A predicament of sport

Most people who have heard about but never visited Norway (and a few of those who have), probably imagine the country as pristine, fresh, spacious and white in all senses of the word (although I have to confess we are having an unseasonal mild spell right now, and the snow is vanishing at an alarming rate this evening – as I write, I hear the ominous sound of dripping water). It is all of these things, and the Norwegian tourist board and foreign ministry are projecting rustic and wild images of the country worldwide in a bid to attract tourists. However, the moment you step off the airport express train in downtown Oslo, you discover that you’ve arrived in just another European city. It is noisy, dirty and cosmopolitan. The proportion of immigrants (and their descendants) is comparable to what you’ll find in many cities on the Continent. Take a taxi, and chances are that the cab driver is a Pakistani. Take the commuter train to Holmlia, and you enter a vibrant suburb where nearly a hundred languages are spoken. A visit to a street or school in Holmlia brings you about as far as you get from the imagery of national romanticism.

The highest concentration of immigrants in Norway is in the Oslo area. One of the oldest and most established settlements is in Drammen, a largish town half an hour’s drive south of the city. In terms of nationality, the largest groups in Drammen are Turkish and Pakistani, and they have had more than their share of hostility and indifference from the majority. For many years, Muslims in Fjell (the area where most immigrants live) tried – in vain – to obtain permission from municipal authorities to build a mosque. Since the Rushdie affair and, more recently, in the years after nine-eleven, their identity as Muslims has become increasingly marked in Norwegian society. The hijab, virtually unknown a decade ago, is now used routinely by many Muslim girls and women in Drammen, and other signs of religious revitalisation are also evident in parts of the Muslim population.

At the same time as some strengthen their religious minority identity, most immigrants – Muslim or not – and their children wish to participate fully in Norwegian society. Like in other European countries, non-European immigrants in Norway are relatively underprivileged. The de facto ethnic segregation is considerable. The labour market is far from colourblind, and immigrant children generally have school results below average. There is, in other words, a general lack of shared arenas where ethnicity and religion do not serve as boundary markers, where anybody can participate, and which may serve as pathways into other sections of Norwegian society.

The task of ‘integrating’ into Norway is not easy, even – say – for an Englishman. Everyday life is governed by tacit norms and subtle codes, bits and snippets of a way of life which usually goes without saying because it comes without saying. Some cultural realms shared by most Norwegians, such as winter sports, Christmas and national pride, are simply inaccessible for a great number of immigrants.

For these and other reasons, sports and perhaps especially football (soccer) can be important when one tries to transcend ethnicity and religion. Like in many other countries, sport clubs are ubiquituous, and a boy who is a skilled footballer is almost automatically popular among his peers, regardless of his colour or surname. A man of Pakistani origin who participated in the toughest cross-country ski race of the country – an endurance test of more than fifty kilometres – made the headlines and elicited much approval. He wasn’t stupid enough to say that he did it ‘for his community’, and for that reason, he did.

Drafn, known for its football, ski and bandy, is the largest sports club in the ethnically mixed neighbourhood of Fjell. Thanks to a handful of enthusiasts who saw the importance of sports years ago, Drafn has initiated pioneering anti-racist campaigns, and have actively sought to attract minority youths for a long time. The attempts have largely been successful in so far as the active membership in Drafn is unusually variegated. However, there are problems. For some time, I have been in contact with Dag Ramberg, a board member in the club and former chairman, who has asked for my help in sorting out some issues, and perhaps to propose solutions.

This is where the difficult bit starts. The problems are easy to see, but less straightforward to grasp fully. In addition, one has to maneuvre quite skilfully in the political arenas of Drammen – it ain’t my town – to make an impact and not just be written off as a naïve dogooder from the ivory tower.

Drafn’s economic situation is precarious, partly because the parents of immigrant children tend not to contribute to voluntary work. This kind of work, which typically amounts to selling hotdogs on match days (well, if you disapprove of pork sausages, I’m sure you can be assigned to the soda fountain), organising raffles and annual flea markets, is absolutely essential for the survival of any sport club in Norway which is working with children. In my experience, an attendance of around 75% or higher is expected, although clubs rarely have effective sanctions against parents who repeatedly fail to show up. At Drafn, most immigrant parents rarely take part. It is also a cause of some irritation among ethnic Norwegians that immigrant parents rarely drive the kids to away matches – also something typically shared in the parental group.

As a result, adult immigrants relinquish an opportunity to reduce tension and prejudice, and they also lose an important arena for integrating into the local community; simultaneously, the finances of the club (Drafn) are plunged into the red. The neighbouring club Skiold (based in a largely monoethnic Norwegian area) has refused to help Drafn by taking over some of their groups, the official reason being economic. But of course, one suspects other motivations may be lurking not too far below the surface. In Drafn itself, some of the older board members have suggested, bluntly, not to accept children with a ‘foreign’ background, thereby hoping to improve the economic situation.

