Andrew Calcutt, 29 September 2006
I don’t play games, not even those involving cards or boards; and the last thing I represented in a competitive, sporting event was my ‘house’ at school, for the half-mile race in 1972. And yet, for all that I have taken no part nor even watched it a great deal, competitive sport has been a template for my professional life.
I did play a lot of music, and there is a parallel to draw between it and sport: in music there is a gold standard of live (and recorded) performance and by going on stage you are necessarily setting yourself up against the standard. Athletes too, as they walk out on track or field, are asking to be measured against the best of all past performances. For musicians and sports people alike, one enters into a domain of indifference, where the only differential is performance, while different cultures, habits and origins are sidelined for the duration (even though they may have a decisive effect on the outcome). This is the universal public sphere, competitive and open to all.
Of course, not everyone measures up, there are almost as many variations and deviations from the standard as there are entrants, but the standard is itself constructed by the competition to reach and raise it – a competition which by definition produces losers as well as a winner. Moreover, just as in sport the bar rests on the innumerable attempts of those who have failed to reach it, as much as it depends on the tiny minority who succeed in grasping and so setting the level required, so in music the subtext of the best performances is a continuum of increasing achievement that begins even with those bands who never left their parents’ garage. In this respect, the winner not only takes all, but tells all also.
Translated into the idiom of the modern Olympiad, winners bear the imprint of all those others who have taken part in the competition. Thus, if it’s more important to take part than to win, this is because here ‘taking part’ is to compete, to take part in a competitive struggle to reach and raise universal standards, a competition which is the only means through which such standards are reached and raised, and which is therefore logically prior to winning (‘more important than’). By contrast, ‘competitions’ which are not oriented towards general standards are not competitions at all, eg the Eurovision Song Contest where, as regards standards, ‘Europe’ is non- and most of the songs are sub-.
In the modern period, the Olympic Games exemplified the existence, realised through competition, of universal human standards. They have represented not only the state-of-the-art in particular sporting events, but also, in general, that there is such a thing as the state-of-the-art; and all arts and sciences have made implicit reference to the recurring competition to widen the range of human achievement which, though its origins lie elsewhere, has its most explicit representation in the Olympiad.
Nowadays I don’t make music, I only talk about it; more precisely, I talk about the role played by the creative industries and why this role is often overplayed. Recently, at the invitation of the Creative Industries Development Agency in East London, I took to a different kind of stage along with Jude Kelly, who is in charge of the Cultural Olympiad associated with the London Games, to talk about what the creative industries could do for the Olympics (and for themselves) in the run up to 2012. Concerned that there was an air of complacency among the audience whereby the cultural difference associated with London since the mid-1990s was assumed to be enough to make it an Olympic city, I called for the applied arts to act in the competitive spirit of the Olympics in the attempt to generate new aesthetic standards for London, and thence to the one world brought into existence for the duration of London 2012. I was speaking on the assumption that the area in which competition has been most explicit – sport in general and the Olympics in particular, was also an area in which the spirit of competition remained inviolable.
How wrong I was. Since that discussion three months ago, I have become aware of the trend to take competition out of sport, to make ‘taking part’ mean, all together now, doing something that brings colour to your cheeks and makes you feel better about yourself. In this reconfiguration of sport, what’s to be done doesn’t matter so much as doing it altogether; and it’s all done with the best of intentions, namely, in the hope of improving health and creating a sense of social solidarity.
Let others judge whether the former is a likely outcome, but as regards the latter – reclaiming society – such moves are counter-productive. Until now, what has produced the Olympics as inclusive, society-wide events, is the recognition on the part of athletes and spectators alike that they are in at the apex of human achievement, that all human effort is represented in the competitively driven form of its excellence, and this is what makes the Olympics worth(their)while. But if this apex is levelled down by the promotion of a sports culture in which competition is removed or de-prioritised, what remains will be flat, and all the less likely to draw the crowds which have hitherto made the Games into societal events.
If such a culture is allowed to take hold, there would only be three reasons for engagement with the Olympics: (1) because you are in an event or because you personally know someone who is (individualism); (2) because you see yourself represented in a national team (chauvinism); (3) for a laugh, as in the case of Eurovision (cynicism). All of these are ultimately antisocial; all of them obstruct the development of international, social solidarity.
Competition is the distillery of human activity. Whether explicit as in modern sport or implicit in the arts, it concentrates experience, and makes it intoxicating, inspiring. Without competition the results of sport will be various and different but the result for sport can only be singular in tending towards the banal. The Olympics would become one long opening and closing ceremony and the knock-on – knock-down – effects via the competitive spirit it encourages would be lost in non-sporting arenas.
There really is a battle of ideas and nowadays it is necessary to compete for competition and defend the spirit of the Olympics.
Andrew Calcutt is a lecturer in Cultural and Innovation Studies at the University of East London and editor of Rising East magazine
"Participating in the Battle was a little like entering a Bombay train at rush hour - it's a plunge into a swirl of wildly differing notions of how people should arrange themselves in a really tight situation. When you eventually emerge, you find that you're in a different place from where you started - and that you've been thoroughly energised from the journey. I can't wait to take the trip again next year."
Naresh Fernandes, editor-in-chief, Time Out India