Olympism and the “Oasis of Happiness”


Unlike the bourgeois theorists who insist on the dualism of the world, where play appears as an “oasis of happiness” (Fink) as oppossed to the world of “worry” and “unhappiness”, Coubertin insists on the world’s unity, where sport is an idealized form of the basic principles of the present world which are beyond man’s critical-changing practice. “The sports republic” is not an escape from the present world and a quest of “oblivion” (Caillois), but is the most important way of teaching man how to obediently accept the ruling relations and become integrated into the existing world. In it the authentic ruling spirit of the present world plays with man in a direct form. Emphasising the ancient world as an unequaled model to the modern world, Coubertin says that in it “the present world was – happiness”. “Positive society” is a hopelessly happy society; “positive man” is a hopelessly happy man. As far as the working “masses” deprived of their rights are concerned, they should not strive for a “happy life”, but should reconcile to the world of injustice and find “happiness” in masochisticly courting their masters.

In the bourgeois theory play can be only such behaviour which reflects the structure of the existing world and does not question that same world. Caillois’ view that “play is an end in itself” (54) has the same meaning as the famous maxim “sport has nothing to do with politics”. Play is derived from history, it becomes a phenomenon sui generis and acquires purpose independently of society and human existence in it. Hence Caillois is not interested in how play appears nor in the formation of its rules, in what they express and what possibilities they offer to man: “There is no reason why they should be as they are and not otherwise”, says Caillois. (55) By reducing play to the given which cannot be questioned by any means, Caillois made from play a superhistorical notion to which all historical forms of play which are the expression of the concrete totality of the epoch in which they appear are subordinated. Thus he abolished them as concrete historical phenomena, but at the same time he abolished the possibility of establishing a difference between the appearance of play and true play. Caillois, like Huizinga, tries to obtain through play the legitimacy of the cultural and ensure eternity to everything he declares to be play: play is determined by the behaviour proclaimed a play. In addition, in Caillois’ classification of plays all human behaviour denoted as “play” has some of the elements constituting the notion of play. Thus war becomes “play” in spite of the fact that, except for a conflict and rules, it contradicts all essential features of play. Caillois “purposless” play is not only a “pure” expression of the ruling relations and values, but is a means for creating an illusionary firmament which should prevent man from forming the idea of a just world and from fighting to realize it: it becomes a combat with utopia. In spite of proclaiming sport a phenomenon sui generis, for Coubertin sport is possible only within the context of his “utilitarian pedagogy”, the purpose of which is to create a positive man and positive society. Hence Coubertin cannot accept the view according to which play is an autonomous phenomenon which has no other purpose apart from itself.

For Caillois, play is not a way of developing interhuman relations and creating from society a community of emancipated and creative individuals, but is a means for strenghtening the institutional repression over man, which is intended to defend society (the ruling order) from the “evil” human nature. Caillois: “If the principles of play really correspond to strong instincts (competition, pursuet of happiness, disguise, dizziness), then we can easily understand that they can be satisfied only in ideal and limited conditions, those which are proposed by the rules of play. If they were left to themselves, unrestrained and destructive like all instincts, those elementary impulses would only have fatal effects. Plays discipline instincts and impose on them institutional existence. When they can offer them an explicite and limited satisfaction, they educate them, inseminate them and immunize their soul from their contagiousness. At the same time, they make them capable of contributing to a noble enrichment and stability of cultural styles.” (56) And he continues: “Outside the arena, after the final gong, begins a true distortion of agon, which is most widespread of all. It appears in every resistence which is not restrained any more by the strict spirit of play. So, free competition is but one of the laws of nature. It finds in society its original brutality the moment it finds a free pass through the web of moral, social and legal obstacles, which, as in play, represent restrictions and conventions. It is precisely because of that that a furious, ruthless ambition, whatever its domain, which does not respect the rules of play, and it means fair-play, should be brought to view as the crucial deviation, which thus in certain cases leads to the starting situation. Nothing can better show the civilizatory role of play then the obstacles it usually puts before natural greed. It has been accepted that a good player is the one who can accept with indifference and at least apparent calmness the bad outcome of even the most persistent endevours or a loss of incredibly big stakes. The judge’s decision, even an unjust one, is in principle accepted. A distortion of agon begins at the moment when both the judge and the verdict are no longer recognized.” (57) In order to justify the repressive institutions of capitalist society, Caillois reduced man to a beast on whom he planted “greedeness” and proclaimed “free competition”, which is “one of the laws of nature”, the basis of social structuring. The ruling laws of capitalism become the laws of nature, while a psychological prophile of the members of the parasitic classes becomes the “nature” of the animal. Caillois “overlooks” the fact the the animal world exists uncomparably longer that man in spite of the animal “greedeness” and in spite of the law of “free competition” – even without repressive institutions. In addition, animals also “play”, but they are not restrained by the given norms, but by their instinctive nature, which prevents them from hurting one another, to which Huizinga also refers. At the same time, animals do not have “destructive impulses”, but seek to satisfy their primary needs in a way which does not question the unique life cycle. However, if man is by his nature an “aggressive being”, why does he seek “pleasure” in play dominated by a repressive normative firmament which deals with man’s original (aggressive) nature? If we consistantly follow Caillois’ anthropological conception and his view that play is a way of keeping man’s animal nature under institutional control, opting for play cannot have a “voluntary”, particularly not “spontaneous”, but a repressive character. However, even according to Caillois’ theory man is not dissatisfied because he cannot realize his destructive instincts and greedeness, but because of the imposed obligations, from which follows a constant uncertainty, fear, a need to “forget” his everyday life and “escape” from it. A pursuit of play becomes man’s psychological reaction to everyday life dominated by “anxiety”. Hence Caillois does not offer man play as a space where he can give vent to his “aggressive” nature, but creates an illusion about play as a space where man can realize his suppressed humanity and thus experience “happiness”. Speaking of play, Caillois concludes: “It exists only there where players want to play and where they play it, even if it is a highly tiring and exhausting play, with the aim to amuse themselves and escape from their worries, that is to say to get away from everyday life.” (58) Play is not a means for removing the cause of dissatisfaction, but is a spiritual drug which is supposed to stop the pain created in man by everyday life – the pain which deprives him of the possibility of realizing his human being. It is a false escape since in the “world of play” the ruling relations and the principles of the established world of “unhappiness” appear in an idealized form. An “unfree” man is offered “freedom” in the form of a new cage which is proclaimed the place of “happiness”. In Fink’s words, play “is similar to an ‘oasis’ of happiness in the desert of our pursuit of happiness and our tantalizing quest. Play takes us away. By playing, we are for a while released from our hectic life – transferred to another star where life looks easier, livelier, happier.” (59) It is a deception: illusion of a happy world serves as a lure and a means for destroying a critical-changing conscious and faith in a better world.

