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Scholars in anthropology and the sociology of sport often tap into functionalist frameworks such as that of Durkheim (1976), which provide insight concerning the value of rituals in ceremonies. Faure (1996, 89) refers to Durkheim as “the zealous propagandist of national consensus” because of his interpretation of ritual as affirming group solidarity. In this sense, Durkheim identified the symbolic role of elite athletes as serving as a unifying and identification symbol for the collective imagination that conveys a collective identity for citizens and other aspiring athletes within a given social and cultural context. Acknowledging the “integration and consensus” framework, Light (2000) illustrated the interrelatedness of intra- and inter-group social integration through ritual activity in the sporting context.
The strength of Durkheim’s interpretation of ritual lies in the reality of people acting together in rituals that bind them (Kertzer 1988). Durkheim’s discussion on rituals and Goffman’s theoretical work broaden the argument and interpret ritual activity in sport as social products that positively affect support and performance of sport teams (Ward 1998). The public expression of group solidarity, according to Bourdeau (1991), also signifies a contextual group identity that is ritually expressed and confirmed. The experience of “emotional flows” and the perception of togetherness, are thus affirmed through different ritual pathways (Maguire 1992,104).
Behavior and Social Construct
In From Ritual to Record (1978), Guttmann suggests that the ritual dimension of sports held special significance in primitive and ancient civilizations such as in the ancient Greek religious festivals in which artistic expressions and physical body culture were intertwined. In the traditional society, ritual life is centered in the religious belief of the ancestor cult in which ancestors were daily worshipped through offerings and rituals acknowledging their influence in the lives of their descendents. Rituals in the African traditional religion mainly include rites of passage, calendrical rituals, and crisis rituals (Olupona 1990). Calendrical rituals ensure the continuity of life force, whereas crisis rituals prevent annihilation of human life by supernatural agents. Well-known rainmaking rituals, first-fruit ceremonies, and hunting rites were performed to symbolically demonstrate the significance of the worship and “magic power” to be evoked.
In traditional African societies today, rituals are performed to mark special occasions, celebrations, and a change of lineage-composition, status, and identity during births, marriages, deaths, and initiation ceremonies. Traditional values and tribal laws are still taught and gender-specific roles are enforced through ritual behavior and specific rites. Rituals of kinship, also known as “ancestor rituals,” stressed kinship, and the local structure expressed “symbolically the unity of family and descent group and handling the problems of individuals in the specific domestic sphere” (Hammond-Tooke 1974, 354).
Moving beyond the restrictive definition of ritual that carries overtly religious content and identification with the supernatural, ritual also refers to culturally standardized, repetitive activity that is primarily symbolic in nature and aims to influence human affairs; it may involve the supernatural realm or may be merely profane in nature (Kertzer 1988, 8-9). In a religious context, rituals with religious or supernatural content may carry symbolic meanings in which a god, ancestors, or a society worships it(self) and thus gives expression to a social dependence. Blanchard (1995, 54) suggests that “secular ritual” is such an “all-compassing category that it may have limited utility in understanding sport.” Despite the parallels between ritual and sports, ritualistic elements in sports are mainly symbolic statements that express a social message of significance to the structure and cohesiveness of a group or groups within a given society or context. The ritual symbol often provides an understanding of the cultural meaning of a physical contest such as in public hunting traditions (Blanchard 1995) or warlike nature and the celebration of masculinity in modern sports (Light 2000).
The symbolic meaning of rituals and ritual behavior is imbedded in the culture of a particular group that is also referred to by Blanchard’s (1995, 51) description of ritual as “a facet of culture” to be “viewed as the symbolic dimension of social activities.” Sporting rituals are evident in the expression of “brotherhood” and within the global sphere of modern competitive sport, as seen at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
At such events, the ritual content is mediated for entertainment as social theatre, and the ritualistic displays have become significant in portraying a contemporary social order in a global context, of awarding recognition for local and global order through cultural content and symbols of the host nation, and for Olympism as a global sporting culture. In this instance, a symbol such as the five Olympic rings signifies “unity between the contents” (Olympism) and simultaneously signifies the ancient “pattern of five intersecting rings inscribed on an altar at Delphi” where each ring represents a solar year between the Ancient Games in the worship of Zeus. The five rings instead of “four,” which were the cycle of the Games, were used because the Greeks reckoned inclusively. It also referred to the eligibility of athletes to compete as boys (from ages seventeen to twenty) and then as men (four years later) (Robertson 1988, 22).
