Centuries from now, scholars will pick through the ruins of our arenas and the artifacts of our sporting events and try to decipher their role and meaning. Andrew Guest gets a head-start on what anthropologists of the future might say.

 

(Jeff Stvan/Flickr)

Detail of Bill Reid’s sculpture The Raven and the First Men, based on a Haida myth, at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology (Jeff Stvan/Flickr)

 

A popular tourist destination in Vancouver is the justly famous Museum of Anthropology, a few short miles from BC Place stadium on the heavily wooded and thoroughly gorgeous campus of the University of British Columbia. On the morning of our first day in Vancouver to attend the Women’s World Cup, my family and I decided to visit the museum before being locked down in the concrete stadium bowl for a double-header (the tickets virtually screamed “No Re-Entry!”). The visit felt fortuitous. It has never struck me so clearly as during this Women’s World Cup that our mega-sporting events are as much global cultural ceremony as they are competition. And while the competition itself can be riveting, entertaining, and glorious, what the ceremony represents is not nearly as flattering, especially when viewed with an anthropological lens.

Vancouver itself combines intense urban cosmopolitanism and intense natural beauty, a mix which the Museum of Anthropology further leavens with the cultural history of the Pacific Northwest “First Nations” (terminology that Canadians prefer to “Native American” or “American Indian,” used in the US). The museum offers an extensive collection of ethnographic and archaeological artifacts, particularly showcasing the First Nations communities of the region and their entrancing totem poles. The most interesting aspect of the experience for me was learning details about the nuances of pole carving – the ways different First Nations have distinct traditions and meanings embedded in the animals and designs used. Though I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and have long been exposed to totem pole iconography, I had never quite processed how distinct are, for example, the styles and stories of Haida art compared with Kwakwaka’wakw art (some of which may have actually inspired the Seattle Seahawks football logo).

On that day, however, the cultural richness and nuance on display in First Nations art was most striking as a contrast to attending the World Cup – an experience marked by FIFA’s efforts to denude global soccer of meaningful cultural texture. BC Place itself was symbolic of that denuded feeling. From a distance the stadium looks architecturally interesting, with its sail-like masts and spires, but from the inside it felt like an austere concrete mausoleum. The stadium is a huge generic bowl that FIFA has colonized with its global marketing partners – every concession stand plastered with the red of Budweiser and Coca-Cola, every sign-board flashing the blue of Gazprom and Visa. The feeling of being inside BC Place was remarkably similar to being inside Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in 2010, or to being at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1994. Ironically, this generic sameness, set in contrast to both the diversity on display at the Museum of Anthropology and to the potential of global mega-events, seems to me ripe for interpretation. What might our future anthropologists say?

I suspect the most overwhelming impression will be of the pervasiveness of brand-heavy and complexity-light symbols. Although the exterior of BC Place did have a few installations that portrayed something other than corporate advertising (a memorial to Terry Fox was particularly well done), the general scene was filled with an overwhelming stream of flashing clichés: “Be the difference,” “Live your goals,” “To a greater goal,” “#Believe,” “#NoMaybes.” Ours was a culture, the future anthropologists might say, that cared deeply about ambiguous platitudes designed to build brand allegiance.

It is also hard to ignore the symbols of imagined national identity on display at a contemporary World Cup, particularly when so many are written on the bodies of fans. In Vancouver (and to some extent in South Africa in 2010) these were most pronounced for Americans. Prior to the US-Nigeria game, it sometimes seemed that the only Americans not dressed in red, white, and blue were the players themselves (whose uniforms were branded in white, black, and neon green!). It was futile to try keeping track of all the people milling around the fan park dressed as Uncle Sam, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Lady Liberty, Teddy Roosevelt (though never Franklin D.), cowboys, astronauts, and even some preambles to the Constitution (in the form of body paint announcing “WE THE PEOPLE…”). An hour or so before kick-off, the official FIFA Fan Park felt like being at Halloween crossed with the Tea Party. Ours was a culture, the future anthropologists might say, that essentialized nationalism into cartoonish symbols of political ideology.

