John SaundersInternational Sports Studies 42 No. 1 (2020)
https://doi.org/10.30819/iss.42-1.01 pp: 1-5 2020-06-22
As I sit at my desk at home in suburban Brisbane, following the dictates on self-isolation shared with so many around the world, I am forced to contemplate the limits of human prediction. I look out on a world which few could have predicted six months ago. My thoughts at that time were all about 2020 as a metaphor for perfect vision and a plea for it to herald a new period of clarity which would arm us in resolving the whole host of false divisions that surrounded us. False, because so many appear to be generated by the use of polarised labelling strategies which sought to categorise humans by a whole range of identities, while losing the essential humanity and individuality which we all share. This was a troublesome trend and one which seemed reminiscent of the biblical tale concerning the tower of Babel, when a single unified language was what we needed to create harmony in a globalising world.
However, yesterday’s concerns have, at least for the moment, been overshadowed by a more urgent and unifying concern with humanity’s health and wellbeing. For now, this concern has created a world which we would not have recognised in 2019. We rely more than ever on our various forms of electronic media to beam instant shots of the streets of London, New York, Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong etc. These centres of our worldly activity normally characterised by hustle and bustle, are now serenely peaceful and ordered. Their magnificent buildings have become foregrounded, assuming a dignity and presence that is more commonly overshadowed by the mad ceaseless scramble of humanity all around them. From there however the cameras can jump to some of the less fortunate areas of the globe. These streets are still teeming with people in close confined areas. There is little hope here of following frequent extended hand washing practices, let alone achieving the social distance prescribed to those of us in the global North.
From this desk top perspective, it has been interesting to chart the mood as the crisis has unfolded. It has moved from a slightly distant sense of superiority as the news slowly unfolded about events in remote Wuhan. The explanation that the origins were from a live market, where customs unfamiliar to our hygienic pre-packaged approach to food consumption were practised, added to this sense of separateness and exoticism surrounding the source and initial development of the virus. However, this changed to a growing sense of concern as its growth and transmission slowly began to reveal the vulnerability of all cultures to its spread. At this early stage, countries who took steps to limit travel from infected areas seemed to gain some advantage. Australia, as just one example banned flights from China and required all Chinese students coming to study in Australia to self-isolate for two weeks in a third intermediate port. It was a step that had considerable economic costs associated with it. One that was vociferously resisted at the time by the university sector increasingly dependent on the revenue generated by servicing Chinese students. But it was when the epicentre moved to northern Italy, that the entire messaging around the event began to change internationally. At this time the tone became increasingly fearful, anxious and urgent as reports of overwhelmed hospitals and mass burials began to dominate the news. Consequently, governments attracted little criticism but were rather widely supported in the action of radically closing down their countries in order to limit human interaction. The debate had become one around the choice between health and economic wellbeing. The fact that the decision has been overwhelmingly for health, has been encouraging. It has not however stopped the pressure from those who believe that economic well-being is a determinant of human well-being, questioning the decisions of politicians and the advice of public health scientists that have dominated the responses to date. At this stage, the lives versus livelihoods debate has a long way still to run.
Of some particular interest has been the musings of the opinion writers who have predicted that the events of these last months will change our world forever. Some of these predictions have included the idea that rather than piling into common office spaces working remotely from home and other advantageous locations will be here to stay. Schools and universities will become centres of learning more conveniently accessed on-line rather than face to face. Many shopping centres will become redundant and goods will increasingly be delivered via collection centres or couriers direct to the home. Social distancing will impact our consumption of entertainment at common venues and lifestyle events such as dining out. At the macro level, it has been predicted that globalisation in its present form will be reversed. The pandemic has led to actions being taken at national levels and movement being controlled by the strengthening and increased control of physical borders. Tourism has ground to a halt and may not resume on its current scale or in its present form as unnecessary travel, at least across borders, will become permanently reduced. Advocates of change have pointed to some of the unpredicted benefits that have been occurring. These include a drop in air pollution: increased interaction within families; more reading undertaken by younger adults; more systematic incorporation of exercise into daily life, and; a rediscovered sense of community with many initiatives paying tribute to the health and essential services workers who have been placed at the forefront of this latest struggle with nature.
Of course, for all those who point to benefits in the forced lifestyle changes we have been experiencing, there are those who would tell a contrary tale. Demonstrations in the US have led the push by those who just want things to get back to normal as quickly as possible. For this group, confinement at home creates more problems. These may be a function of the proximity of modern cramped living quarters, today’s crowded city life, dysfunctional relationships, the boredom of self-entertainment or simply the anxiety that comes with an insecure livelihood and an unclear future.