Against such views, Dag Ramberg takes a more holistic and inclusive position. He argues in favour of strengthening the existing positive image of sports in Fjell as being colourblind, to solicit for economic support wherever it can be had (which in Norway usually means the public authorities), and to think about the future of Fjell and Drammen in the long term. Notably, he argues that the tendency towards ‘ghettoisation’ in Fjell will prove disastrous. If new housing projects are of a kind that do not attract ethnic Norwegians (Fjell already has its share of nondescript high-rise blocks of flats), segregation will continue, Drafn and other border-crossing institutions may collapse, and the people who warn that immigration is tantamount to the creation of a permanent underclass will be proven right.

There are doubtless people in Drammen who do not really mind having most of the immigrants in one place, probably not foreseeing the social problems that are likely to arise in the near future given such a scenario. There are others who think, not entirely unreasonably, that the minority parents are to blame for the situation, and who accept that their children suffer as a consequence. Few have the foresight of Ramberg.

This is where I come in. I have been thinking recently about how to go about this. The most realistic thing to do is simply to write an article in the local newspaper, Drammens Tidende. I could easily argue that children with a future in Norway are to important to be sacrificed due to the neglect of parents with a past elsewhere. I could add that a club of this kind deserves special treatment and public subventions. I could also say that it is potentially dangerous to encourage the perpetuation of an ethnically marked, segregated working class area – better to have mixed neighbourhoods. This last argument is not uncontroversial, neither in anthropology nor elsewhere, but in the present situation in Drammen, it seems evidently sensible. One does not have to go to infamous Parisian banlieues to see the disadvantages of physical segregation in a society where everybody either participates in the same labour market or is brutally excluded.

I could say these things in the paper and add a few others. For example, I could point out that the idea of voluntary work in evenings and weekends for sport clubs, kindergartens and juvenile brass bands is a curious cultural institution which takes time to get into. I might even mention that many immigrants spend much of their free time with relatives (while Norwegians tend to be more strongly integrated in the locality) or even with ethnic or religious organisations. The reason that I am hesitating, is that (a) my intervention might easily be written off as coming from an academic Besserwisser (‘one who knows better’) with little knowledge and no experience of local circumstances; or (b) that people might understand perfectly well what I was saying – nothing there that they didn’t know already – but they would disagree. In this way, an intervention on my part could merely confirm the already widespread view that liberal cosmopolitans comprise a ‘moral élite’ with no proper understanding of, nor sympathy with, the problems of ‘ordinary people’.

I am going to write something in Drammens Tidende, but right now, I’m uncertain as to what and how. Keeping quiet would just indicate indifference, but saying the wrong things would make the situation worse. Underestimating the intelligence of the readers would be the worst sin in this debate. We’ve been debating immigrants and ‘integration’ in this country for many years now, and the last thing we need is a repetition of familiar arguments and facile moral correctness. I welcome suggestions!

6 thoughts on “A predicament of sport

  1. Re: “Drafn’s economic situation is precarious, partly because the parents of immigrant children tend not to contribute to voluntary work. This kind of work, which typically amounts to selling hotdogs on match days (well, if you disapprove of pork sausages, I’m sure you can be assigned to the soda fountain), organising raffles and annual flea markets, is absolutely essential for the survival of any sport club in Norway which is working with children. In my experience, an attendance of around 75% or higher is expected, although clubs rarely have effective sanctions against parents who repeatedly fail to show up. At Drafn, most immigrant parents rarely take part. It is also a cause of some irritation among ethnic Norwegians that immigrant parents rarely drive the kids to away matches – also something typically shared in the parental group…”

    In suburban San Francisco, when we sign our children up for after-school sports teams, we must also sign up to do our share of the “volunteer” jobs necessary to make the team run–selling, driving, providing water for games, umpiring, et cetera. There are no sanctions or control mechanisms: nothing happens if you don’t actually show up to do the volunteer job you signed up for. But it does perform the function of making sure that every parent understands what is expected of them by the coach, the team, and the other parents.

    What has happened when attempts have been made to make expectations explicit: when immigrant parents are told, “Your child has signed up to play sport X; it is expected that parents of children on the team will…”?

  2. Brad’s comment makes me think about the differences between the USA and European countries when it comes to pluralism, participation in local communities and mechanisms of social integration. In the USA, the entrance ticket to get into a community is generally cheaper than in Europe, the main reason being its past and present identity as a country of immigrants. Moreover, lacking strong welfare structures, Americans are more often confronted with a “swim or sink” attitude. As my late friend and colleague Eduardo Archetti used to say (he was from Argentina, settled in Norway for many years): “In Norway, everybody gets a second chance.” He was thinking about incompetent researchers whose grants were renewed again and again…

    I hear that most Somali men in the USA work; well, in Norway, they don’t have to and they don’t. “Wagework is not part of their culture”, as anthropologists of the previous generation might explain it. What I’m getting at is that a letter of the kind mentioned by Brad might work in San Francisco, while it might not in Drammen. At any rate, I’ll include the proposition in my article.

