Symbology of Success: Aboriginal Games and the Insignia of Olympic Validation

Article excerpt

The Self-referential Symbolic Inventory of Olympic Sports

The fact that the Olympic Games constitute themselves as a "great symbol" (1) has been noted by a variety of observers; MacAloon is not the only one but one of the more influential authors to note here. The wide-ranging symbolic significations produced by the Olympics derive their efficacy from a heterogeneous inventory of significations--some, but surprisingly few of these, derived directly from the inherent logic of competitive sports. The immediate symbolic validation of competitive performance of sports centers around awarding of medals of differential symbolic value, as well as the symbolic segmentation of space along an hierarchical axis by means of the victory awards podium. (2) The awarding of medals and the winner's ascension to the highest position on the podium, constitute the moment where the competitive sports model self-referentially validates itself--the medal imbuing with meaning instances of superordination (winning--but not of its necessary counterpart, the loser's subordination), the medal in turn only taking on meaning, through its own act of designation, as symbolic reflection on the differential performances that function as the signifier enabling the medals' symbolic force.

The self-referentiality of the medal and podium, as discoursive events, identify them, in Jurgen Link's conceptualization, as belonging to the "specialist discourse" of sport, a mode of discourse that, in respect of the area of social production that locates it, is largely denotated in the understanding of those whose subject positions derive meaning from its efficacy. Link distinguishes such 'specialist discourses' from the structure of the "interdiscourse" (3) emergent at the interface of specialist discourses and the multitude of discourse strands of popular culture. It is the combinatory play of these discourse strands in the interdiscourse that enables the constitution of "normalistic subject positions" (4) and habituates the subject into the intuitive acceptance of extant dominant discourses. (5)

Thus, the great variety of interdiscoursive events emanating from the Olympic movement, articulate significations from a wide range of discourses. Some of these challenge the movement's underlying ideological claims (the tropes are sufficiently well known to require enumeration here), while others seek to mobilize them in the cause of social transformation. The recent attempts to sabotage the Olympic torch relay to protest the problematic state of human rights in the People's Republic of China and Tibet, can be understood as politically charged instances of such variegated interdiscoursive events--valorizing, in Bourdieu's sense, cultural capital whose germane locus of production is the field of sport, interdiscoursively in a number of other such fields.

However, of equal interest for my present argument is what such critical interventions leave unchallenged--in the main, the underlying structure of the sports model itself, which, as noted above, in its present state is heavily inflected towards the habitual acceptance of competitive sports as the general signifier bounding its logic of practice. Authors such as Eichberg, Hoberman, and Guttmann have conceptualized this dominant structure of sport as emanations of the "performance principle." (6)

In this context, I wish to examine a challenge to competitive sports as a "discourse formation" (7) and its logic of practice occurring at its remote northern margin. The challenge in this instance, emerges in the interdiscourse, but effects not a repositioning (or transformation) of elements of the interdiscourse: It poses a challenge to the self-referentiality of the specialist discourse of sport itself, by giving that very discourse's symbolic inventory itself (the medal in particular), an oppositional significance. It appropriates the signifier to invest it with oppositional significations. …

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