Personally however, I am left with two significant questions about our future stimulated by the events that have been ushered in by 2020. The first is how is it that the world has been caught so unprepared by this pandemic? The second is to what extent do we have the ability to recalibrate our current practices and view an alternative future? In considering the first, it has been enlightening to observe the extent to which politicians have turned to scientific expertise in order to determine their actions. Terms like ‘flattening the curve’, ‘community transmission rates’, have become part of our daily lexicon as the statistical modellers advance their predictions as to how the disease will spread and impact on our health systems. The fact that scientists are presented as the acceptable and credible authority and the basis for our actions reflects a growing dependency on data and modelling that has infused our society generally. This acceptance has been used to strengthen the actions on behalf of the human lives first and foremost position. For those who pursue the livelihoods argument even bigger figures are available to be thrown about. These relate to concepts such as numbers of jobless, increase in national debt, growth in domestic violence, rise in mental illness etc. However, given that they are more clearly estimates and based on less certain assumptions and variables, they do not at this stage seem to carry the impact of the data produced by public health experts. This is not surprising but perhaps not justifiable when we consider the failure of the public health lobby to adequately prepare or forewarn us of the current crisis in the first place. Statistical predictive models are built around historical data, yet their accuracy depends upon the quality of those data. Their robustness for extrapolation to new settings for example will differ as these differ in a multitude of subtle ways from the contexts in which they were initially gathered. Our often uncritical dependence upon ‘scientific’ processes has become worrying, given that as humans, even when guided by such useful tools, we still tend to repeat mistakes or ignore warnings. At such a time it is an opportunity for us to return to the reservoir of human wisdom to be found in places such as our great literature. Works such as The Plague by Albert Camus make fascinating and educative reading for us at this time. As the writer observes
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow, we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
So it is that we constantly fail to study let alone learn the lessons of history. Yet 2020 mirrors 1919, as at that time the world was reeling with the impact of the Spanish ‘Flu, which infected 500 million people and killed an estimated 50 million. This was more than the 40 million casualties of the four years of the preceding Great War. There have of course been other pestilences since then and much more recently. Is our stubborn failure to learn because we fail to value history and the knowledge of our forebears? Yet we can accept with so little question the accuracy of predictions based on numbers, even with varying and unquestioned levels of validity and reliability.
As to the second question, many writers have been observing some beneficial changes in our behaviour and our environment, which have emerged in association with this sudden break in our normal patterns of activity. It has given us the excuse to reevaluate some of our practices and identify some clear benefits that have been occurring. As Australian newspaper columnist Bernard Salt observes in an article titled “the end of narcissism?”
I think we’ve been re-evaluating the entire contribution/reward equation since the summer bushfires and now, with the added experience of the pandemic, we can see the shallowness of the so-called glamour professions – the celebrities, the influencers. We appreciate the selflessness of volunteer firefighters, of healthcare workers and supermarket staff. From the pandemic’s earliest days, glib forays into social media by celebrities seeking attention and yet further adulation have been met with stony disapproval. Perhaps it is best that they stay offline while our real heroes do the heavy lifting.
To this sad unquestioning adherence to both scientism and narcissism, we can add and stir the framing of the climate rebellion and a myriad of familiar ‘first world’ problems which have caused dissension and disharmony in our communities. Now with an external threat on which to focus our attention, there has been a short lull in the endless bickering and petty point scoring that has characterised our western liberal democracies in the last decade. As Camus observed:
The one way of making people hang together is to give ‘em a spell of the plague.
So, the ceaseless din of the topics that have driven us apart has miraculously paused for at least a moment. Does this then provide a unique opportunity for us together to review our habitual postures and adopt a more conciliatory and harmonious communication style, take stock, critically evaluate and retune our approach to life – as individuals, as nations, as a species? It is not too difficult to hypothesise futures driven by the major issues that have driven us apart. Now, in our attempts to resist the virus, we have given ourselves a glimpse of some of the very things the climate change activists have wished to happen. With few planes in the air and the majority of cars off the roads, we have already witnessed clearer and cleaner air. Working at home has freed up the commuter driven traffic and left many people with more time to spend with their family. Freed from the continuing throng of tourists, cities like Venice are regenerating and cleansing themselves. This small preview of what a less travelled world might start to look like surely has some attraction.
But of course, it does not come without cost. With the lack of tourism and the need to work at home, jobs and livelihoods have started to change. As with any revolution there are both winners and losers. The lockdown has distinguished starkly between essential and non-essential workers. That represents a useful starting point from which to assess what is truly of value in our way of life and what is peripheral as Salt made clear.