Public rituals in Athens conveyed the rich heritage of Greek life through the ages and demonstrated the interconnections of ancient rituals with myth, magic, and the supernatural. In such secret ceremonies, “ritual power” was evoked for divination, healing, protection, exorcism of evil, and love (Meyer and Mirecki 1995). These rituals can be viewed as coping mechanisms in which the actors’ intention is to create order and seek assistance from a source beyond what is perceived to be humanly possible. Public rituals are more susceptible to social change than are secret ones—the latter are often based on faith because of the supernatural and sociopsychological implications for the participants (Akong’a 1987).
In defining the concept of ritual, Thompson (1992) refers to meaning and form by discussing rituals as static repetitions of the social order in southwestern Nigeria which is increasingly being transformed through play and improvisation. Such ritual behavior reflects the cultural, political, and religious context in which symbolic meanings and forms are acted out to express ritualistic and ceremonial behavior. Kertzer also stresses the concept of social order by defining ritual as “an analytical category that helps us deal with the chaos of human experience and put it into a coherent framework” (1988, 8). The culturally standardized, repetitive activity that conveys meaningful symbolic content may thus be performed to evoke ritual power.
Symbols and Symbolism
Kertzer described ritual behavior as “action wrapped in a web of symbolism” (1988, 9).The subjective world picture becomes a social reality through the meaningfulness of social symbols. The individuals’ subjective experience is thus molded by the social meanings ascribed to the rituals that stem from the social matrix with meaningful psychological dimensions that reflect the understanding of reality and significance of the ritual. As symbols represent other meanings by association, resemblance,
or convention, according to Turner, they are “multivocal —speaking in many ways at once; multivalent, having various meanings or values, and polysemous, having or being open to several meanings” (1984,16). The symbolic meanings are commonly understood and convey essential messages that may serve the strategic end or purpose of the ritual. Ritual celebrations provide the framework for identification, critique, and emotional involvement in which “meanings” are constructed (Platvoet 1995).
The transmission of messages through ritual dramatization is powerful and persuasive and is thus a significant vehicle political or religious leaders employ to legitimate their authority. Through ritual, followers are guided, emotions are channeled, and loyalty and solidarity are created. “Insider-outsider” identities are established, such as is with the Palio celebration that is held in the central Italian city of Siena. In this celebration, different neighborhoods compete in various activities, building up to “a horse race through the centre of town.” In this competition, insider affiliations and bonds are strengthened as neighborhoods are ritually marked as people sharing the same social identity and who “express a sense of communion with others” (Kertzer 1988, 75).
Ritual behavior thus finds an expression in social life, and because competitive sport has become a highly con-tested terrain in which success, identity, and excellence are celebrated and rewarded, rituals have found special meaning in local and global sporting events. The constructions of culturally meaningful symbols in and through sports and the symbolism of sport competitions are constructed and deconstructed by a variety of stakeholders in all spheres of society. Pregame rituals, rituals on the field of play, and the ritualistic nature of sport events draw on shared meanings and symbols and present unique dynamics as cultural and global products.
Constructing Ritual Pathways in and through Sport
The parallels between religious and sporting rituals and the ritualized practice of sports have attracted scholarly interest (Guttmann 1978; Light 2000; Maguire 1992). From the early roots of ritualized contests to the global idiom of modern sport, inherent meanings of the ritual have survived. Interaction rituals that convey a shared reality and rituals as coping mechanisms in which individuals (in the case of sports, athletes) use rituals to manage moments of stress and anxiety, are transforming the perceived reality and competencies of athletes and role players in the sporting sphere (Firth 1996; Giddens 1995).
Pregame rituals and ritualistic behaviors play an important role in the belief of creating a competitive edge. Such behaviors include the eating of specific foods, abstention from alcohol and sex (Fischer, 1997), and superstitious rituals of athletes that are practiced in all sports and across all cultures (Bleak and Frederick 1998). Such rituals are perceived to be effective in ensuring success in sporting competitions, or serve as a catalyst in relieving anxiety or gaining an advantage over an opponent or opposing team. Such rituals may include not stepping on lines, wearing only certain colors, or executing pre-performance routines (Jackson and Baker 2001). Set patterns of pregame preparations may include traveling arrangements, specific meetings, motivational sessions, sharing hardships or excursions to promote “mateship,” and battle cries as expression of unity and “group power” (Light 2000).
