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Philosophy of sport: beyond reason to imagination

Why do top athletes sacrifice so much for their sport? And does the prevailing theoretical framework for critical sports research, which is based in part on the insights of French philosopher Michel Foucault, do justice to their experiences? Leiden PhD candidate in philosophy Nathanja van den Heuvel looked into this. With a symposium in Leiden and a themed issue of Netherlands-Flemish journal Filosofie-Tijdschrift, philosophy of sport is beginning to attract attention.

Philosophy of sport is an emerging field in the Netherlands. A Philosophy of Sport Symposium is being held in Leiden on 16 November, which will be chaired by Nathanja van den Heuvel. The symposium will also include a presentation on the Philosophy of Sport Network. At the same time, the autumn issue of Filosofie-Tijdschrift is more or less dedicated to philosophy of sport. As editor, Van den Heuvel was responsible for this themed issue. ‘The symposium is in part to celebrate this issue,’ says Nathanja. She is all too happy to help raise the profile of philosophy of sport.

Nathanja van den Heuvel
Nathanja van den Heuvel wants to advance philosophy of sport.

Taking philosophy of sport seriously

The field of philosophy of sport gained a foothold in the United States and Great Britain in the 1970s already, but developments were slower on the European mainland. There – and thus in the Netherlands too – philosophers of sport still need to fight for their discipline to be taken seriously. But the emerging talent is full of energy and raring to go. This younger generation is convinced that philosophy of sport can help the sporting world respond to the crisis that some sports are currently facing.

Fundamental questions

Says Van den Heuvel, ‘Doping, match fixing, violence, sexual intimidation… Philosophy can ask all sorts of fundamental questions, political and ethical ones for instance. How do you interpret these side-effects? And are they actually side-effects?’ She suggests that the problems that sport, and football in particular, is facing are inherent to sport: competition, fame, physical excess and masculinity is a combination that provokes strong identification. She also thinks that sport is a good hook on which to hang the big philosophical questions. ‘How do we interpret subjectivity, or agency and resistance, and what is the role of the body here?’

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Top footballers

Van den Heuvel’s PhD research is also about sport, but then from a feminist perspective. She carried out research among top female footballers. She interviewed today’s female footballers and the pioneers from the beginning of the 1970s, used participant observation and carried out an extensive literature study. ‘This led to the conclusion that the postmodern theoretical-philosophical framework is not sufficient to describe sport,’ she says. An important representative of this framework is French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who was inspired by Nietzsche among others. In short, this means that sport research that uses his philosophical insights portrays top athletes as docile, uncritical people, who slavishly follow the demands that are made of them.

The play element in sport

Although top female footballers are also disciplined and take on male values, Van den Heuvel noticed that the framework does not fully describe them: ‘They are definitely not uncritical, they rebel sometimes and when playing football they reach a state of being that transcends the disciplinary nature of sport. This experience is one of the reasons why they sacrifice so much. There is more than discipline alone, and this is something that is difficult to put into words.' Van den Heuvel ended up using the philosophy of play to interpret what she saw. ‘Objectively, play has no aim: it is useless. What can happen, however, is that people, and children in particular, lose themselves in their imagination; the play transcends the real world. The female footballers also go beyond the reason and lose themselves in play. In this experience imagination sparks creativity, and imagination leads to new imagination.’ Homo ludens, people at play: here Van den Heuvel had found another link to Nietzsche, and also to Leiden historian Johan Huizinga.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Altering the framework

Van den Heuvel discovered that the framework is insufficient to interpret the experience not only of women but of men too. Because men can also lose themselves in play and reach a state of imagination. She therefore wants to alter the current framework by adding the element of play. She thus hopes to generate new insights for the fundamental philosophical question of subjectivity. An ambitious aim.

Sport and philosophy, an ancient combination

The ancient Greeks, and the elite in particular, were already playing sport in the sixth century bc. The young men were thus groomed for battle. At the same time, sport was equal to developing a moral standard, an ethical-philosophical ideal at the time. Even when later there were not enough noble young men to form an army, and the Greeks had to draw from other groups in society (including slaves), they still stuck to the idea of sport as preparation. And sport and violence were already linked in the Roman period too, says Van den Heuvel. ‘Just think of Roman arenas.’ Over the centuries body and soul grew apart. Thinkers did not do sport and athletes did not think. Regardless whether it is true, it is a cliché that endured for a long time: until the 20th century.

Interest from sporting world

Van den Heuvel expects about 50 delegates to attend the symposium. About 30 of these are not philosophers themselves but come from the sporting world or government. She is pleased with this. And there is another development too: philosophy is not just entering the sporting world but the opposite is happening too: in the Netherlands various athletes, professional ones too, have started studying philosophy. The obvious example is undoubtedly Martine Prange, a former professional footballer and now professor of philosophy in Tilburg. Perhaps athletes can think after all.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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