The frenetic football of Morocco done with, I boarded the ferry in Tangier, bound for Tarifa and so Spain. This was to be the 2nd of 3 continents on this trip, and my longest stay in any one country, at 2 weeks. With a great diversity of traditions among the different regions of Spain, I was excited to see what the country had to offer. The mind my immediately spring to football (again), with the galacticos of Real Madrid or the tica-taca of Barcelona, but Spain offers a lot more. It is the country of la Vuelta de Espana, of flamenco, of some of the finest climbing and caving on the planet, of epic coastlines for surf and sail, of long distance runners and the great, strong stone-lifters of the Basque country. It is also the country of Los Toros, the bullfight, a last stronghold of the once common blood sports across the continent. I will be getting to some of these sport later, but the first sport that I encountered actually caught my eye before we had even reached land.
Tarifa is a small, fairly innocuous town on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. It is notable only for 2 things. First is the ferry to and from Tangiers I was sat on. The second is the wind. Whipping and sniping over the town and its long sandy beaches, it is as unrelenting as the Saharan sun I had left behind. Not to mention the Saharan sand, which I was still turning out of my pockets from time to time. This wind makes the beaches quite unusable for most. Most that is, except for a small subset of humanity. Kite surfers. They were everywhere. Tethered to their brightly coloured synthetic birds they skimmed, whooshed and skipped across the surf. With Lee, my new newest friend. I watched mesmerised as men and women harnessed the power of the wind to achieve the impossible, and walk across water. We spent a couple of hours strolling along on sitting on the beach, enjoying the spectacle and vicariously feeling the thrill.
So, how does this compare to the previous sports I have talked about? Certainly it felt a world away from the hostility and tribal divisions of the football back across the strait of Gibraltar. As far as I could see, there were no tribes at all. There were 1s, 2s, 3s; helping each other with kit and watching each others´ exploits, but seemingly no “us” and no “them”. I have supposed previously that the creation of such groups was essential to the global popularity of sport. Yet here literally flying in my face was an obvious exception. It is trivial to think of more exceptions, where there are individuals and not teams, and it is not victory that is sough but thrills. Does this mean we can start to separate these different pursuits, and say there are different reasons for their appeal?
Perhaps. To explore this idea a little more I will mention a couple of books that are hugely relevant to this endeavour I am on. The first is “Homo ludens, a study of the play element of culture” by Johan Huizinga. Like myself, JH considered why there might be sports, games and all forms of playing in all cultures. Thankfully he did not consider the problem from an evolutionary psychology perspective, leaving me something to write about! JH discussed sport’s integral part in culture, and even considered many aspects of culture to be manifestations of the play instinct (rather than the play being a product of the culture). He argues that playing muat pre-date culture, as non-human animals as well play, rolling and tumbling with their siblings or chasing dust or smaller animals. This is typically put down to the need yo hone hunting skills and fortify social bonds. But JH also talks about the play instinct as something spontaneous, simply done for the joy of it. When I watch swallows and swifts spin and twirl I can’t help but think it looks joyous and fun. At least, if I were such a bird, I would do it all day, as I bet it feels great.
Maybe I anthropormorphise. Forgive me, but a desire to fly is a human trait across the board. From where this stems in our evolutionary past I can’t be sure; perhaps man or woman who better enjoyed the wind in their hair found better foraging or hunting grounds or avoided stagnating in one place. Regardless, the love of flight is something the author of the other book that has heavily influenced my thinking taps into. Simons Barnes in “The meaning of sport” (again, luckily for me no evolutionary psychology angle) likens many sports as human attempts to fly. The analogy is obvious for sports such as paragliding or ski jumping, but more show parallels. Cycling for instance, the wind whipping your face, frictionless movement, speeds inaccessible to those on foot. Throwing sports, like the javelin; an extension of yourself soaring through the air, defying gravity, certainly apes flight. But my favourite of SB’s fliers, a particular set of his gravity defiers, are weight lifters. Imagine an Olympic weight lifter. Broad, sloping shoulders. Two trees for legs and two more for arms. Glistening with sweat, rooted to the spot over their gargantuan weight. Hardly the flying type you may think. But then they lift. Picking, heaving, raising masses of the titans above their shaking heads. They have somehow achieved the unimaginable and achieved flight. The paraglider flies, the cyclist flies, the javelin thrower flies and the weight lifter flies. And we, the observers fly with them. Maybe this extends to the ball sports, does the rugby goal kicker achieve flight, the striker of the football also? As I watched the kite surfers skim and skip and yes, fly, I did feel that the feeling was all that one required to do a sport. As long as it gives that joyous ride, its worth doing.
This is a nice simple idea. And those are generally the best. It seems unlikely that a sport that did not give you the feeling of flight would prove to be as popular as one that did. But then there is wrestling. Race walking. Potholing. Do they fly? I never set out thinking I would find a simple answer to this question of “why do all human cultures do sport?”, and am happy to except there are complexities. But as watched the kite surfers glide and turn and leap, the complexities seemed unimportant. There was just pure, simple joy.