Tag: Games

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

VK & PD IPL.png

Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.





*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.


One went to the cricket


Crash. Bang. Wallop. Hashim Amla smacks the ball over the boundary for a 6. The crowd roar. We jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate around the ground. I’ve made some new friends and together we celebrate these batting heroics, this “rampage” as the bright video screens inform us. We settle down and wait for the next ball, eager for another explosion. Amla goes again, carving the ball high into the air. Only this time the ball falls short. Into the grateful hands of the fielding side. Out. The crowd roar. They jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate once more. No matter that now the home side ebb where before they flowed. We celebrate the explosion, the action. This is Twenty20 cricket in India, the IPL (Indian Premier League) and it is brash, loud and immensely proud of it. Teams are assembled for millions, plucked from all corners, dressed in bright colours and set to do battle for our entertainment. Its curious to be at a ground where fans cheer both teams almost equally, but I guess that is why they are here. Not for their team, hard to feel attached to a constructed franchise, but to be entertained.

The home side, Kings XI Punjab, lost in the final over, to Sunrisers Hyderbad. So I was certainly entertained. But it was also a little perplexing. Wickets and runs from both sides were cheered, heroes on both sides adored. The only real spontaneous name chanting was for David Warner, the destructive Australian Batsman on the away team. He took the whoops and cheers with a nod and a wave, a bit bashful. Embarrassed perhaps, that the home fans favoured him over one of their own stars. Over their own team even. In fact It was very much about the stars rather than the teams. We weren’t here to see these two made up sides, but to see Warner and Amla swing their bats. Miller and Yuvraj Singh lay waste to the bowler. Who cares what the overall score was, how many runs did he get, how fast did he get them? Which bowler got the most wickets, who did he get out? Cricket, and the shortened format Twenty20 especially seem to lend itself to that. Individuals bowl, bat and catch. It lends itself to the creation of standout individuals: their contribution quantifiable, their worth valuable, their services hireable. The IPL is the pinnacle of this idea. It’s a funny mixture of an odd English game and a hyper-commercialised American entertainment sport. Its got colour, its got razzmatazz, and its oh so incredibly Indian. Its bright, brash and vivid for all of its existence, one massive party. Oh, and there were people taking selfies everywhere.

The selfie is obviously a modern phenomenon. But it is also a global one. East, west, north, south, everyone is holding their camera phones at arm’s length and taking a picture back at themselves. In India though it seemed to e to reach new heights. On the streets, at the mall, in pars and at sacred monuments: nowhere is safe. Do they really like themselves? Are they desperate for attention? Certainly they get uploaded exhibited on social media to be liked or favourited or shared. Bu where does that lead, what is the point of it all? Are we now so obsessed by ourselves that we just want to flood the world with our image, and the Indians more so? Why go to the cricket or the monument at all if it is really all about you? It’s a strange phenomenon, a curio of modern life with no end product.

However, perhaps we are weaving something. Creating a story, an identity, a hyper-individual of ourselves. Want to know about me? Here it is: freely available online to view, complete with a tally of likes and shares and comments to help you gauge my life’s performance. Putting statistics to the individual. Quantifying our contribution.

Selfies are like this, this Mid-Atlantic-Indian cricket is like this, and other sports are like this. We’re recording, judging and rating everything. Prizes for the winners. At the basketball there was a car on the court: Best social media post with the corporate hastag and YOU WIN THE CAR like like like Bazinga! How very American. At the bull fight too everyone was dressed up to the nines, and putting and preening in front of their own small screen while massive bulls died below. Are these the modern times?

This movement felt particularly strong at the IPL game of all the sport I’ve seen probably because its cricket, which lends itself to individual performances, and because it was India, where they seem obsessed by the cult of the individual. And yet the funny thing was I had some lovely personal moments with other fans while at the cricket. I met tons of people, shook hands or high-fived umpteen times. Danced with scores at every 6, cheered along to the music with every four. It may have been very temporary, but for that match (and about half an hour afterwards) I made so many friends. Face painted, grinning, shouting, waving friends. Yes, they all wanted to take a selfie with me. But I’m certain they would’ve approached me without their phones. I hung out with some policemen, some telecoms employees on a corporate gig, but mainly I got on with the other denizens of the North stand. It was wonderful. I beamed all the rest of the night and the next day. I too took a few selfies with these exuberant fans. But what I’m taking home is the warm glow from being with a group having a great time We had a lovely day out at the cricket.