One of the most famous pregame rituals in the Rugby Union is undoubtedly the performance of the haka by the All Black (New Zealand’s national team) rugby players just before an international match. On the field, this ritual dance or routine symbolizes the “might” and “warrior tradition” of the indigenous Maori that are differently perceived by opponents (threat), supporters (affirm national identity and affirm group solidarity), and players (affirm identity as player and “warrior” in preparation of the contest) (Renner 1999).
The significance of fanatical sport fans’ sport rituals is invariably linked to the supporters’ sense of associating and building identity through perceived bonding and affiliation with specific players, athletes, or teams. Bonds and ties (esprit de corps) are strengthened by creating an “us” and “them” or insider-outsider affiliation (Van Beek 1998).
The creation of global entertainment, as in the case of the European Superleague by the English Rugby Football league in association with media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1995, eroded the cultural attachments to the sport of rugby league (Falcous 1998). Global symbolism of sport consumerism and high entertainment are created through persuasive media images and messages. In this sense, sport events and competitions are symbols that carry multiple meanings and allow diverse association and identity formation of a broad spectrum of stakeholders.
Sport as Ritual
Modern sports rituals carry functions of integration and resistance locally, nationally, and globally. Kertzer (1988) believes that the multivocality of symbolic behavior in sports relative to personal interpretations is less important than are the public declarations of solidarity and identity that are conveyed symbolically. Stevenson and Alaug discuss sporting contests “as secular rituals that engender local and national identity” (1997, 251), in which case, social solidarity between players and supporters is expressed through shared symbols, ideology, and membership. Explicit or subconscious messages of insider’s affiliation may find expression in sport as a national entity.
A national team symbolizes the aspired national identity of a nation, and team members are the bearers of national pride that is propagated by the playing of the national anthem and flag as significant national symbols if teams or athletes achieve success for their country in international competitions. High-profile male sports, which are most often considered the national sports, carry relatively more symbolic meaning of a nation’s prestige in the global arena, where competition is fierce and victory a token of ideological and political superiority. The rituals and victory celebrations go beyond a sporting victory to serve as symbols of excellence, self-determination, and unification.
In many African countries, following independence from “foreign rule,” sport has become a political tool to national unity and nation building.
■ In Yemen, football rituals were used to promote national identity, and the selection of the national team with equal representation from clubs in the South and North was an incentive to cultivate such unity (Stevenson and Alaug 1997).
■ Similar policy implementations found expression in South African sports in which racial quotas were enforced in the Rugby Union (rugby is regarded as a predominantly white Afrikaner sport).
In both cases, severe local resistance was experienced, and cultural symbols were endorsed by various groups in those societies.
More overt resistance is evident in the traditional sporting tradition of Ireland, known as the Gaelic Games, which predated the plantation and introduction of British colonial rule and British sports and pastimes (Sugden and Bairner 1993). These games became the symbol of sporting self-determination and an expression and ritual celebration of Irish culture as celebrated by the dominant Catholic inhabitants of Northern Ireland. The participants of such indigenous games and rituals embrace the identity of local heroes and custodians of traditional body culture. They are often regarded as symbols of regional or nostalgic village identity and local resistance, for example, elderly, lower-class males participating in Belgium in traditional Flemish folk games such as Kaatsen (team handball), Struifvogel (bird darts), or Gansrijden (goose pulling) (Renson, De Cramer, and De Vroede 1997).
Scholarly work in the construction and deconstruction of rituals and ritual behavior in sport and other social contexts provides an understanding of the meaningful role of symbols in evoking and portraying strategic ends. Since ancient times, rituals have signified group identity and affirmed solidarity within insider-outsider affiliations. Secret and public rituals found their way into sports through meaningful social symbols. These social messages and dramatized patterned ritual behavior are employed to:
■ Influence human affairs (religious content)
■ Project communal identity
■ Celebrate and propagate meaningful social, political, and cultural content
The symbolic transmission of messages through ritual dramatization is powerful and finds expression in pregame rituals and sporting practices for enhancing solidarity from the local to the international level or serves as symbols of resistance against hegemonic forces and practices embedded in commercialized modern sport forms.
- Akong’a, J. (1987). Rainmaking rituals: a comparative study of two Kenyan societies. African Study Monographs, 8(2), 71-85.
- Blanchard, K. (1995). The anthropology of sport. An introduction. West-port, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Bleak, J. L., & Frederick, C. M. (1998). Superstitious behavior in sport: Levels of effectiveness and determinants of use in three collegiate sports. Journal of Sport Behavior, 21(1), 1-15.
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