Do you feel that? Olympic fervor is once again in the air. As we prepare for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio there has been a distinct uptick of Olympic advertising on the TV. Athletes whom we have not seen for four years are once again making regular appearances on the news. Even some martial artists are getting in on the act.
My initial plan for today was to sit down and write a serious essay on functionalist discussions of history. Or to put it in slightly different terms, why it is generally a bad idea to assume that social institutions were invented by a group of prophetic planners for the express purpose of filling the specific roles which we find them functioning in today. Nowhere is this disjoint between investigations of “origins” and studies of “function” more evident than in discussions of the traditional Asian martial arts.
Then I read this. I highly recommend that you take a moment to do so as well. Prof. D. S. Farrer recently wrote a short piece for the Anthropology News titled “The Olympic Future of Mixed Martial Arts.” Better yet, his essay made the issue’s cover!
That editorial decision seems entirely appropriate to me. Farrer appears to have been figuratively (and possibly literally) on fire when he wrote this piece. Due mainly to wushu’s frustrated relationship with the Olympics (going all the way back to 1936 for anyone who is keeping track), I have read a lot of popular articles advocating for some fighting art’s inclusion in the Games. Rarely, however, have I seen anyone make a case quite like this, or with such conviction
Farrer cogently argues that the Olympics are, perhaps inescapably, “warrior games.” It is in their very DNA. We see it in the early gatherings of ancient Greece, and in the rebirth of a modern set of games in which a thin veneer of “international cooperation” masked the role of this institution in supporting and upholding the spread of 19th century notions of nationalism and imperialism. Scholars such as Andrew Morris (Marrow of the Nation, 2004) remind us that states like China were eager to enter the Olympic system precisely because they understood the real world implications of these games.
In the global arena “perceptions” have a way of quickly hardening into “political facts.” The modern Olympics have been seen not just as a celebration of what an individual athletic “body can do,” but as a test of what nations and states are capable of doing. To successfully project power into this sphere is to suggest that one is also capable of dominating other, less symbolic, venues.
The government of the Republic of China realized that a successful Olympic appearance would impact the perceived legitimacy of their state both in the eyes of domestic and global audiences. During a time of intense competition and actual imperialism within the geographic borders of China, this was a reality that could not be ignored. It is no coincidence that the Chinese martial arts were first showcased on the global stage at the 1936 Olympics, as the world teetered on the brink of total war.
Farrer hits his stride when he turns his attention more directly to the mixed martial arts (MMA). How often in Olympic discussions (cloaked as they usually are in the sentiments of saccharine consumerism) does one encounter arguments such as this:
“MMA, however, does not just create another world of bored/boring spectators, yet another banal, dead space for the outmoded parade of false national pride. We must learn to see beyond the fascist flag-waving society of the spectacle, where actual embodied human performance is supplanted by collective representations of the elite other, facilitating the fatted-up, nerdish spectators in becoming-brainwashed, hooked to their smart-phones and digital devices in their collective becoming-sheep. MMA creates a whole new world of savage cage fighters that the police force, law enforcement, and even highly trained military personnel struggle to contain. Also, MMA makes the practitioner aware of their heartbeat, breathing, vulnerability and mortality, and that of their partners in training. Cage fighting is only one, if the ultimate, outcome of MMA. Other outcomes include superb athleticism, health, fitness, self-confidence, fraternity, and fictive kinship as befits an Olympic sport.” (Farrer, 11)
That is strong stuff, yet Farrer is far from alone in arguing for the inclusion of another combat sport in the Olympic lineup. In popular discussions both hope and anxiety over the fate of various Olympic combat sports seems to be reaching a boiling point. These debates often center on commercial, social, cultural and even regional fault lines. As such they suggest something about the state of both the Olympics and the modern martial arts.
Perhaps we should begin by considering some of the factors that draw various martial arts and combat sports like moths towards the flame of Olympic competition. The games already feature a number of combat arts including (but not limited to) shooting, fencing, wrestling, boxing, judo, taekwondo and archery. Others are eager to add themselves to the line-up. Karate was recently successful in its bid for a birth in the 2020 games. Wushu has been overlooked multiple times in the past and has focused on expanding its base of international support in an effort to broaden its appeal.
Recently I ran across voices in the lightsaber combat community talking up the possibility of their practice becoming an Olympic Sport. Admittedly, this seems like a massive long shot and the entire conversation is comically premature. This is a set of practices that is barely a decade old and, by any measure, is just getting to its feet.
It lacks an international federation or any plans for creating one. Nor does it have a widely agreed upon consensus as to what a typical match should look like, how scoring is organized and what sorts of basic safety equipment is necessary. Right now each organization and club handles these questions on an ad hoc basis. Needless to say there is no funding infrastructure in place to organize the sort of elite level training and competition needed to sustain lightsaber combat as a theoretical Olympic sport.
