The summer Olympic and Paralympic Games (the latter known as the ‘Special Olympics’ in the US) in London has me thinking about the cultural significance of sports in both my native and adopted countries, in particular, the role of team sports at school. The recurrent success of the US Olympic team is rightly attributed to the country’s large population and deep pockets. But I think the US victory also has to do with the fact that the US has a culture in which athletes are glorified and a spirit of competition is fostered from an early age.
In order to investigate further, I polled my English husband and his school friends about the role of team sports at their secondary school. I do realize this evidence is anecdotal and not ‘statistically’ significant. I also realize that all schools, mine and my husband’s included, are complex social organisms that resist generalizations. These caveats aside, I am nevertheless hopeful that our observations can have a wider application across UK and US culture.
At my high school in Delaware, USA, jocks ruled the school. At my husband’s grammar school in Kent, England, players on sports teams (the term ‘jock’ is not used, apparently) were often particularly popular, but did not enjoy the glorified status of the sporty kids in my school. I was particularly interested to learn that the female athletes at my husband’s school were not more popular than other girls, and in fact, were often considered unfeminine. The situation could hardly be more different at my high school, where the most popular and pretty girls colonized the field hockey and softball teams.
Football, the American variety, was the jewel in the crown of my high school’s athletics program, and the sport was well supported by both the administration and students. The recruitment of football coaches was of the utmost importance. As all coaches technically needed to be teachers, most football coaches were officially hired to teach Drivers’ Ed.
During football season, games were held nearly every Friday. These were major social events, well attended by parents and other students. The team was supported by a marching band and a squadron of cheerleaders. Every year, before the homecoming game, there was a mandatory pep rally. This involved ushering the entire student body into the stadium to cheer on the team and build up enthusiasm for the big game. The grade (or ‘year’ to use the British term) who shouted loudest was rewarded with a glow stick. I should point out that these resources and customs are not at all unusual among high schools. My high school was and is, to use the British parlance, ‘a comprehensive’, and not a wealthy one at that.
As I understand it, the situation was rather different at my husband’s school. Even football/soccer, that darling of British sports, failed to win the attention lavished on American football. For the British, school marching bands, cheerleading squads, and pep rallies are only familiar from ‘American films’. Nor are there school stadiums suitable to hold a crowd of spectators. Though, according to my sources, even if there were stadiums for hosting matches, no one would go. British students find the idea of supporting a school sports team, like any other display of school spirit, nauseating. School pride, where it exists at all, exists only for one’s house.
I suspect these outward differences point to more significant differences between the British and American psyches. Here I turn to pop anthropologist Kate Fox and her study Watching the English. According to Fox, the English people’s abhorrence of earnestness is crucial to understanding their culture (p 62-63). The reason school team sports are not as popular as they are in the US is that it would be un-British to appear too keen on anything, sports included. Moreover, the British have a natural cynicism towards anything institutionally backed (except the Monarchy, which seems to be a notable and curious exception). This is not to say that similar attitudes don’t exist in the US, but the American mindset is generally much more tolerant of school spirit, just as it is of patriotism and religion.
And that is why we Americans do so well in the Olympics.