4th June 2021. China | Tennis
Giving up the competition; The costs of sports narratives
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There’s a long piece in the New Yorker that argues that Chinese young people are responding to the pressure of competition and long hours by stepping away from it.
The writer, Yi Ling-Liu, draws on an idea from anthropology, “involution”, to explain what might be happening. Involution happens when increasing inputs don’t lead to more output. More strikingly, the word “involution” has appeared in Chinese social media and mainstream media, and now has its own Chinese characters.
The Chinese term for involution, neijuan, which is made up of the characters for “inside” and “rolling,” suggests a process that curls inward, ensnaring its participants within what the anthropologist Xiang Biao has described as an “endless cycle of self-flagellation.” Involution is “the experience of being locked in competition that one ultimately knows is meaningless,” Biao told me.
The account in the New Yorker suggests that the notion of involution is running through the most competitive parts of China’s society—it started in the country’s universities, and has now migrated to the tech sector.
Tech workers have begun to sense the involution of their lives: those employed at large tech firms often work hours known as “996” (nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week). Whereas “996” was once a badge of honor, the phrase is now uttered with ironic despair, and has swelled into new iterations such as “007” (working online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week).
(Chinese tech sector workers. Image, Robert Scoble, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
It’s a rich piece of reportage, in the best traditions of American magazine journalism, and I’m not going to try to summarise it all here.
Some of the responses to these work pressures are intriguing: Das Kapital reading groups and an affection for revolutionary Russian songs. But some seem more like the response of the young Generation X Americans to American business culture in the 1980s and early 1990s:
Others have adopted coping mechanisms similar to those of Silicon Valley dropouts: quitting their jobs, joining remote communes, setting up Chinese versions of Burning Man, and developing a “Buddhist” (that is, a chilled-out and laissez-faire) approach to life. Some young Chinese have embraced sang—an attitude of sardonic apathy and nihilism. “I wanted to fight for socialism today,” Zhao Zengliang, a twenty-seven-year-old sang Internet personality, wrote in a representative post. “But the weather is so freaking cold that I’m only able to lay on the bed to play on my mobile phone.”
And this phenomenon also reminds me of the response of some of Japan’s younger generations to the long hours and driven business culture in the country—the so-called “hikikiomori” who take to their rooms and refuse to leave, or the “grass-eaters who refuse status and consumer culture.
And what’s interesting about a lot of these labels is that they skirt round the real problem. As Yi Ying-Liu observes towards the end of the piece, “What if we used a more explicit term to describe the effects of an involuted system, such as, say, “technocapitalist authoritarianism?”.”
During my brief and utterly undistinguished time playing football, I played for a Sunday League team deep in the tiers of the English pyramid—Surrey North Divison 6, or something like that. One season, we were blessed with a striker who scored goals for fun and was way out of our league. He’d played previously with a semi-professional side that had made it to a regional cup final, was selected to play, and had failed to turn up because he couldn’t cope with the stress of a big competitive occasion.
I tell this story to explain why I am a bit less sympathetic to the plight of the tennis player Naomi Osaka than I feel I ought to be.
For non-tennis watchers: Naomi Osaka is the world ranked number 2 who pulled out of the French Open tournament after declining to take part in post-match interviews for mental health reasons.
(Naomi Osaka in action. Image by Carine06, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Osaka issued a gracious statement to explain why she had withdrawn—initially she had said that she would just pay the (substantial) fine for not fulfilling her post-match interview duties:
Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
”I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.
And she has had huge support from sportspeople across the world, from many spports.
Of course, it is hard for me to take a position that seems to put me on the same side as game’s tournament organisers, since for decades there’s barely been an issue that they haven’t managed to be on the wrong side of, starting with equal prize money and continuing from there. On this occasion, true to form, the organisations that run the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments colluded in threatening to bar her from their future events, thereby instantly abandoning any legal or contractual high ground they might have hoped for.
I’m also willing to believe that while this response was primarily based on narrow perceptions of their commercial interests, it might well have been infused with racism and sexism, since Osaka is a black-Asian woman.
Top sportspeople are also different from you and me. They live on an edge that few of us experience, driven by hyper-competitiveness that is often wrapped up in a fierce psychological will to win. (There’s an intriguing LRB podcast that touches on some of this.) I don’t know if they are more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of us—depression is a pretty common illness—although it is probably more visible when they do.
But: the earnings of top sportspeople are tied up, inextricably, with television. Naomi Osaka’s career earnings to date are north of $19m. And sport on television is not just about contest and performance; it is also about narrative. The responses of players and coaches to the game is part of that narrative.
In team sports, win or lose, it’s often the coach that does the interview, and they accept, mostly, that it’s part of the job. In other sports—tennis, athletics, even Formula One—where individual performance is important, there are fewer places to hide.
And clearly we need a better way to manage this. In the same way that contact sports such as rugby union are accepting that they have a duty of care to protect against head injuries on field, there is a duty of care to protect against off the field injury. (Not requiring the loser to be interviewed unless they want to might be a start).
At the same time, the earnings that come with sport-as-narrative are not trivial, and without interviews the television sports rights would be worth less, and the players would earn less.
Osaka gives the impression that this is a trade-off that she would be willing to make, just as the former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick gave up his valuable England Test contract and turned back to county cricket when he realised that touring was bad for his mental health.
All the same, there are more options here than having to quit (Osaka) or bullying (Grand Slam organisers). The Just Two Thing here is a short post on Linked In on conflict resolution, published by the futurist Sohail Inayatullah, shared here in full:
I am impressed with Naomi Osaka. And it did not need to come to that. In the Conflict transformation futures approach (drawing on the work of Galtung, Kraybill, Boulding, Milojevic), there are numerous options.
1 One of the parties wins.
2. One of the parties withdraws.
4. Using the future to create win-win scenarios.
The latter could have been done. eg. Osaka does not appear directly but her robot look-alike or hologram does ie she does the interview from the comfort of her hotel room. Or a human representative does the interview. Or for every interview she does, the French Open donates x for those who suffer from mental health issues. Or....Many possibilities here. The key is to develop futures literacy around conflict transformation.
It’s pretty clear that no-one has won this time around.
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