What is an Athlethe?


The Socio-Political Value of Sport in the Caribbean

As a result of British imperialism, the conception and development of sport in the Caribbean has been founded squarely on the public school model. Consequently, the conception of and approach to sport within the education system and the society at large has been functionalist in nature centering around its value or roles as a source of

(i) normalization/moralism or character formation;

(ii) recreation;

(iii) health;

(iv) unity/harmony/integration/order and

(v) nationalism/nation building.

Relatedly sport was also to assume importance as a source of anti-imperialism and regionalism. From its
inception thus, sport in the Caribbean was not located in the economy but in the polity and civil society.

Within the education system, sport was conceived under the rubric of “extra-curricula activity” and “physical education.” And, the ideological and pedagogical value of “extracurricula activity” and “physical education” within the education system rested not only on its morale and other functions but on its supposed role in the learning process as expressed in the clichés, “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy” and the oft repeated proverb mens sana incorpore sano (a sound mind in a healthy body). In this conception thus, sport was directly associated with intelligence or performing well in school. However, while this view prevailed, there was always the opposite view or suspicion that those who were talented in “extra-curricula activities”, particularly sport, were generally not academically inclined or intelligent. And, as an extension of this, it was believed further that such talent that they had served primarily to compensate for their intellectual deficiencies. Almost by definition then, an athlete was someone who was considered intellectually challenged. At one and the same time therefore, sport was associated with and not associated with intelligence. No less a person than Lloyd Best, a member of the Afro-Saxon middle class and intellectual cadre, symbolizes this snobbish thinking, when, in relation to Trinidad and Tobago, he wrote in 2000 that “The entrepreneurs and creators lie among the great multitude of the failures, compelled to take up art, craft, music and sport” (Saturday Express, December 30 2000).

This thinking was expressed further in the fact that “physical education” itself was accorded very low academic or intellectual value in the school curricula. In this regard Jennifer Hargreaves, a top British sport scholar, writing on the development of sport studies in the UK, noted in 1982:

Physical education as a whole tended to be viewed as intellectually undemanding and devoid of ‘important’ and ‘useful knowledge’ equivalent to that of the ‘academic’ curriculum-an attitude supported by the historic view of physical education as a health giving process and a force for discipline and the inculcation
of important values. (Hargreaves 1982: 3)

Thus while supposedly integral to educational learning, physical education was also marginal or peripheral to it. In addition, as far as this author can tell, it was perhaps the only subject in school for which there were neither written examinations nor homework. Physical education was just not the stuff of which academia was made contrary to the hype about mens sana in corpore sano. Of course, these contradictory notions rested on a more fundamental dichotomy between the mind and body and intellectual/physical activity, which privileged or valorized the mind/intellect at the expense of supposed “physical activities.”

In addition to this contradictory or ambiguous association between sport and formal education, sport was really never associated with the dominant notion of work or employment. And what is ‘work’? In a very broad and general sense, the term work can be defined as the expenditure of energy (mental, physical, emotional) towards the realization of a particular objective or set of objectives. By this very broad, all-inclusive definition, almost everything can possibly qualify as work. In everyday and popular usage however, the term work usually refers to some form of paid employment, and because sport in general and amateur sport in particular were never equated with financial remuneration, from its inception sport was not equated with the dominant and popular notion of work. This helped to develop a dichotomy between sport and work and to relegate it to the sphere of ‘play’ and ‘recreation’, in the narrow, non-economic conception of these terms. Invariably, sport was not associated with the generation of wealth and potential occupations or professions, which also ranked high on the occupational pecking order.

Historically therefore, the conception of and approach to sport has been informed by certain false or misleading dichotomies as between body/mind, intellectual/physical activity, work/play, which have contributed to its general exclusion from Caribbean economic development and its location at the very bottom of the traditional edifice of the academic research and teaching agendas consistent with a historical, universal pattern.

In this traditional research and development edifice, apart from economic growth and economic development, the other important dimensions included

(i) a concern with certain social conditions (viz., education, health, poverty, crime, delinquency);

(ii) political culture, organization, and administration (viz., constitution reform, electoral behaviour, equal representation, participation in decision making, public sector reform, decentralization and the new buzzwords [of old vintage] called governance and policy studies),

(iii) science and technology and more recently the environment.

These have always been the core and overriding developmental, research and teaching concerns in the Caribbean since the early and heady days of nationalism and decolonization. In addition, this traditional agenda of teaching, research and development was reinforced further by the very policies and funding priorities of regional and international institutions such as the UNDP, UNECLAC, and the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB). In this respect for instance, a 2002 circular from the CDB offering some US$750,000.00 to the UWI for research, conferences and workshops is telling. The circular stated inter alia:

Priority areas for funding are:

(a) poverty reduction (including, for example, health, HIV/AIDS, small and micro-enterprise development, community development/empowerment)
(b) the environment;
(c) human resource development and
(d) governance and institutional development

As is clearly evident, research funding was made available primarily for the traditional research and development agenda.

Thus far, I have attempted to define directly the meaning of economy together with the dominant conception and approach to sport within the general context of orthodox development thinking, planning and research in the Caribbean. However, equally important for our purpose is the definition of athlete that has prevailed.