Ommo Grupe goes even further: sport does not appear only as a “space of happiness” (Stück Glück), but “in altered social conditions” it becomes a “relatively independent phenomenon” the purpose of which “is in itself” and which does not need any “foundation or justification from outside”. This tendency in the development of sport, as well as the “playing motive” (Spielmotiv), correspond less to a healthy foundation of sport, and more to a pursuet of “amusement, joy, pleasure, enjoying the present moment, companioship…”, in what appears as “a counterbalance to everyday life”. Grupe gives a “special role” to sport in the future: it should enable a “development of spontaneity” and mediate in the knowledge of “what is not necessary” (Nicht-Notwendigen) as a “field opposed to work and profession”. Sport should become an “offer of a free space”, an indication of “certain human possibilities”, an apparent form of what can be denoted, “of course not precisely”, as a “space of happiness”, where happiness cannot be conceived only individually but, ultimately, “only as socially conditioned”. (60) The development of sport convincingly refuted Grupe’s theory: sport is completely integrated into the capitalist mechanism of production. Anyway, even Grupe himself, questions sport and claims that he is not convinced that “traditional sports disciplines”, pervaded with “technicized forms of movement”, can offer the realization of the human needs for a free movement. (61)

Coubertin holds the view that man is not “greedy” by nature, as claims Caillois, but that he is a “lazy animal” and thus the main role of sport, as the incarnation of the principles on which capitalism in its “pure” form is based, is to make man “overcome” his animal nature and become a super-beast. Greediness pressupposes the possession of material goods, which are not intended to satisfy the impulses, but to provide the dominant position on the social ladder of power – which is based on the possession of material wealth. In sport, interhuman relations are based on greediness, envy, hatred, fear, and this is conditioned by the nature of sport as a “civilized” form (fair-play) of natural selection. According to Coubertin, sport does not result from war, but is one of the (“peaceful”) forms of the struggle for survival resulting from the nature of capitalism as an order ruled by the principle bellum omnium contra omnes. Essentially, sport is a “playing of” the capitalist way of life and thus is a voluntary “playing” with the forces which determine the human destiny. It is a preparation for life and as such “liberation” of the fear of a life reduced to a ruthless struggle for survival. To live means to be an anonimous soldier in a war which for man is lost in advance. Coubertin shares Caillois’ view that killing is a legal and legitimate element of sport (play). That is why boxing is an indispensable means for educating the bourgeois youth. It is interesting that the bourgeois theorists – according to whom the gladiator’s fights, tournaments, duels, suicidal rituals of samurai and war are play – do not regard the class struggle, the struggle for women’s emancipation, the struggle against the colonial yoke, let alone a revolution, as play. Also, in spite of emphasizing fight, it does not occur to them to include in the notion of play the struggle between old and new, which involves the expansion of the horizons of freedom and without which there is no true play.

A consideration of sport in relation to work is completely alien to Coubertin. For him, sport is not a kind of distraction, nor is it a preparation for work, as is the case in Marcuse and Adorno (“Preparation for work” is, according to Adorno, “one of the hidden tasks of sport”.), (62) but is a means for developing a belligerent and progressistic spirit of capitalism. Hence the principle of “greater effort”, which if formulated in the maxim citius, altius, fortius, is the cardinal principle of sport. Consequently, for Coubertin, sport is not the “duplication of the world of labour”, as is the case in Habermas and Plessner, (63) but is the “duplication” of the capitalist world based on the principle bellum omnium contra omnes. That is why in sport things occur which do not occur in labour: infliction of serious physical injuries and premeditated killing; man’s becoming not only the labour force, but a labour tool and an object of labour etc. Sport reproduces not only the capitalist way of production, but also the capitalist way of life, which is not based on industrial labour, but on the capitalist way of industrial production: a record is the market value of a sports result. At the same time, sport is a form of man’s deerotization. It is not oriented to the achievement of a higher result (record), but to the repression and degeneration of man’s playing nature. The developments in sport only confirm Kofler’s identification of the tendency of “the ever stricter quantification” with the “deerotization of human individuality”. (64) Sport is a capitalistically degenerated play and thus is an authentic expression of the capitalistically degenerated world.

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