Play: The Serious, The Weird and The Lighthearted

“Culture is… played from the very beginning.”
— Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

I wanted to post an entry on weird and wonderful sports, past and present. I ran across an article on oddball sports and it made me curious about the subject, especially with the increasing popularity of spectacles like the 2nd Annual Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival, held recently at Whistler, British Columbia, where the 2010 Olympics will be held.

But then I got to thinking about how serious play is, and re-read some of Johan Huizinga’s book from 1938, Homo Ludens. That title indicates how central Man the Player, Humans Who Play are in the scheme of things, a label probably more appropriate to our species than Homo Sapiens.

So before I go on to the amusing list of eccentric sporting activities, bear with me while I delve deeply into Wittgenstein’s discussion of the Philosophy of Play in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Sorry, just kidding. Would you believe Nietzche’s Spiel Theorie? No? Good. (It’s odd that the German word for play, spiel, becomes in English “a lengthy or extravagant speech or argument usually intended to persuade.” The play of words, it seems.)

tennis 5But Johan Huizinga, cited above, was a serious scholar and considered one of the founders of the discipline of modern cultural history. He devoted considerable thought to play and what it really means. Homo Ludens as the title to his book on the subject carries considerable freight. It characterizes our species as the one which plays, in a continuum with the rest of animal life. This is in contrast to our proud imagination as Homo Sapiens, a label meant to separate and raise us above the lowly creatures of the earth.

Play is what links us to the rest of life on this planet: think of puppies, or young baboons, or the young of any species at play. Perhaps even insects play, if we but knew.

But we humans have elevated our play into a supreme activity, as we shall see in concrete examples below. It is central, even if often unrecognized, to who we are. Culture is play, Huizinga would maintain. Play is not just a smaller and specific part of culture.

Poetry and indeed all creative writing is a kind of play. We’ve given that word to theatricality. We play instruments. The mock conflict of contest and sports and play are linked. Think All-Star Wrestling.

Western civilization itself is a form of play. Huizinga described the legal system, in this case the British, as a kind of play: “The judge’s wig, however, is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress. Functionally it has close connections with the dancing masks of savages. It transforms the wearer into another ‘being’.” There is a link between play and ritual.

Huizinga characterizes play in at least three ways:

1) Play is free, is in fact freedom. To me, this is profound.

2) Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. The mundane is transformed or transcended or just creatively altered. This is a stepping out into an other, temporary, realm.

3) Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. This is a different point than the second. Play is secluded in some sense, limited. “It contains its own course and meaning.”

Play must be fun — effervescent, bright, self-motivating — or it is not play. Play is the Ur-metaphor of our times, despite what the workaholic might want us to feel is important, or what the violent want us to fear.

Play is the oldest and most primal form of culture, and the most up-to-date.

Tyranny seeks to take all play out of a culture, because play threatens complete hegemony of thought and deed. And so tyranny must fall eventually, since it denies the ultimate source of culture, although at what cost in suffering and despair…

I think of North Korea. The regime takes on an aspect of rigid ridiculousness, bearing the distorted visage of play, fossilized and malicious, as it seeks to repress, suppress and oppress its people.

v past Play is distinguished by being completely superfluous and unnecessary. And yet…

Play is Zen.

That’s a lot for play to live up to. Or not. Let’s look at the human at play…

On With the Games…

The modern Olympics have a history of what, at least in hindsight, seem to be rather bizarre sporting endeavours. Or maybe not just in hindsight. I’m thinking of synchronized swimming…

One discontinued Olympic sport was obstacle swimming over a distance of 200 metres. “Competitors first had to swim to a pole, climb up and down the pole, then swim a bit, clamber over 2 boats, swim under two more boats, and then swim to the finish.” Perhaps understandably, this event was held only once, in 1900.

Tug-of-war was an Olympic event for quite a few early Olympics. A Gold in tug-of-war… I don’t know what kind of lucrative endorsements you could get for that.

241681 550x550 mb art R0Even more so, for another 1900 event, live pigeon shooting. Belgian Leon de Lunden took Gold with 21 kills.

As mentioned in another post, Indian Clubs: The Next Fitness Craze?, swinging Indian clubs was an event in the 1932 Olympics.

Moving on beyond the Olympics, there’s the annual Man vs. Horse Marathon held in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells to see just what species prevails over a cross-country route of 22 miles. In the 25th running of the race, in 2004, for the first time a man won over the horse. I’d like to see that event in the Olympics, actually.

The Finns, who have a reputation for being pessimistic and dour, nevertheless came up with the sport of wife carrying, where the male must carry a female over an obstacle course in the shortest time. The prize depends on the wife’s weight in beer.

180px-Estonian Carry styleOctopush, or underwater hockey, is a non-contact sport conducted entirely underwater and is said to be growing in popularity. Two teams compete to maneuver a puck across the bottom of a swimming pool and into “goals.” There are referees and tournaments. Underwater hockey is not very spectator friendly.

Chess boxing combines the physical with the mental, perhaps for the mental. There are eleven alternating rounds of boxing and chess, starting with a four-minute chess game followed by three minutes of boxing and so on. This is a case of life imitating art, since this sport sprang up due to its description in the writings of French comic book artist Enki Bilal.

