Olympism and modern physical culture

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The theorists of sport cover the field of physical culture with the term “sport” to conceal the character of sport as a concrete historical phenomenon and prevent the creation of the basis for establishing a critical detachment to sport from the aspect of (true) physical culture. Coubertin is much more concrete: for him, “sport is a physical culture in the real sense of that word”, and between sport and physical culture only “theoretical differences” can be established. Coubertin: “In theory, physical culture differs from sport; in practice, there can never exist a voluntary physical culture (intensive, of course, the only one that should be discussed here and which is the answer to the view of M. Hébert) without a sports element.” (1)

According to Coubertin, sport is not based on culture, but is a pure expression of the Social Darwinist and progressistic spirit of capitalism and thus is the means for creating a “new man”, whose coming symbolically indicates the end of the old and the appearance of a “positive world” in which the cultural heritage of civilization is abolished. Coubertin’s Olympism is not a movement of the emancipated citizens, which, inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution, sought to create a new world, but of the imperialist circles, which sought to deal with the emancipatory heritage of civil society and conquer the world. Coubertin’s Olympic Games are the expression of the “mondialistic” spirit of imperialist capitalism and are thus a combat with the cultural being of the ancient Olympic Games, as well as with the Olympic ideas and movements which appeared in the Modern Age and which are based on ancient cultural traditions and on the emancipatory heritage of civil society (Schartan, the Greeks, Brookes, Lesseps, Grousse…). From Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine it clearly follows that sport falls in the sphere of war and military training and that it is the chief means for dealing with pacifist conscious. The view of Carl Diem, a loyal interpreter of Coubertin’s doctrine and his follower: “Sport ist Krieg!” (“Sport is war!”) (2) – fully expresses the gist of Coubertin’s Olympic idea. It should not be forgotten that Coubertin set out towards the Olympic heights with the cry “Rebronzer la France!” only to urge the French bourgeoisie to embark on new conquering and plundering exploits. A colonial exploit without a “good sports preparation” is, according to Coubertin, “dangerous thoughtlessness”. (3) It is no accident that England, as the leading colonial power favoring only “strong personalities”, was the chief source of Coubertin’s Olympic inspiration. Also, it is no accident that in the bloody fights on ancient Olympic playgrounds and in medieval tournaments of unscrupulous aristocrats Coubertin found inspiration for the “ideal of chivalry” a bourgeois should strive for. War on a sports field was supposed to preserve the military traditions of the aristocracy and to “overcome” them by the belligerent and progressistic spirit of monopolistic capitalism. The ability to “look death in the face”, which appears in the form of the “opponent”, is one of the main qualities of Coubertin’s “new man”, while the ability to kill represents the highest challenge for his “utilitarian pedagogy”. Unlike those bourgeois theorists who consider war the direct origin of sport, for Coubertin it is life itself dominated by a merciless struggle for survival and the absolutized principle of performance. Olympism is the “cult of the existing world”, which means the celebration of the relations leading to a fight between people, races and nations: war on a battlefield is but one of its manifestations. In sport, competition comes down to a struggle for survival and domination which fully corresponds to the dominant spirit of the capitalist order: the stronger go on, the weaker are eliminated. The elimination of the “opponent” through victory achieved by a higher result is the capitalist form of “peaceful” natural selection. In sport, the belligerent spirit of capitalism becomes “independent” and, through the modern Olympic spectacle, it seeks to restore both the spirit of the ancient slave-owning aristocracy and the “chivalrous spirit” of the bloodthirsty medieval lords. A militarization of the body, the spirit, the interhuman relations and the relations between nations and races is the highest “cultural” form in which the dominant belligerent spirit appears. Hence militaristic aesthetics is the dominant form of a sports spectacle.

Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine deals with the movements of physical culture that appeared in modern society, which have neither a belligerent nor a militaristic character. It distorts and destroys the emancipatory impulses of the libertarian physical activism which developed after the French Revolution. A distinction should be made between, on the one hand, a free physical activism as a spontaneous and free manifestation and development of genuine human needs and abilities and as an inalienable right of man and citizen and, on the other hand, sport as an institutionalized incarnation of the basic principles of capitalist society in a “pure form”, which creates loyal and usable subjects. In the former case, physical activism is intended to create the human world by developing man’s universal creative powers; in the latter case, it is intended to create a “civilized” menagerie by destroying man’s libertarian dignity and creative personality. A genuine physical culture and sport are incompatible. With the development of capitalist society, the original impulses of the libertarian physical activism of the citizens are distorted and acquire the form of an institutionalized “physical culture” reduced to a physical drill which destroys Eros, senses, imagination and, ultimately, man’s personality. The official “socialist” theory of physical culture, hopelessly remaining within the ideological horizon of bourgeois society, was not capable of radicalizing the relation between physical culture and sport, nor was it capable of attaining the idea of a libertarian physical activism as an open challenge to the established order. The theses that sport is a peculiar “Esperanto” (Giraudoux) is not acceptable because language produces man’s cultural being, enables the cultivation of interhuman relations and the establishment of a critical-changing relation to the existing world, while sport destroys culture, turns people into “opponents”, maintains the state of constant war between nations, destroys a critical relation to the dominant order of injustice and completely integrates man into the existing world. Instead of being the meeting point of cultures, sports fields are turned into battlefields, where nations and races wage war by means of the muscular bodies of fanaticized storm troopers. Sport is the embodiment of the “mondialistic” spirit of capitalism and thus is a means for destroying the cultural traditions of mankind and creating global barbarism.

Modern Olympism discards the emancipatory heritage of the Renaissance physical culture developed in Italian city states, which contributed to the establishment of people’s “spiritual autonomy” (Jäger) as opposed to the Christian depersonalized “soul”. It is a rediscovery of the body, Eros, affects and senses, modeled after the ancient principle of “beautiful and good” (kalokagathia). Speaking of the “perfectioning of personality” in Renaissance Italy, Burckhardt concludes that the ideal of a “universal man” (l’uomo universale) was the highest evaluative challenge. (4) As a result, in the first part of the 15th century gymnastics developed as a pedagogical discipline. At the court of Francesco Gonzaga in Mantova, Vittorino di Feltre opened a school in which “gymnastics (like all nobler physical exercises) was ranked along with science”. (5) At the same time, a movement developed, one of whose founders was Petrarca, which was concerned with nature and with the liberation and development of man’s natural being, and reflected the humanist heritage of Galen’s physical culture.

Coubertin’s doctrine also deals with the so-called “folk” physical culture, connected with the existential cycle of a life based on labour. Contests between reapers or in horse taming, sheep fleecing and similar events illustrate the connection between competition and work. Folk physical culture was not only a form of strengthening the body, developing working abilities and a rest from work; it was a form of spiritual integration of the community and a form of erotic intercourse. It was a form of the production of society as a community of people in a most direct and vital form. In that context appears folks dance kolo as one of the highest forms of play in history. Folk festivities are dominated by a communal spirit achieved through the preservation of cultural traditions. Physical exercises and competitions demonstrated not only the working but also the biological and spiritual power of a community. The celebration of the existing world was not the celebration of a belligerent spirit and a plundering order, as is the case with Coubertin’s Olympism, but was the celebration of life based on work in a community. Festivities were held in the open and expressed a natural and working cycle of life, unlike the modern Olympic Games which have an unnatural (four-year) rhythm and are held in an artificial space. Nature does not have the status of an “opponent”, as is the case in Coubertin, nor is the relation to nature mediated by an insatiable exploitational spirit and by science and technique alienated from man, but by agricultural production, collectivistic spirit, physical strength and working skill. Even Thomas More saw in children’s “work in the field” not only “practical exercise” but also “an opportunity to strengthen the body”. (6) Rousseau’s pedagogy is also based on agriculture and on a preparation for work as the basic life activity. (7) Fourier went even further. Arguing for “turning work into sport” he proposes the establishment of an (agricultural) “working tournament where every athlete will show his strength and skill and show off before beautiful girls who will at the end of his shift bring him lunch or a snack”. (8) As far as Marx is concerned, he in the ”Capital” argues for Owen’s “factory system” from which sprang “the germ of future education, which for all the children over certain age will connect productive labour with education and gymnastics, not only as a method for increasing social production but also as the only method for producing universally developed people.” (9)

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