The Wager

And so a deal is struck. Emily, 178cm, American, will take on Untumak, 160cm, from Kyrgyzstan, in a horse race. Untumak will provide the horses, Emily will chose the course. Being the away side perhaps Emily is at a disadvantage, but being a cowgirl from California and boldly proclaiming that she can ride anything with 4 legs, the out come is no sure thing. Following the horse race some roping: agreeable friends as barely wavering targets. Egos are cocked, measures
of the foe taken; deadly serious yet deadly fun too. “In Kyrgyzstan, you will lose” he says. “I bet I will beat you” rings back. “I bet you won’t”.
It does not take much to go from 1 vs 1 to 3, 4, 5 people claiming to be the fastest rider, and then you have a horse race. Wagers spill out from the competitors, the spectators too get involved. Now it is the observers taking the measures, cocking their own egos; a test of knowledge, bravado, luck. Soon it is the spectators boasting on behalf of the competitors, staging the races, creating the sport.

Sun, sea (well, lake) and 2 fine steeds

In the end the hostilities do not quite materialise. Untumak arrived 3 hours early with the horses, a feat unheard of in Kyrgyzstan, and him and Emily proceed to spend a few hours riding. He takes his flighty 2 year old that needs some work, she gets his best horse. There is the odd burst of a gallop, the occasional test of speed, but you could hardly call them opponents in a race. There is too much bonhomie, too much general joy in the activity to necessitate any real stakes of money or honour. The roping to is an enjoyable farce, too much giggling and jest; play rather than sport.



In “Homo ludens” Johann Huizinga describes how there is some playful element in all most every avenue of human culture. From the special uniforms, set arenas and deadly seriousness yet clear ridiculousness of religious ceremonies to the challenges of law and the riddle and poem of historical story telling. He goes on to say that sport is an extreme form of play, where the ideal of winning is pursued beyond that of fun. For JM, sport lacks some of the fundamental elements of play that make it so commonly found across and throughout culture. Certainly, with a less restrictive definition, play is easier to find day-to-day than sport. Playing dress-up, playing an instrument, playing at being the overbearing aunt to annoy your brother. I’ve already said that there needs to be some competitive element to make it a sport and many kinds of play, including the frivolities at Bokonbaevo yurt camp, do lack this.

Janubek was pretty handy with this 3 string number

This might limit the spread of sport, each additional criteria lessening the range of things you could include. But I can always see the wager creeping back in. Two people skimming stones: “bet I can skim it further” – “bet I can get more hops in”; suddenly we have competition and so sport. Does this make the bet, the wager, the gamble a fundamental part of sport? Does the desire to test our skill and luck for a prize preceded some “sporting instinct”? There are some races and events that are organised for the benefit of the betting punters, giving them a morsel to satisfy their ravenous appetites for competition and chance. Gambling itself becomes the sport: play poker professionally, watch roulette on the sports channel. Perhaps the gambling exists quite happily without the sport.


But it cannot be about money. I, and anyone reading this, is quite unlikely to have played in some game or participated in some meet where sums of money were placed on the outcome. Sure, it is everywhere at the top, the most visible levels, and in some really weird cases it starts to perpetuate itself while abandoning the original ideas of sport. I’m thinking of the simulated “horse races “ you can find in betting shops, where there are no real horses, and no real chance of beating the house either. But there is far to much sport out there, from kids knocking a ball around their street after school to adults playing Sunday league football in the park, that is unaffected by the lustre of money for it to be considered the essential driving force. We are then left with this competitive element. Me vs you, us vs them. Easy to see how our evolutionary history would’ve favoured those with a competitive side. Easy to see how those who like to test themselves against and better others would outcompete those happy to sit back. Easy to see prehistoric humans, choosing their favourite throwing stick, saying: “I bet….’

