The Wager

And so a deal is struck. Emily, 178cm, American, will take on Untumak, 160cm, from Kyrgyzstan, in a horse race. Untumak will provide the horses, Emily will chose the course. Being the away side perhaps Emily is at a disadvantage, but being a cowgirl from California and boldly proclaiming that she can ride anything with 4 legs, the out come is no sure thing. Following the horse race some roping: agreeable friends as barely wavering targets. Egos are cocked, measures
of the foe taken; deadly serious yet deadly fun too. “In Kyrgyzstan, you will lose” he says. “I bet I will beat you” rings back. “I bet you won’t”.
It does not take much to go from 1 vs 1 to 3, 4, 5 people claiming to be the fastest rider, and then you have a horse race. Wagers spill out from the competitors, the spectators too get involved. Now it is the observers taking the measures, cocking their own egos; a test of knowledge, bravado, luck. Soon it is the spectators boasting on behalf of the competitors, staging the races, creating the sport.


In the end the hostilities do not quite materialise. Untumak arrived 3 hours early with the horses, a feat unheard of in Kyrgyzstan, and him and Emily proceed to spend a few hours riding. He takes his flighty 2 year old that needs some work, she gets his best horse. There is the odd burst of a gallop, the occasional test of speed, but you could hardly call them opponents in a race. There is too much bonhomie, too much general joy in the activity to necessitate any real stakes of money or honour. The roping to is an enjoyable farce, too much giggling and jest; play rather than sport.



In “Homo ludens” Johann Huizinga describes how there is some playful element in all most every avenue of human culture. From the special uniforms, set arenas and deadly seriousness yet clear ridiculousness of religious ceremonies to the challenges of law and the riddle and poem of historical story telling. He goes on to say that sport is an extreme form of play, where the ideal of winning is pursued beyond that of fun. For JM, sport lacks some of the fundamental elements of play that make it so commonly found across and throughout culture. Certainly, with a less restrictive definition, play is easier to find day-to-day than sport. Playing dress-up, playing an instrument, playing at being the overbearing aunt to annoy your brother. I’ve already said that there needs to be some competitive element to make it a sport and many kinds of play, including the frivolities at Bokonbaevo yurt camp, do lack this.


This might limit the spread of sport, each additional criteria lessening the range of things you could include. But I can always see the wager creeping back in. Two people skimming stones: “bet I can skim it further” – “bet I can get more hops in”; suddenly we have competition and so sport. Does this make the bet, the wager, the gamble a fundamental part of sport? Does the desire to test our skill and luck for a prize preceded some “sporting instinct”? There are some races and events that are organised for the benefit of the betting punters, giving them a morsel to satisfy their ravenous appetites for competition and chance. Gambling itself becomes the sport: play poker professionally, watch roulette on the sports channel. Perhaps the gambling exists quite happily without the sport.


But it cannot be about money. I, and anyone reading this, is quite unlikely to have played in some game or participated in some meet where sums of money were placed on the outcome. Sure, it is everywhere at the top, the most visible levels, and in some really weird cases it starts to perpetuate itself while abandoning the original ideas of sport. I’m thinking of the simulated “horse races “ you can find in betting shops, where there are no real horses, and no real chance of beating the house either. But there is far to much sport out there, from kids knocking a ball around their street after school to adults playing Sunday league football in the park, that is unaffected by the lustre of money for it to be considered the essential driving force. We are then left with this competitive element. Me vs you, us vs them. Easy to see how our evolutionary history would’ve favoured those with a competitive side. Easy to see how those who like to test themselves against and better others would outcompete those happy to sit back. Easy to see prehistoric humans, choosing their favourite throwing stick, saying: “I bet….’

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