This Sporting Life
THE OLYMPICS ARE almost upon us, as I write. For many ecologists, this will be a matter of indifference at best, or at worst hostility. Indifference, because the ecologically-minded tend to attach scant importance to competitive sport. Its very competitiveness troubles them. They prefer co-operative endeavours, or activities where the individual sets his own pace without testing himself against others. The hostility, meanwhile, is like most hostilities born of ideological zeal. For the Olympics, and other mass sporting events, are seen as commercialist jamborees which legitimise corporate power. The cult of the athlete is dismissed as selfish individualism, the flag-waving is jingoistic, the vast expenditure condemned as immoral.
Worse still, the iniquities of global capitalism appear to be highlighted by international sport. The image springs to mind of children on the Indian subcontinent who sew footballs for the World Cup. Such powerful images sit very uneasily upon the green conscience. They should disturb anyone who is concerned about social justice, or who believes that economics should serve an ethical purpose. Many green campaigners will view Sydney, this year’s Olympic venue, less as one of the world’s great cities and more as a reminder of racial oppression. They will remember the destruction of the Aboriginal culture by white invaders and the continuing plight of the First Australians. The Olympics are not, therefore, widely perceived as a ‘green’ event. But should we allow the argument to end there?
In the West, especially, the rise of mass sporting events accompanies the decline of participation in sport and the rise of couch potato culture. The more we watch sport on television, the less we kick footballs around in the park or walk over rugged countryside. The more we turn sportsmen into celebrities, the fewer playing fields we provide for our children. We build stadiums the cost of which would feed and house millions. We buy and sell football players, as if they were servile gladiators in Ancient Rome. And yet, we become ever more unhealthy, both as individuals and as a society. The more detached from nature, the more alienated from our own bodies we become, the more sport becomes the new opium of the people.
Looked at this way, the ecological case against the Olympics, the World Cup or Euro 2000 becomes compelling. Yet one of the weak-nesses of green thinking has been the failure to apply the same criteria to human societies as the natural world. Greens wax lyrical about conservation and biodiversity, but tend to dismiss cultural conservatism and human diversity in favour of homogenising ‘equality’ and a ‘liberal’ social agenda bequeathed by the left. In this sense, the ecological movement is making the same mistake as the ‘anthropocentric’ politics it opposes, that of dividing man from the rest of nature.
Ecological wisdom cannot exist without human understanding. That requires us to throw out the ideological baggage of an ageing New Left and look more closely at social issues, such as sport. When we do this, we can see a connection between the flag-waving nationalism, or the exaggerated regional loyalties, sport provokes, and the decline of national symbols, the erosion of that sense of place that gives our lives context and purpose. We can see a connection between the attack on masculine values in the West and the eruptions of male violence associated with sporting events. Adulation of athletes is the last refuge of patriots. Football hooliganism is becoming the last refuge for the strong, healthy young male. The commercial exploitation and the violence are not mere products of ‘capitalism’. Instead, they are the result of bad social policies that fail to respond to human need.
RD Laing, the radical psychiatrist, once posed the question: ‘who could be so superstitious as to suppose that the soul does not exist, merely because we cannot see it at the end of a microscope?’ Although a Marxist and humanist, he realised that the decline of religion and the absence of the sacred from public life were creating a hole in the heart of Western civilisation. For many individuals, this hole was filled by mental disease. Laing rebuked his scientific colleagues for the modern superstition of secularism. There are many other modern superstitions, if we accept the Oxford English Dictionary definition of superstition as ‘an unreasonable or groundless notion’. Two of the strongest and most intimately connected of these are internationalism and uni-sexism. They are part of a twisted version of liberalism that rides roughshod over tradition and refuses to understand the value of ritual.
Increasingly, it is assumed by bien pensant legislators, academics and commentators that national symbols are irrelevant to the modern world, or that the loyalties they embody can be swept away. Through a mixture of brainwashing ‘education’ and coercion, it is thought that the British can cease to think of themselves as British and become citizens of ‘Europe’. It is believed, too, that distinctions of culture, creed or way of life can be abolished or levelled down by ‘multi-culturalism’, that our historical memory as a people can be erased. Further, it is widely assumed that such changes constitute progress, that the upward devolution of power or the blurring of cultural boundaries creates a new understanding between human beings.
Such ideas are superstitious because they are belied by actual human behaviour. We have seen, from the last century especially, the dangers of artificial political unions. Much of what we call the Third World is defined by lines on a map, abstractions based on colonial borders, remote from the way people think and feel. To most Nigerians, membership of the Ibo, Yoruba or Hausa nations, or many nations smaller but just as proud, is more important than being Nigerian. Few Congolese feel loyalty to the government in Kinshasa. In Africa especially, artificial political unions have led to centralised, bureaucratic and corrupt regimes, which reinforce Western prejudices.