We’ve already mentioned the activity of cheese rolling, which apparently began in Gloucester, England. It’s not very complicated. People chase substantial wheels of cheese down very steep hills. The rolling cheese can reach up to 112 km/hr or more than 60 m/hr. An unfortunate accident occurred in 1997 when the cheese took a wrong turn and injured a spectator.

I would be amiss in not pointing out the existence of the Concocully Outhouse Races, in Conconully, Washington. Actual outhouses are raced. The Silver Jubilee event is coming up in early 2010.

160px-extermeironingrivelinAccording to Wikipedia, Extreme Ironing (or EI) is an extreme sport and a performance art in which people take an ironing board to a remote location and iron items of clothing. The official website says Extreme Ironing is “the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”

A Swiss biologist offended by the injuries endemic to most team sports invented Tchoukball in the 1970s. Tchoukball is a non-contact sport played by nine players a side on an indoor court measuring forty metres by twenty metres (130 feet x 65 feet). It has aspects of handball, volleyball, and squash. The object is to pass and then bounce a ball off a small slanted trampoline frame so that it lands outside a semicircular “D” on the court and thereby scores. It has become international in scope and was an event at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan.

csm 2009Cup-300x216Segway Polo has become a trendy activity for the Silicon Valley set. In fact, Steve Wozniak of Apple fame is a well-known player. The Segway, of course, is that electric two wheeled gyroscopically balanced contraption which was touted as the Next Big Thing but has taken a while to arrive. The Segway was first produced in 2002, and Segway Polo began in 2004. Technology as culture as play. The game is played similarly to horse polo but is rather more geeky looking.

A couple more interesting ones in passing: Freestyle Powerizer Stilts and Volcano Boarding.

Let me end with the 3,000 year old ball game called Ulama which is still played in a few places in Mexico. Players even had to wear protective gear because the solid rubber ball involved weighed five to eight pounds and travelled at up to 60 mph. The game is the usual… move the ball, in one variant only by bouncing it off the hips, to the end zones. Sometimes in the old days, the losers lost their lives.

pelotaOne researcher has said: “That the Mesoamerican ballgame has survived and flourished for more than 3000 years earns it the distinction of being one of humanity’s great cultural expressions.”

The invading Spanish in the 1500s were fascinated by the rubber ball, and it caused a sensation in Europe when the conquistador Cortes took it there. It sparked the beginnings of the rubber industry.

As I get older, I see us humans as a species of quaint characteristics. Some are ennobling, like our love and talent for music, and some are not, like genocide. But play is at our root, and whether it’s swinging through the trees, bent over a go board, or putting on a show at a board meeting, we are the players.

[Home ]


Notes on images, and another book on play

From the top down, the images (and links to sources) are:

1. Playing tennis in Dubai

2. Tug-of-war as Olympic sport .

3. Indian club exercise .

4. Wife-carrying championship : The Estonian Carry.

5. Extreme ironing. I’m not making this up.

6. Segway polo

7. The oldest ball game.

Another interesting book on the nature of play is Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovitch, 1990. It’s about spontaneous creation and where inspiration comes from…

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Awareness, Culture

12 Comments on “Play: The Serious, The Weird and The Lighthearted”

  1. Stuart Moore Says:

    Just one correction on your Segway Polo info; Steve Wozniak, the other founder of Apple Computer, is the player – not Steve Jobs.

  2. Dick Thomas Says:

    Here is a link to The History Channel video on
    Indian clubs in the Olympics.

  3. rickmatz Says:

    The current fascination with kettle bells has always reminded me of the indian clubs.

  4. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Stuart, you’re right. I will change. Thanks for stopping by…


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Dick,

    Thanks for what is probably an excellent link, except for some reason it doesn’t want viewers from Canada… (I presume that’s the problem I’m having).


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Seems like the same principle… The Indian Clubs seem more elegant somehow though, and perhaps there is more of an emphasis on a lighter toning aspect in some approaches to using them rather than sheer strength. (Although, to tell the truth, I’m not that familiar with kettle bells…)


  7. Your man Huizinga is right on the mark. Writing is a very playful thing for me. The playfulness of roller derby, as compared to other sports, is what makes it so attractive to this old Freedom lover.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    You’re such a roller hockey aficionado! Until I read your blog I didn’t realize roller hockey was still such a thriving sport, and alive and well here in the Lower Mainland. I remember watching it on black and white TV as a young kid in Washington State. I never quite understood the rules, but there was a lot of satisfying knockdowns and wipeouts, and with babes.

    Writing is most fun for me when it’s playful, when I can be a little silly and absurd… and then occasionally in the midst of it some kind of insight comes up that you hadn’t thought of before…


  9. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for a fun and interesting post.

    I hate to workout – running and lifting weights are things I do because I have to not because I like ’em. But if we turn exercise into a game…

    Wind sprints are torture, but add a basketball and a few friends and I can run up and down the court til I drop and if I’m having fun, I might not even notice how tired I am until I stop.

    The mind is a strange thing.


  10. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Yes, very much so… I’m the same way. Far rather jump back and forth and play swords in fencing, say, instead of push-ups and sit-ups and all the rest. The fun factor.


  11. Indian clubs!
    Doesn’t the drawing look like an adaptation of Leonardo’s measurements of the perfect man?

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Yes… very similar!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: