports like cycling, tennis and shooting. As the conquerors of the world, the Europeans got to arrange the people of the world in a hierarchical order. They did that to their sports as well. The British sports, codified and organised in the most efficient way, were right at the top — they were superior in every way.
Indigenous sports were not worthy of support and propagation. The national associations of Kabaddi and Kho Kho, for instance, were formed after India became independent. The modern view is that conquering and looting a nation is a morally questionable act. Curiously, the British conquerors managed to convince the more amenable “natives” that British sports propagate a superior moral code. There are now 26 sports that are included in the Summer Olympics programme. Is it any surprise that not a single one of them comes from a people/nation that was colonised by the Europeans?
Only two of the 26 Olympics sports are indigenous Asian sports — Japan's judo and Korea's taekwondo. They are martial arts, not exactly sports like other recreational sports. Japan and Korea had to make an effort to get these included in the Olympic Games. Judo was included in Japan's home Olympics at Tokyo in 1964. Taekwondo was a demonstration sport in 1988 when the Olympics were hosted by South Korea at Seoul. It helped that they were very popular in the West — nations as diverse as Serbia and Argentina have won gold medals in taekwondo in the Olympics. In recent times, beach volleyball, BMX cycling and trampoline, all emerging from the West, have been included in the Olympics programme. They were all made popular by the West's cultural and economic soft power.
Yoga as sport?
The idea of yoga as a competitive sport seems quite antithetical to the idea of yoga itself — isn't yoga a way to physical wellbeing and mental peace? Doesn't it encourage non-competitiveness and peace for your fellow human being?
Apart from this apparent contradiction, the concept of yoga as a sport can be challenged on other grounds. Most modern sports are covered by the Olympics motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. A few Olympics sports can be said to fall in the "Prettier" category, ie sports judged on the principles of aesthetics. Gymnastics and diving are two examples, though these sports do award points on the degree of complexity too.According to the International Olympic Committee, “the most commonly accepted element of a sport is physical exertion in the conduct of competition”. It's debatable whether yoga can be said to cause “physical exertion” — on the contrary, it's said to becalm body and mind. Some harsher critics term yoga as merely “stretching” and wonder if that could be called sport. It's a lively debate that helps us understand and investigate the concept of sport, and how this concept was forged by the military and economic power of Europe.