Sport and the Humanities: A Natural Dance Partnership

The Olympics always leave me a bit nostalgic. Thanks to my dad’s involvement with Cycling Canada, my childhood was immersed in sport. From memories of holding my dad’s hand as we manoeuvered through the throngs of people behind the scenes at my first Olympics in Montreal, to members of the national team training in our basement—I can still see my dad returning from work trips to Europe with a new Bianchi bike frame tucked under his arm. And over the next weeks, I’d sit with him in the garage, handing him the tools as he’d build one of the cyclists a new bike, feeling like I was making some important contribution to Canadian cycling. Sports were encouraged—any sport.

So how does meandering down memory lane connect to the humanities? What does sport have to do with it?

A lot more than perhaps we realise.

In my family, sport was the gateway to learning about new cultures and languages. Every time my dad would travel to a new country, whether for the World Championships or the likes, my mom would pull out two things: the globe and the massive National Geographic Atlas to learn about the countries my dad was visiting, their languages, customs, etc. This seeded my curiosity for learning about other countries, languages, and cultures already in my childhood. Isn’t this part of what we do in the humanities? If we view the humanities in the broader sense of understanding other cultures, the human experience, critical thinking and being responsible citizens of the world, then sport speaks very much to the ideals of a humanities education.

Sport is an integral part of many cultures

One need only be in Europe during the World or Euro Cups to see restaurants and cafes overflowing with people watching soccer matches to understand just how important sport is in these cultures. Likewise, ask any Canadian if they’ve heard of Wayne Gretzky and the answer is “of course” (with an unspoken “duh!”). Even for Canadians who hate hockey, there is no way of denying that it permeates Canadian culture. This can create difficulties for new immigrants. For example, our high school English teachers selected an article for our final exam that exemplified the material from the semester. Problem: it was laden with hockey undercurrents. When the ESL students did poorly on the exam, teachers realised they had overlooked the cultural assumptions in the article easily understood by those who had grown up in Canada, but not so by the recent immigrants. That’s how intertwined sports can be in a culture.

But surely it doesn’t matter if we know about a sport or key athletes from a country, right? Yes, yes it does. When visiting the EU headquarters in Brussels a number of years ago, I naively asked one of our Belgian hosts if he knew who Eddie Merckx was. Shocked, he responded, “Of course, he’s Belgium’s most famous athlete!” (cycling!!), and then asked, “But how do YOU know who he is?” Simply knowing their beloved Merckx created an instant cross-cultural connection.

So, what does that mean for teaching languages and culture? Recognising the importance of sport in the cultures we are teaching better enables us to help our students enter the culture as more than a student of the culture or an outsider. For better or worse, the average person is more likely to talk about the Nationalelf or Les Bleus (the German and French national soccer teams respectively) than our favourite author, book, or other cultural monument. This doesn’t negate the important things in the high culture we teach; this is about adding to what we are already doing to help our students navigate the day-to-day culture.

What if we think sports are dumb? Well, you can always repent (joke! Maybe not!). But seriously, this allows us to model for our students what we ask of them—to engage with things which may not be our cup of tea. And that’s good! Doing so would also provide our students with a more current view of the movers and shakers in the cultures we teach about, like Queen Yuna, Korean gold medalist figure skater a couple of Olympics ago, and Eileen Gu, currently a major celebrity in China.  Plus, these are usually safe topics of conversation when meeting new people.

How else do sports mesh with the humanities?

Sports can help bring us together

Think about the sense of community and pride that grew when Salt Lake hosted the Olympics 20 years ago. It’s alive and well today. As Brene Brown notes in Rising Strong, a Spiritual Practice, when people come together out of joy (rather than having a common hate), it helps create a sense of belonging. That was perhaps most evident for me when the Canadian men’s hockey team won the gold medal in 2002 after a fifty-year drought. In a sometimes-divided country, the celebrations brought people together, not as Quebeckers, Western, or Eastern Canadians, but as Canadians. One sporting event put a pause on political and social differences across the entire country.

For anyone who has played on a team, we learn quickly that we work best when we work together. This is part of becoming become better global citizens. We can examine stories where teams came together and players put aside their diva-like attitudes for the good of the team, setting aside selfishness show the way. In turn, these stories help us examine how our own contributions can elevate our teams and consider how our behaviours can impact those around us, for better or worse.

Sports help us see the noble spirit

Another ideal of the humanities, the triumph of the noble spirit, is sometimes manifest as sportsmanship, even at the cost of winning.  Dutch speed skater, Kai Verbij, the reigning world champion in the 1,000m, exemplified that this week. Realising he couldn’t pass Canadian Laurent Dubreuil, Verbij opted instead to avoid the collision which would have ended both their medal chances. Verbij’s sacrifice allowed Dubreuil to land on the podium with a silver. Likewise, Brittany Bowe gave her spot in a speed skating event to friend and teammate, Erin Jackson, when a stumble at the Olympic trials initially cost Erin her spot on the team. This act allowed Erin to make history as the first black woman to medal in speed skating winning gold this week. Sport is rife with such stories of unselfish acts.