But is it a sport?



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As simple as that?

My head buzzing with thoughts of flight and death, I headed for earthier territory. For this I chose the arid desert-scapes, natural parks and underdeveloped coastlines of Almeria. There were no specific sporting activities I was looking for here, more the general kind of activity people do away from the Hurley burely of the city and competitive life. Something one person can do. Like walk, kayak or fish, must really capture the essence of what is enjoyable about sport.


Inspiration came from an unlikely souce. Stepping onto the train were two Italian ladies. Alex Mayer, a semiprofessional flamenco dancer, and Teresa Bellina, a photographer making film about Alex’s life and her struggle to make it. After a brief exchange in Spanish, we began chatting in English about her life and flamenco. It sounded tough. Alongside teaching English, Alex would be dancing at least two hours a day, alongside additional exercise to stay fit, and more if there were evening performances. Watching what you eat, constant aches and pains, passing up other opportunities, it certainly sounded quite like the life of a sports person. She was adamant that that is what sue was. “Flamenco is a sport” she ruled. Hving not ever seen it live I was in no position to comment, bit I felt I needed convincing. True, as she said it sounded extremely physical, requiring dedication and training like any sport. And true, it requires one to push yourself continually, achieving greater and greater purity of expression. Great players I’m various sports are often described as dancers (Shane Williams, Lionel Messi, Muhammed Ali) so could it not go the other way? Does it therefore count as a sport?


I had been pondering this question a lot since watching the bullfight in Sevilla. In my last post I had largely concluded that bullfighting was not a sport. Again, it is athletic and demanding, but withbrare exceptions, there is not so much of a contest. The matador so rarely loses; everytime the bull dies. My conjecture then is that you need at least 2 sides competing on an equal footing for it to be called a sport? Realistically this is quite hard to find, can the small F1 teams really compete with Mercedes, Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s millions? Can other countries compete with British cycling’s rigorous and exhaustive approach? Furthermore, where does this leave the kite surfing that had my soul soaring a week or so ago? One can certainly find kite surfing competitions, but that did not appear to be what was happening on the beach in Tarifa. Was it not a sport there, but becomes a sport as suddenly as some competitive framework is laid down? Are hiking, fishing or kayaking simply past times until someone starts doing it against you?

This seems quite reasonable, even if it creates some unusual possibilities. Could ironing be a sport if you do it competitively? What about cooking, painting or writing? In Valencia I watched two brightly dressed teams build tottering human towers; were they competing in the sport of human tower building?

Why not? I am happy to let the “non-sports” become sports if they desire, its not a protected word. Bullfighting as I saw it is not a sport, but if it were altered perhaps it could be. Everyone has created in their kitchen or garden the sport of yoghurt pot curling or rubber ball hit-and-run or a myriad others. Surely this was how the “proper” sports got started, back in the misty memories of our cultures.

Sadly my camera did not work in the low light conditions of the bar, so this photo is from the internet: flickr.com/photos/leobar-pixinmotion



To answer the question for flamenco, I actually managed to go see a performance (match? game?) while in Almeria. The set up was minimal, but the effect anything but. Three men, singing and clapping their hands, one man on guitar, and a woman dancing. All stamping their feet for a prehistoric percussion. All committed to the moment, the performance, the seriousness of it. Portraying life and death, love and loss. Genuine seriousness is something Johan Huizinga states as necessary for true play; the involved must be truly believing in what you are doing yet all the while knowing it is just for mimicking real life. Well we had that here. The crowd ole’d, clapped and whooped for an encore. The fervour caught one of the male singers, who lept to his feet, visage a riot of emotion, and just started dancing. Two women from the crowd, presumably passing flamenco dancers, were swept on stage, caught in the thrill of it. It was intoxicating. Was it a sport? Probably not; it was hard to see any losers. But it was bloody brilliant. Ask me I’d rather be a matador in a sunny corrida, or a flamenco singer in a dimly lit bar, and I’ll only give you one answer. And it doesn’t involve a cape, some horses, or the fluttering of white handkerchiefs.


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Sorry guys