If anyone were to ask my advice, I would suggest starting with some intramural collegiate level clubs and seeing where things might go from there. Nor do I even want to imagine the legal calamity that could be unleashed by bringing Disney’s intellectual property (Star Wars) into contact with the IOC’s. To quote Ghost Busters, another American classic, “Don’t cross the streams…it would be bad.”
The entire idea of Olympic lightsaber combat feels ludicrous from the outset. So I was fascinated to note that this seems to have become a core talking point of Ludosport, perhaps the largest of the European lightsaber groups. Their homepage subtly points out that they have developed a sport that upholds and advances the Olympic ideals. So many of Ludosport’s instructors have noted their Olympic aspirations in recent interviews that one suspects that this is part of a coordinated campaign to craft a certain type of public image.
All of this would seem to suggest something important about the place of the Olympics in the modern world. While Farrer and others worry about the Game’s slide into cultural irrelevance, for many consumers they continue to function as a power symbol of legitimacy. To be in the Olympics is to be a “real” sport.
Of course achieving Olympic status has other profound implications that go beyond “respectability politics.” These may include great benefits, but they also introduce some of the sources of anxiety that tend to haunt such conversations.
The first and most obvious set of considerations is financial. While different states have their own funding and organizational models (China is very different from the US in its support of athletics), the possibility of Olympic glory generally leads to an infusion of cash into a sport. Elite training facilities need to be constructed and manned. State or corporate sponsorship becomes a possibility. And all of this must be organized and overseen by a group of specialized administrators. The Olympic Games employ a lot of people who are not athletes.
From an administrative perspective it is fairly obvious why it might be in your best interest to have a sport chosen for the Olympics. This logic transcends state borders. It is hoped that by opening new spots on the medal podium athletes in other countries will be enticed into competing in a given event. One of nagging doubts that has plagued wushu’s adoption bid is whether enough countries outside of China and the old Soviet bloc are really capable of fielding (and financially supporting) the sorts of elite teams necessary to make the event a successful proposition.
The flip-side of this is that the failure of a sport to succeed in attracting audiences, sponsors, advertisers and funding might lead to its dismissal from the Olympics. Low audience interest and other problems have led to multiple rounds of speculation that Taekwondo might one day find itself on the chopping block. The reality of these worries were confirmed in shocking fashion when wrestling found itself temporarily without an Olympic birth before being reinstated (but no longer as a core sport).
As Farrer notes, wrestling is perhaps the world’s original combat sport. It is one of the few events in the modern games that can trace its roots back to its old world predecessor. Wrestling is also very popular with athletes around the globe. Due to the nature of the contest a talented fighter can train and reach a high level expertise with relatively minimal infrastructure investment compared to other sports like Olympic diving or downhill skiing. For a variety of reasons wrestling has a wide global appeal among athletes.
Unfortunately this love is not shared by television audiences. One suspects that the same simplicity which makes the sport relatively easy to practice also gives it little in the way of dynamic visual appeal. Important moments in a match may not be legible to individuals who are unfamiliar with the sport. It often lacks the same dynamism as flashier track and field events.
Nor is wrestling alone in this respect. Taekwondo, while faster paced, has also proved to be a tough sell for general audiences. Judo seems to get somewhat greater news coverage, yet it enjoys very little network broadcast time (at least in the United States). As such it is at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing in sponsorships or advertising dollars. I am not sure that the situation will prove to be much different for karate during the Tokyo games.
Karate, judo and taekwondo bring up another set of anxieties. While lucrative, is Olympic competition ultimately good for a broader martial arts tradition? Is this a venue within which an art can succeed, or will the very act of inclusion change it into something that it was not?
Consider the question of rules. Any political scientist will tell you that it is the rules of the game that ultimately decide the winners and losers. They determine the very nature and parameters of the contest.
This is critical in the current case as one of the fundamental traits of the traditional martial arts is their richness and variety. Karate is not a singular tradition, it exists in many forms. Not all organizations or lineages will have the same set of standards. How then will the winning standards be chosen, and what is the fate of the losers?
The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article outlining debates as to the rules that should govern competition within the new sport of karate, but it would be possible to write a similar article about many of the arts that we have discussed. The type of wushu that is being considered for Olympic competition by no means represents the totality of the Chinese martial arts. Its gymnastics inflected floor routines are far removed from the actual reality of the traditional folk arts.