And sometimes nobility of spirit is manifest when athletes face serious life-threatening illnesses or injuries and make a comeback. This is Canadian Max Parrot’s story. Diagnosed with cancer three years ago after winning silver at Pyeongchang, he beat cancer and came back to win gold in men’s slopestyle and bronze in snowboard big air in Beijing.

Sports help us learn to rise up from failure and deal with defeat

But what about falling down? Failing? If you’ve ever watched figure skating on TV, it’s easy to question how skaters who fall in their programs even made the team. Truth bomb: every single skater falls a LOT on their way up the ranks.  I speak from experience (I competed at solo dance nationals 10 years ago). Falling and failing are unavoidable in sport and in life. Sometimes you literally fall off the horse (I’ve had that happen, too), but there’s a reason for the expression to get back on the horse. Many of us want to play it safe and not take risks. But taking (reasonable) risks by moving out of our comfort zones is where progress takes place. And that means falling down, losing, or facing adversity. The real question is whether we have the resilience to get back up—to try again.

Sometimes adversity stories have happy endings like the Miracle on Ice. Sometimes, they don’t. But how we respond is what matters. Mikaela Shiffrin, one of the most decorated US skiers who was expected to walk away with a lot of hardware these games, instead inexplicably skied out of several races—an anomaly for her storied career. As she has struggled to understand what has gone wrong, she has not blamed others, conditions, etc. Instead, she has admitted she doesn’t get it but has tried to see the positives:

“I think there’s a lot of positive, and a lot of positive even in my skiing. I had some really great — some of the best skiing I’ve ever done here in Beijing, in the training, in the downhill over the last week, in my slalom, even today. In the race, in the moment, when it counts, then I didn’t make it to the finish, and that’s never happened in my entire career, so I don’t understand it. But there was so much positive that’s happened in the last couple weeks despite how much it really stinks.” [i]

And to silence her critics she tweeted:

“Well kids…feed ‘em what you wanna feed em. Self pity, sadness…Let the turkeys get you down. There will always be turkeys. Or get up, again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Get up because you can, because you like what you do when it’s not infected with the people who have so  much apparent hate for you. Just get up. It’s not always easy, but it’s also not the end of the world to fail. Fail twice. Fail 5 times. At the Olympics. (Enter me…) Why do I keep coming back? Gosh knows it hurts more than it feels good lately. I come back because those first 9 turns today were spectacular, really heaven. That’s where I’m meant to be and I’m stubborn… So, let’s go for some team event training tomorrow, and then the final alpine race of this Olympics Saturday.” [ii]

That’s what perseverance looks like. Many of us need these stories to find the strength to pick ourselves up. Some of us need to see that maybe we’re the turkey in someone’s story. Don’t be the turkey!

Sports help us create a more equitable playing field

Sometimes the demographics of sport shows where we can do better. Abby Roque, the first indigenous woman to play for the US Women’s Olympic Hockey team, is a role model for other indigenous athletes[iii]. Others, like American Erin Jackson who became the first black woman to medal in speed skating and Sarah Nurse who helped Canada win women’s hockey gold, show there’s room for athletes of colour in winter sports. Sarah even has her own Barbie to help promote hockey among girls of colour (thanks, Tim Hortons).[iv] Efforts to promote sport to a more diverse group of athletes helps even the playing field. A lack of diversity in any given sport demands we ask why some groups are being kept out.

Sport and fairness

Finally, the elephant in the room: Sport asks us to talk about fairness and playing clean. This Olympics has underscored that cheating hurts everyone. It has highlighted why we need rules to keep things fair and consistent. Bending rules, even out of empathy, creates painful double standards. How do we protect minors from unscrupulous actors, stop abusive training programs, and shut down doping and cheating? Sport needs those with critical thinking skills to tease apart and address these complex and multifaceted issues. This is exactly the place where the humanities can make a difference.

The intersection between sport and the humanities goes beyond this list. Discussions involving sports would help us better understand the cultures of the languages we study at all levels of the language curriculum, from identifying sports of interest in target cultures outside our own (Novice), to talking about last night’s match (Advanced), to what should be done about athletes who cheat (Superior). It can elevate our thinking. Whether we are sports junkies or not, including sport in more aspects of our humanities curriculum can be a win-win.  And when students win, we win.

This post was written by Laura Catharine Smith, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.







Popular Articles...

Leave a Reply