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.
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
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