Yet these two set of practices, traditional kung fu and modern wushu, must both compete for the time and attention of a limited pool of talented young athletes. Nor is it really possible to be committed to both disciplines at an elite level. The popularity enjoyed by government sponsored wushu has not been great for the folk arts. One must wonder whether wushu’s inclusion in future Olympics would further damage the richness that makes the Chinese martial arts so interesting. Indeed, I have spoken with Chinese scholars studying the traditional martial arts who are worried about scenarios just like this.
Within any community large scale change always creates winners and loser. The ascension to Olympic glory is no different. Such questions require further consideration and study.
In some ways the mixed martial arts are well situated to deal with these challenges. While wushu tends to have a more regional following, MMA has found a global, and still growing, audience. Elite training camps can already be found in many countries. The brutal nature of these fights, as well as their basic rules, ensures that they are visually dynamic.
As Farrer notes, this same violence seems to reflect the current phase of global capitalism. Of course that same factor will make the IOC very wary of accepting the event, or Farrer’s larger arguments about their place in the “warrior games.” As I mentioned earlier, theories of origin do not always work as explanations of current function or accepted meaning.
One of the most interesting aspects of Farrer’s essay was his concluding notion that MMA might end up functioning as an umbrella federation under which many sorts of Olympic martial arts competition (judo, TKD, silat, wushu, karate) might be ordered. One doubts that the organizations behind judo, wrestling or taekwondo would appreciate this move. Yet it does open interesting possibilities for the inclusion of a vastly expanded number of fighting styles (each imagined as a single “event,” rather than an entirely different sport) without taking up more than one of the 25 permanent Olympic slots.
Indeed, the nature of Olympic organization has meant that the combat sports have sometimes faced a “zero-sum” game. In order for wushu or karate to be included something else has to be dropped (recall the case of wrestling). Farrer’s suggestion might allow for a greater variety of styles to be showcased as well as increased flexibility in adopting new events. That alone might remove much of anxiety that seems to surround the discussion of Olympic combat sports.
There is one other source of “anxiety” that seems to accompany these contests which also deserves our attention. Who exactly competes in the Olympics, individual athletes or nation states? The answer would seem to be both, and anyone who doubts that might want to go back and revisit some of the Olympic coverage from the Cold War. Still, combat sports are uniquely positioned to chip away some of the more overt elements of nationalism in the Games.
Ironically they can do this work precisely because so many martial arts are closely associated with nationalist identities. Everyone knows that judo is a Japanese art and Taekwondo is a Korean style. Wushu, as we are constantly reminded, is an aspect of Chinese culture. And as Farrer has just illustrated, MMA is in many ways a uniquely American creation.
These acknowledgements of a practice’s point of origins should not come to be confused with other essentializing discourses about the “national character.” Yet that is what we always do. The Budo arts are thought to reveal the “essence” Japanese identity. Hence one would expect that Japan should dominate the medal podium in every judo event. Indeed, they do rather well. Likewise TKD is sometimes seen as reflecting the “essence” of Korean culture. And the Chinese Olympic Committee seeks to advance wushu in large part so that they can claim this same sense of legitimacy for their own “national arts.”
Yet victory in grappling, kicking or striking depends on a great many factors prior to one’s ethno-nationalist background. What happens when the Japanese judo team suffers unexpected losses to athletes from other countries? What impact does a string of “foreign” victories in TKD have on the discourse surrounding that art? And given the global popularity of MMA, if it were to ever become an Olympic sport, I doubt that the USA would monopolize the medal count. There are just too many good athletes in too many different countries. And that is a very good thing. It demonstrates the fundamental vitality of the sport.
Yet the reality of losing in one’s “national art” to athletes from other states has caused a fair amount of anxiety in the home countries of some of these other sports. Nothing puts the lie to myths in the martial arts quite as fast as actually testing them in the ring.
Ultimately that is also a good thing. It serves to break down some of the ethno-nationalist mythologies surrounding the Asian martial arts that were so assiduously cultivated over the course of the 20th century. Hopefully the sort of “instant verification” that international sporting events provide make the creation of new myths more difficult, or at least less profitable.
The actual reality of what happens in an event suggests that it is the individual athletes, and not some abstraction like “the nation” or “flag,” that competes and fights. If the Olympics ever are to become a true celebration of global peace, rather than simply a glorification of “national violence by other means,” such a perspective is necessary.
As Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari, Spatz and Farrer have all noted, the real question we seek to explore is “what can a body do?” In this riddle we find a celebration of our common potential and humanity. Ironically it is often the combat sports, even practices as different as MMA and wushu, which are best positioned to answer that question. While I remain to be convinced that martial traditions always benefit from the Olympics, the Olympic Games clearly need the martial arts and combat sports. Maybe even one (far off) day…lightsaber combat.
If you enjoyed this discussion than you really owe it to yourself to go and read: “The Olympic Future of the Mixed Martial Arts” by D. S. Farrer