The myth of sport

Sport can bring about positive social change.
But UQ's Dr Steven Rynne warns it doesn't happen automatically.

When touring the UQ Art Museum’s Play On: The art of sport exhibition, I was reminded that sport has an almost unquestionable power. Its reputation as a prosocial force has seen it positioned as a way of serving a variety of individual, community, national, and international interests.

More than most fields of endeavour, sport is thought to have the capacity to achieve things that might appear almost impossible via any other means. And so, it is used in a variety of ways – particularly in ‘challenging contexts’. Sport is used to attract disconnected youth, foster leadership skills, support the development of social capital, encourage self-determination, and promote a variety of educational and health outcomes.

In Australia, the links made between sport and Indigenous peoples have been especially strong with an enduring assumption that Indigenous sportspeople are naturally talented and endowed with special gifts related to their sport performances. As a result, sport-for-development (SfD) programs present as an obvious approach to addressing a variety of areas of disadvantage.

The problem is, despite the rise in prominence and rhetoric regarding sport’s capacity to offer unique and compelling developmental opportunities, critical arguments have also grown in volume and sophistication. There is a growing research voice that attempts to temper the often naïve and misleading positivity associated with sport’s capacity to contribute to development agendas.

While sport is often promoted as being immune or beyond the reach of political and economic influences, critical scholarship in SfD demonstrates that programs often remain entrenched within traditional, top-down approaches that are invariably born out of a concern for the ‘other’. Many sport initiatives are inseparable from dominant neoliberal ideologies and paternalistic values that treat young people (predominately) as problems to be solved. There is little chance for self-determination or emancipation.

These dominant approaches have been evident in several SfD initiatives in Australia, particularly in programs designed to support the development of Indigenous young people. Indeed, despite the seemingly ‘natural fit’ of SfD programs with Indigenous communities, it has actually been a range of racist discourses (e.g. related to natural talent over hard work and intelligence) that have framed SfD initiatives that have generally been aimed at ensuring Euro-centric and neoliberal values and behaviours.

More than this, sport is often the site of various forms of violence (physical, political, social, emotional, symbolic) enacted upon Indigenous Australians. Tony Albert’s artwork ‘Once upon a time…’ (2013-14), part of the UQ Art Museum’s ‘Play On: The art of sport’ exhibition, stands as a confronting reminder of this.

Tony Albert, Once upon a time… 2013-14. Watercolour, gouache, printed book covers, collage, paper, wooden blocks, plastic figurines, vinyl, 200 x 300 cm. Collection of Basil Sellers AM. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

Tony Albert, Once upon a time… 2013-14. Watercolour, gouache, printed book covers, collage, paper, wooden blocks, plastic figurines, vinyl, 200 x 300 cm. Collection of Basil Sellers AM. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

Tony Albert, Once upon a time… 2013-14. Watercolour, gouache, printed book covers, collage, paper, wooden blocks, plastic figurines, vinyl, 200 x 300 cm. Collection of Basil Sellers AM. Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

So while there is good evidence of the capacity of sport to contribute to the development of individuals and the strengthening of ties to community, it is a myth that sport provides universally positive experiences.

Jay Coakley (2015) has been a strong voice in challenging the largely taken-for-granted view of sport’s inherent goodness, suggesting that the views that ‘sport is pure and good’, ‘this purity and goodness is automatically passed on to those involved in sport’, and ‘that sport inevitably leads to the development of individuals and their communities’ comprise the Great Sport Myth.

The more people who are able to challenge and discredit this myth, the sooner we may be able to have constructive discourse about how sport can contribute to individual and community outcomes. I believe sport can be a site of positive social change, but this does not happen automatically or in isolation from broader social, political, and economic realities.

Play On: The art of sport

University of Queensland Art Museum

Until 9 February 2019


Supplied: UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences

Selective bibliography

Adair, D., & Stronach, M. (2011). Natural-Born Athletes? Australian Aboriginal People and the Double-Edged Lure of Professional Sport. In J. Long & K. Spracklen (Eds.), Sport and Challenges to Racism (pp. 117-134). London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Burnett, C. (2015). Assessing the sociology of sport: On Sport for Development and Peace. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50(4-5), 385-390. doi:10.1177/1012690214539695

Coakley, J. (2015). Assessing the sociology of sport: On cultural sensibilities and the great sport myth. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 50(4-5), 402-406. doi:10.1177/1012690214538864

Coalter, F. (2010). The politics of sport-for-development: Limited focus programmes and broad gauge problems? International Review for the Sociology of Sport Journal, 45(3), 295-314.

Darnell, S. C., & Hayhurst, L. M. (2011). Sport for decolonization: Exploring a new praxis of sport for development. Progress in development studies11(3), 183-196.

Giulianotti, R., Hognestad, H., & Spaaij, R. (2016). Sport for Development and Peace: Power, Politics, and Patronage. Journal of Global Sport Management, 1(3-4), 129-141. doi:10.1080/24704067.2016.1231926

Hartmann, D., & Kwauk, C. (2011). Sport and Development: An Overview, Critique, and Reconstruction. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 35(3), 284-305. doi:10.1177/0193723511416986

Hayhurst, L. M. C., & Giles, A. R. (2013). Private and moral authority, self-determination, and the domestic transfer objective: Foundations for understanding sport for development and peace in Aboriginal communities in Canada. Sociology of Sport Journal, 30, 504-519.

Kidd, B. (2008). A new social movement: Sport for development and peace. Sport in Society, 11(4), 370-380.

Maynard, J. (2012). Contested space – the Australian Aboriginal sporting arena. Sport in Society, 15(7), 987-996. doi:10.1080/17430437.2012.723368

Nelson, A. (2009). Sport, physical activity and urban Indigenous young people. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2, 101-111.

Norman, H. (2012). A modern day Corroboree – the New South Wales Annual Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout Carnival. Sport in Society, 15(7), 997-1013. doi:10.1080/17430437.2012.723370

Rossi, T., & Jeanes, R. (2016). Education, pedagogy and sport for development: addressing seldom asked questions. Sport, Education and Society, 21(4), 483-494. doi:10.1080/13573322.2016.1160373

Rynne, S. (2016). Exploring the pedagogical possibilities of Indigenous sport-for-development programmes using a socio-personal approach. Sport, Education and Society, 21(4), 605-622. doi:10.1080/13573322.2015.1107830

Schulenkorf, N., Sherry, E., & Rowe, K. (2016). Sport for Development: An Integrated Literature Review. Journal of Sport Management, 30(1), 22-39. doi:doi:10.1123/jsm.2014-0263

Spaaij, R., & Jeanes, R. (2012). Education for social change? A Freirean critique of sport for development and peace. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 18(4), 442-457. doi:10.1080/17408989.2012.690378