This is a question that I would encourage readers to explore and to take forward with them through the resolution of the current situation. However, on the basis that educators are seen as providing essential services, now is the time to turn to the content of our current volume. Once again, I direct you to the truly international range of our contributors. They come from five different continents yet share a common focus on one of the most popular of shared cultural experiences – sport. Unsurprisingly three of our reviewed papers bring different insights to the world’s most widely shared sport of all – football, or as it would be more easily recognised in some parts of the globe - soccer. Leading these offerings is a comparison of fandom in Australia and China. The story presented by Knijnk highlights the rise of the fanatical supporters known as the ultras. The origin of the movement is traced to Italy, but it is one that claims allegiances now around the world. Kniijnk identifies the movement’s progression into Australia and China and, in pointing to its stance against the commercialisation of their sport by the scions of big business, argues for its deeper political significance and its commitment to the democratic ownership of sport.
Reflecting the increasing availability and use of data in our modern societies, Karadog, Parim and Cene apply some of the immense data collected on and around the FIFA World Cup to the task of selecting the best team from the 2018 tournament held in Russia, a task more usually undertaken by panels of experts. Mindful of the value of using data in ways that can assist future decision making, rather than just in terms of summarising past events, they also use the statistics available to undertake a second task. The second task was the selection of the team with the greatest future potential by limiting eligibility to those at an early stage in their careers, namely younger than 28 and who arguably had still to attain their prime as well as having a longer career still ahead of them. The results for both selections confirm how membership of the wealthy European based teams holds the path to success and recognition at the global level no matter what the national origins of players might be.
Thirdly, taking links between the sport and the world of finance a step further, Gomez-Martinez, Marques-Bogliani and Paule-Vianez report on an interesting study designed to test the hypothesis that sporting success within a community is reflected in positive economic outcomes for members of that community. They make a bold attempt to test their hypothesis by examining the relationship of the performance of three world leading clubs in Europe - Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint Germain and the performance of their local stock markets. Their findings make for some interesting thoughts about the significance of sport in the global economy and beyond into the political landscape of our interconnected world. Our final paper comes from Africa but for its subject matter looks to a different sport, one that rules the subcontinent of India - cricket. Norrbhai questions the traditional coaching of batting in cricket by examining the backlift techniques of the top players in the Indian Premier league. His findings suggest that even in this most traditional of sports, technique will develop and change in response to the changing context provided by the game itself. In this case the context is the short form of the game, introduced to provide faster paced entertainment in an easily consumable time span. It provides a useful reminder how in sport, techniques will not be static but will continue to evolve as the game that provides the context for the skilled performance also evolves.
To conclude our pages, I must apologise that our usual book review has fallen prey to the current world disruption. In its place I would like to draw your attention to the announcement of a new publication which would make a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any international sports scholar. “Softpower, Soccer, Supremacy – The Chinese Dream” represents a unique and timely analysis of the movement of the most popular and influential game in the world – Association Football, commonly abbreviated to soccer - into the mainstream of Chinese national policy. The editorial team led by one of sports histories most recognised scholars, Professor J A Mangan, has assembled a who’s who of current scholars in sport in Asia. Together they provide a perspective that takes in, not just the Chinese view of these important current developments but also, the view of others in the geographical region. From Japan, Korea and Australia, they bring with them significant experience to not just the beautiful game, but sport in general in that dynamic and fast-growing part of the world. Particularly in the light of the European dominance identified in the Karog, Parim and Cene paper this work raises the question as to whether we can expect to see a change in the world order sooner rather than later.
It remains for me to make one important acknowledgement. In my last editorial I alerted you to the sorts of decisions we as an editorial and publication team were facing with regard to ensuring the future of the journal. Debates as to how best to proceed while staying true to our vision and goals are still proceeding. However, I am pleased to acknowledge the sponsorship provided by The University of Macao for volume 42 and recognise the invaluable contribution made by ISCPES former president Walter Ho to this process. Sponsorship can provide an important input to the ongoing existence and strength of this journal and we would be interested in talking to other institutions or groups who might also be interested in supporting our work, particularly where their goals align closely with ours.
May I therefore commend to you the works of our international scholars and encourage your future involvement in sharing your interest in and expertise with others in the world of comparative and international sport studies,
Brisbane, May 2020
Camus, A. (1948). The Plague. Bloomsbury: Hamish Hamilton.
Salt, B. (2020). The End of Narcissism. The Weekend Australian, Magazine April 25 -26.
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