We have a contrast between the highly participatory structures of the African village or region and dictatorial governments, civilian or military.
Closer to home, we can observe that more than seventy years of Soviet tyranny failed to create the ‘new Soviet man’, that national loyalties and entrenched religious beliefs won out over secular internationalism. Yugoslavia also was a political union intended to bring peace to the Balkans, but only a strong, energetic leader could hold its component parts together. In Britain, internationalist bias in education and politics has achieved little more than a revival of English nationalist fervour. ‘Multi-culturalism’ and the denigration of history have not fostered a common citizenship but increased tension between ethnic groups. Young racist whites are products of ‘liberal’ education and its pacifist bias.
The denial of national identity, and the instincts that support it, fosters distrust between nations. Conversely, an individual’s affection for his own culture enables him to open himself to other cultures, too. Thus it is wrong to blame ‘nationalism’ for the violence and vulgarity of mass sporting events. It is the cult of internationalism that is to blame, for stifling national sentiments that could be directed to positive ends — including wise stewardship of the environment.
Much of the violence associated with sport is the violence of exuberant young males. This has led fashionable psychologists, afraid of ‘liberal’ opinion, to conclude that there is a ‘crisis of masculinity’.
Yet such behaviour suggests instead that masculinity is alive and well. The problem is a society that neglects its young men, wastes its male energy, devalues masculine creativity and the role of men as fathers or providers. Since the 1960s, public policy has been founded on the pretence that men can be socialised, trained and educated in exactly the same way as women, that the sexes are not only ‘equal’ in politics but socially interchangeable. Like internationalism, uni-sexism is intended to create a new type of society where differences are abolished. Internationalists belittle national flags as jingoistic and despise national armies. Uni-sexists belittle fatherhood and dismiss most traditions as ‘patriarchal’. Male bastions, such as the church or the Armed Forces, must be ‘feminised’ or pushed to the margins of society — or preferably both.
In the interests of socially engineered ‘equality’, we ignore the emotional needs of young men, which societies more ecologically balanced than ours know instinctively. They know that the adolescent male requires a rite of passage, by which he makes the transition from boy to man. In India, the young Brahmin learns Vedic tradition from an older male relative, usually his grandfather. Amongst the Melanesian Samba, youths are befriended by older warriors and that friendship is lifelong. Native American myths and hunting skills are passed along from older to younger men.
All human societies, so-called primitive and so-called civilised, have given male initiation cultural and spiritual pride of place. As well as learning from his elders, the young man must often step outside society, acting out anti-social adolescent desires as part of initiation. Robert Brain, describing Australian Aboriginal rituals, refers to the ‘unbridled independence and unruly temper of the uninitiated boy’ as something considered normal, not daunting, by the tribe.  Initiations usually involve an element of danger. Young Maasai men become both warriors and intelligent beings through placing their lives at risk. As Teplillit Ole Saitoti, himself a Maasai, explains:
‘A warrior must be strong, clever, courageous, confident, wise and gentle. he must hunt lions for his headdress, protect his herds from predators, retrieve stolen or strayed cattle… and safeguard his community.’ 
Through testing himself against nature, the young man becomes ‘wise and gentle’, as well as strong. Through satisfying his sense of adventure, he becomes a useful member of society.
The young Maasai is therefore luckier than his Western counterparts. For the further removed from nature the West becomes, the more it represses young males. Education is increasingly about sitting still for hours and learning irrelevant facts by rote. Safety is placed above adventure. The idea of the man as provider for children, or protector of women, is derided as old-fashioned. Military service is no longer valued and is increasingly subject to civilian norms. For more and more boys, there is no father-figure to revere and emulate, no male role model at school and no heroes left except for sporting celebrities.
Male football violence is therefore as ‘green’, in its own way, as protests against genetically modified crops. It is a desperate plea for a return to a society that reflects our true nature.
Ecologists should go on being critical of sporting events where they are wasteful and iniquitous. But they should look on the patriotism which inspires viewers of the Olympics and other similar events, and the male solidarity which inspires football crowds, as positive forces. For they are part and parcel of the human ecosystem.
(1.) Quoted in Geoffrey Ben-Nathan, ‘Crimes of Passage’ (Brunel University, 1995), p.5
(2.) ibid., p.8
[The Ecologist, September, 2000]