On not being an ambassador for the “it’s a cultural thing(tm)” thing.

I’ve not been having such a great time at Olympic school. This week should have really been my week – the topic of this week’s lectures are on the social, political and economic factors of the modern Olympic Games – and it is *technically* where my PhD topic should fit on the program. It is day 4. On the first day, I asked too many questions. On the second, I asked too many questions and when I got asked to stop asking questions (or shusht! the technical term), I was approached in such a way that suggested a telling off, a request to stop asking questions that were not relevant or logical to the discussion. So yesterday I sat out of the learning so not to disrupt the group’s overall experience. I felt I had to. Anyway, the easiest way to understand what happened is to equate it to being a ‘cultural thing’ – my expectations didn’t match the professors expectations didn’t match the other student’s expectations. And if that was true, it means it is probably down to me being Scottish. 

It didn’t make make be feel too great. In fact, it totally sucked. I’m taken back to secondary school and my schizophrenic report card – where I would receive referrals and detentions in the same weeks are winning an award for academic excellence at the school’s prize giving. It is my contradiction, I live with the fuck ups – of which there have been many – and there will be many more, I’m sure. 

I’m not going to talk about me (yet), I’m going to talk the reactions that I received from the rest of the group. The group. I’ve referred to the rest of the participants at the academy as ‘the group’ already. The group is an interesting concept – as if we all move together, as one – believing roughly the same ideas and having a similar general overview of the world. Brought together, internationally, to because of our love and/or research into the Olympic Games. We share the values of tolerance, respect and solidarity that are the foundations of the Olympic movement – and we reflect this in how we behave and act towards each other, regardless of our cultural backgrounds. This is easy to prescribe with words, but as a group (a singular entity) it is much harder in practice. Of course it is – to not address the complexities in how individual’s form bonds that transcend institutionalised practice and concepts is madness. At least for me. Is that me failing to be tolerant? 

If I was to be rationalise the dynamics of the group (something I’ve been encouraged to do this week when talking about other circumstances related to the Olympic Games and its indirect effects that it has on society, politics and culture – human emotion is a *bad* thing and not a factor in research) then I would consider it as followed. Each of us has been selected and nominated to attend through national committees within our country. Each of us, directly or indirectly, is encouraged to represent our country – some have tracksuits with our country emblem on them (including me!), some are athletes (so are down with the competitive national sport element), some have brought their own materials that identify their nation state in a way that can be translated easily to other participants through the process of cultural evening – an example of this would be for me to represent Scotland with a picture of a kilt (“lol – he has no pants”) and convincing others that a haggis was a real animal (#haggislols) – all cultural devices that are easy to understand because they are dominant ideas that have been translated globally. Together, we are brought together as a group, specifically known as the 18th IOA postgraduate seminar participants/alumni, identified by our bright blue lanyard and our red baseball caps – the only thing that we can say that we have in common is our attendance here in Greece, everything else (the tolerance, respect and solidarity) was decided before we got here, before we were all born. 

We are encouraged to learn about other cultures through spending time with each other. This is slightly different than building relationships based on trust, this is building relationships based on shared experiences. There are some experiences which equate to making sure that the experience that you have at the IOA is the experience that you are suppose to have. Play sports, hang out by the pool, visit the beach, run naked at the ancient Olympia stadium. It is what you are expected to do together as part of a collective group experience.

If the idea fills you with dread, it could be seen as a problem in a context of a group rather than simply wanting to opt out of the activity. For instance, friends that know you well enough can read when you are upset, worried, angry, happy, calm and don’t require as much signal as people you’ve only just met. This takes time and personal understanding of a person to get to this stage of subtly. As we are living closely together here, it is expected to form bonds as quick as you can, with many different people – so national and cultural stereotypes can play a big part in accelerating relationships because there are lightweight enough to understand across a group, not as much work as getting to know somebody individually. Much like who you sit with at the first day of school has a major influence in how you behave, who you get to know through interacting, bonding and learning from your peers. The coincidence of knowing each other is through a shared locale – not necessary through shared interest, complementary personalities etc that we tend to find when we least expect it (this has been accelerated because of the Internet of course!)

What I am truly missing here is the opportunity to be myself. Not a PhD student, not a representation of the UK, not part of the 18th IOA PG seminar group, not somebody who seems to be working all the time, not a person who is allergic to mosquitos so therefore doesn’t want to go swimming, not a person who asks questions in class that are not relevant to discussions – all devices that I can use to publicly identify myself within the group, but it’s not really me. It is a performance of me. A performance of me that gives me something to say and a way to behave within a group – but as I’ve had limited space to really get to know people beyond their own performance, it is not a performance at all. I’d rather not have to perform at all. This is not possible, of course, but I have to keep myself safe when I know that most interactions are going to be with more than one person with not enough context to spread around.

So, to simply say that it is a cultural thing that causes the similarities and differences in approach is problematic. We could make it a cultural thing – we could make it an excuse for the reasons behind dissent individual behaviour in a group setting – but this group is situated in a context of a Western ideal. The Olympics, born in Europe, steeped in the notion of empire, power, development, growth in GDP, neoliberalism, sport as a human right, capitalist rhetoric – if any culture was going to reflect the Olympic games through stereotypes alone, I’m sure Great Britain would be close to the top of the list. Culturally, I should be the embodiment of such principles. In reality – I am struggling with the notion of alternatives and rethinking about such ideology that we take for granted and allow to haunt our necessarily lives I can’t embody my ‘alternative vision’ neither – nor force my way of thinking onto the rest of the group because I don’t even know if there is a correct and complete answer to be forced. Instead, I ask questions in order to reveal something more about ideas presented some confidently as being a correct one. And such questioning creates tensions – tensions so apparent that they are equated to inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. Where appropriate and acceptable is not dictated by some higher being or institution, but by each other. 

But saying that, today is day 4. And day 4 was ok. It was the first lecture we’ve had that was not a lecture. It was a conversation. And I’m glad I decided to make myself go. We were asked to write down what we though where the three most pivotal games in history and to share them (and our reasons for choosing them) with the class. I picked 1968, 1972 and 1984. Some were looking for the right answer, so therefore a measure of being the ‘best’ games – when really, the exercise had no correct response at all. The professor argued that all of the games were capable of being pivotal, due to the nature of their global response – and our selections and reasons were all a reflection on how we thought about the world. This wasn’t a ‘cultural thing’ at all, this was just better, more engaging teaching – and a chance to break down some of those stereotypes that we’ve let ourselves inflict on each other. I’ve been looking for more chances to support the Olympics/megaevents as a context to see the world, or a catalyst for doing something else – and this is the first time I’ve found it at the academy. Amongst the indoctrination and the desire for the easy, most accessible group answer, there is small pockets were the dominant ideas (and excuses for difference) don’t necessarily prevail.