How is sport a reflection of society?

If we look more closely, the evolution of sports will become a mirror of the mores of our society. Practices are defined according to cultural markers specific to each era. If today it is our democratic values ​​that determine our attitude towards physical education, then how was it in the past?

sports practice
Sports practice © Getty

Georges Vigarello, a historian specializing in sports practices, hygiene and body concepts, was Eva Roque’s guest on the program “L’été comme Never”. He came to explain how sport relates to the social evolution proposed by the era. He tries to explain the important place that sport occupies in our society, embodying the perfect reflection of our spirit and our system of democratic values.

The opportunity then to trace the great historical moments that shaped the logic of sports practice, times when sport, as we understand it, was not taken for granted and was not yet based on recreational physical practice.

Sport today is a mirror of our free and democratic society

Georges Vigarello brings the very definition of sport closer to the values ​​of democracy, which is a system that feeds on antagonism, opposition of opinions. This is why the enjoyment of the game today is based on the idea of ​​confrontation framed by rules based on meritocratic logic. Today sports competitions are part of democratic public life:

  • Sport as a democratic ideal

Georges Vigarello: “Sport has a fundamental characteristic: it is open to all who practice. This is a democratic society par excellence. It is a society open to all, where everyone is equal for everyone and where meritocracy is idealized. Sport reveals the model of democratic societies. Merit, work, talent prevail in everyday life. Our morals determine the models on which the sports practice of the era is based.

The success of sport is due to the fact that it embodies the ideal model of our society.

Sport is based on a sense of perfection, on a constant going beyond one’s limits, one’s limits. This is an absolutely exceptional arousal factor, allowing you to be completely free and become better.

  • The body has liberated itself to the extent that it has liberated sports.

GV: “Today we are cultivating a truly pluralistic attitude towards performance, where yesterday the two great dominant qualities were strength and power, now the emphasis is on acrobatic, aerial qualities, refinement, flexibility, mastery, relaxation, speed… this new relationship with the body has made development possible. new practices.

Practices that no longer rely solely and simply on brute force. A radical change is taking place in our morality regarding the individualization of sports consciousness. Sport is when you do your best for yourself and for yourself.

History: it took time for the sport to become a “hobby” accessible to everyone

The historian then explains that sport is not a fixed world and that there is a history of the practices themselves, because each era gives its own meaning to sports practices, enriching them with its own realities:

GV: “If today sport is the basis of the search for pleasure, then in the beginning it was almost exclusively a matter of asceticism, that is, it related to moral rigor and education, to the duty of protecting the City. Even if for a long time it was the privilege of the upper social classes and men, today it involves the possibility of crossing spaces to meet other social circles.

Sport, understood democratically, is almost a modern practice. Even if, of course, the game has always existed and in all societies

Let’s take this opportunity to go back in time and compile a little retrospective of the notions of “sport” and “physical activity” closely related to the body and war in yesterday’s societies:

  • Ancient Greece: philosophy of the body in the service of society

There is already a desire to prepare with serious training for major sports competitions, but above all to connect the art of war with them through the duty entrusted to the cities to prepare citizens for their profession as a soldier. The most famous education system developed by the Spartans, where a citizen from childhood devotes his life to military training. Moral education stems from military physical education. Gymnastics is an educational system in which the gym becomes a real space for social learning. The goal is to form a complete person. The strength of his soul and the strength of his sound and healthy body must come into perfect harmony. Physical activity responds to the art of living by maintaining the balance of humor, which is a condition for good health. There is a cult of physical and military exercises that require purity of soul. Wrestling is a fundamental practice.

Sport is an integral part of the state and its educational structures. Greece is also the mother of all competitions and primitive forms of “sport”. If we take the Olympic Games as an example, then they act in the rank of “festivals” because they correspond to a cult dedicated to the gods of Olympus. It is also a political competition that allows cities to compete with each other without going to war directly.

  • Rome: the weight of morality is higher than physical education

Among the Romans, moral and physical education is not self-evident, and putting on a show in front of a large audience is considered ridiculous or even shameful. Sport as a recreational practice is essentially embodied by gladiators, who are necessarily disenfranchised people, slaves, and not Roman citizens. The gladiator here is a veritable microcosm of Roman society, for the physical acts are inherently violent and spectacular with a power that relegates decadence to the lower classes and purity of soul to the higher classes. A trained body is considered subordinate to the soul and is of lesser importance than the art of rhetoric. That is why sports, when not in the service of war, are reduced to chariot racing and gladiators.

  • Middle Ages: social rigor and chivalry

Christianity imposes a social austerity that deals a serious blow to the philosophy of the body and its exposure in public space. Physical practices are considered idle and decadent for the soul. However, it was at this time, in the second half of the XII century, that the etymological origin of the word “sport” appeared, which comes from the Latin “deportare” (transfer from one place to another).

If religion condemns what will become a sport, then it is the chivalric ideal that continues to shape it in feudal times. Indeed, the framework of chivalric education contributes to the creation of new sports practices because these military professionals are subjected to daily exercises. The knight believes that a trained body is a manly body, which he must exalt in order for the prestige of his social position to prevail. This cultivates a sense of physical confrontation, even though sports games are still played most of the time during religious holidays.

Jeu de Paume appears, typical of urban development, where sports halls are specially equipped. An essential game in the life of a nobleman, a show in which a sense of honor and appearance is cultivated. The same applies to tournaments, games, this time directly related to the chivalrous art of warfare. Physical activity develops very soberly in the medieval period, provided that it continues to be tied to politics and a permanent hierarchy of social classes.

  • 17th to 20th century: sport demilitarized and popularized

The way we train and have fun is in keeping with the medieval spirit right up to modern times: it is a systematic desire to avoid any idle practice. From now on, the concept of sport is destined to evolve significantly, as it begins to gradually separate from the art of war. Continuous development until the 19th century.

Essentially reduced to violence and something humiliating, sports culture won the heart of the court in the 17th century at Versailles. Then it is philosophy and science, driven by René Descartes (1596-1650), which revolutionize the perception of the body, explain the mechanical concept of the body, believing that it contains a vital force that transcends the rough edges of nature. Thus, the need to train the body for healing suggests the return of gymnastics for medicinal purposes. We are finally reconnecting with exercise as a medical practice.

The liberation of the trained body flourished thanks to the Enlightenment and their concept of pleasure emitted by the fashion of the Encyclopedists before being fully sanctified by the era of revolutions of the late 18th century. It is from England that “sport” really takes life. It is there that the first clubs abound due to the popularity of English boxing. Now it is the criteria of pleasure that determine the logic of sport, even if it still remains socially discriminatory.

In the 19th century, sport was not without the concept of leisure time at a time when work structured class consciousness and, above all, benefited the industrial bourgeoisie classes. It was from the 20th century that sport began to become more democratic as it became an object of international entertainment thanks to the acceleration of the means of communication.

Sport becomes more democratic with the support of the state, which greatly motivates physical education. Sports are becoming available to the entire population, both for men and women. Sport is becoming a mass, democratized leisure.

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