It may also be noteworthy that such efforts were made around a Women’s World Cup – an event only officially initiated in 1991 (as opposed to 1930 for the Men’s World Cup). This is actually the hardest thing for me to predict: will our future scholars look back at this event as evidence of rapid growth and progress for women’s sports, or of shifting modes of marginalization and lost opportunity. It was impressive to be one of almost 32,000 fans watching Switzerland play Ecuador, when we were a long, long ways from either of those places. And most everyone seemed genuinely interested in the sports (despite Ecuador being clearly outmatched, they put in a valiant tactical effort until a goal just before half broke their spirit and organization). But I was also surprised on the day we arrived in Vancouver to have a bit of trouble finding a bar or restaurant where we could watch Canada play New Zealand in their second group game. Many more establishments were showing Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals than were showing the home country’s national team in their own World Cup. Ours was a culture, the future anthropologists might say, that could not quite figure out how to think about women’s opportunities in the broader sportscape.

Finally, beyond the symbols, I hope the future anthropologists are able to unpack the ritual process of these games. The most striking ritual to me is intimately familiar to any fan watching a contemporary World Cup match. It starts with two teams of eleven players arrayed in straight lines in the tunnel beneath the stadium seats. The players on each team wear identical, brightly colored garb, some of which will be shed when the games actually begin. The lines are led by one player, marked by an arm strap, designated as a tribal leader for the day. Huge speakers in the stadium transition from blaring energized pop-rock music to a more methodical corporate-classical piece, with striving horns and strings, signaling the players to grasp hands with pre-pubescent children, themselves in the jerseys of corporate sponsors, and process through the tunnel towards gigantic flags arrayed at the center of the enclosed and heavily fortified arena. The music transitions again to military-type national anthems that provoke camera-operators to methodically prowl for eerily close recordings of player faces in hopes of documenting expressions of deep emotion. The anthems’ completion cues the assembled thousands in the stands to erupt briefly in cheers of anticipation before settling into their seats with hands managing beers, sodas, candies, and other intoxicants. The two tribal leaders join a small group of authorities dressed largely in black and bejeweled with whistles and watches to oversee the contest. They throw a coin in the air, allowing a moment of pure randomness to dictate which team aligns themselves on which side – giving time for a final round of hugs and handshakes amidst a few adrenaline-filled moments when just about anything seems possible.

Actually, those moments before kick-off are some of my favorite at the World Cup. There was a instance, for example, before the kick-off of Japan v Cameroon when Aya Miyama and Christine Manie finished their ritual shaking of hands amidst a palpable feeling of possibility. I sat quietly, amidst thousands of others in a sun-struck corner of BC Place, watching the intensity and energy of the players and imagining all the experiences, hard work, and ability required to be in exactly that place for one 90-minute game. It was betwixt and between the ceremony and the competition, and it felt as intense as either.

I also love those moments because they feel a bit like what anthropologists of ritual call liminality – the in-between period shared by most rites of passage. Whether the traditional chief-installation rite of the Ndembu in Zambia or a traditional graduation ceremony at an American college, these rituals symbolically transition participants between their prior status towards a new status and new social roles. As Victor Turner explained in The Ritual Process, liminal phenomena offer a blend “of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites, with a ‘moment in and out of time,’ and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”

Liminality, in other words, occurs during moments where we briefly step away from both old and new social roles. At the same time, these moments reinforce how essential those roles are to our shared experiences. Amidst the structure of any ceremony, and perhaps even within the tightly controlled environment of a World Cup, they are moments that make anything seem possible – whether anything turns out to be the final raising of a totem pole in a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch, or the excitement of watching Gaëlle Enganamouit miss by mere inches with a powerful header in injury time that would have tied Cameroon with Japan. This is such a moment, I hope our future anthropologists will say, that suggests a World Cup can still be artful, that it might still find new meanings.

 

Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for pitchinvasion.net and writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & IdeasAndrew is on Twitter at @sportsandideas.