  3. This story sounds complicated, and very interesting. It reminded me of something from my field site (which will lead to a suggestion!). Where I work in rural Bolivia, for school activities not supported by public money — say, a graduation party at the end of each year — parents and community members are “named” as “godparents” of various aspects of the activity. So, for example, a person who is known to have extra livestock will receive a letter “naming” him “godfather of the barbecue” which means he will be expected to provide a cow or a couple of pigs or something for the party. In any event, people sort of groan when they receive these “namings” (because it is always an expensive hassle) but they are also rather pleased, and usually save the letter as a memento. The letters are always written in an extremely high-flown flowery Spanish (in a community where everyone speaks Guaraní in everyday life) and lay it on thick about how “because of the great esteem in which we hold you, we ask you to do us the honor of acting as…” and the request comes NOT from other parents, or the teachers or whatever, but from the children of the school. The request, then, is not an egalitarian “let’s all pitch in” request but one that is an appeal to generational hierarchies.

    So. This leads me to my suggestion — which might or might not address the problem, since it sounds as if the cause of under-participation by immigrant parents in soccer volunteering is unclear. It would also be a lot of work for an organizer. But: what if at the beginning of each sport season all of the parents received an “invitation” *from the children on the team* (obviously, some grownup would write it, but it would be phrased as from the children) saying something like:

    “during the soccer season, we children come to feel as if we are members of one big family and that our teammates are like our sisters and our brothers. Because of this, we want to honor our own parents, and one another’s parents, across the season. Please let us know at which game or games we can look forward to hosting you as “team parents”.

    This invitation should be delivered by children, on behalf of their teammates, to parents — rather than laterally extended by some parents to other parents.

    I don’t think any parents will be surprised to learn there is a “helping the kids” component to this great honor, but if a little ritual marked the kids showing respect to the parents — say, the kids filing by and shaking the hands of the parents running the soda stand or whatever and thanking them by name before or after the game — it could become a nice little ritual.

    Without knowing much about the cultural values of the immigrant populations in question, I am going to hazard a guess that requests phrased in the idiom of fictive kinship — and requests that reinforce something like “youngers respecting elders, and elders helping youngers” might result in a higher yield rate. In effect, having parents share the responsiblity of running games would reinforce good Norwegian values — while the children simultaneously honoring their own and one anothers’ parents at each game would reinforce values held (I am supposing) by immigrants and Norwegians alike.

  4. I hear that most Somali men in the USA work; well, in Norway, they don’t have to and they don’t.

    Are you absolutely 100% certain that the parents in question have both the time and the resources (a car and enough money for gas) that is required in order to fulfil these “duties”?

    And also, woudn’t it be easier in Norway to make the government pay for buses to out-of-town games for all the sports clubs? That would probably be a lot more environmentally friendly anyways (and yes, the snow melting in the beginning of January in Oslo probably is a clear sign that one needs to change ones habits anyways).

    It also seems to me like there is a little bit of a one-sided focus changing the behavior of immigrants here – but who says that the Norwegian behavior is sustainable? Rumors have it that it was only the old East Germany and the current Norway that spend enough on sports for it to be a discernable figure on the budget. Is that really a good thing? Is it a good thing that parents spend all their time on trying to turn their kids into professionals of whatever sport? How much pressure is being put onto these kids from their parents? Is this really a “culture” that needs to be supported, or would it maybe be a better idea to make all youth sports in the country turn the pressure a bit down by focusing less on competition and making the parents go home to carry on their own life instead?

    And also, for many members of minorities,things like school and group activity with other youngsters are the only places where one can escape the norms and rules that ones parents seem to be caught within, but which oneself can not really see the point in. Now if you have the parents invade the soccer field as well, then that window of freedom is gone as well!

  5. Thanks for your comments, Ozma and Johannes. This is indeed complicated. One the one hand, it is easy to agree with Johannes about certain questionable aspects of contemporary leisure activities involving children. But children’s football in Norway is not particularly competitive before the age of 12-13; everybody gets the same playing time, and coaches emphasise the collective nature of the game. It is also an enormously powerful integrating force and can, by the same token, be socially excluding for boys (in some places girls as well) who do not take part. Especially immmigrant boys, who are already in a precarious situation, being part of the local sport club is one of their few possibilities for full, equal participation. One might opt out, or promote wide-ranging changes of the kind suggested by Johannes. And, as the other dads and I often say to each other when we meet on the training ground: When we were children, our parents never drove us anywhere, and we didn’t seem to mind. They did not feel it was necessary, and they had other things to do. (As if we did not!) So my father’s generation shared, to some extent, the outlook of contemporary immmigrant fathers.

    The context in question is not the place to question the overall role of sport in children’s lives and public life in general, even if I agree with Johannes that there are critical questions which need to be raised at some point here. Bussing the kids to away matches is a good idea, and it is not utopian, but it would only solve a part of the problem. which is chiefly economic.

    Now, Ozma’s suggestion is excellent. Good manners and respect for elders are two of the things many immigrants miss among Norwegian children (and in Norwegian society generally). Like in any unhappy relationship, it takes two to tango, and ethnic Norwegians have clearly not taken the communication problem sufficiently seriously in this case.

    I think I’m ready to write that op-ed article now. Before that, however, I have a new blog to write on Savage Minds.

  6. I have an idea, why dont you guys have a wewigious cawicatuwe contest? You can aww dwaw siwwy dwawings of majow wewigious figuwes, wike Jesus, Buddha, Mohamad,Dawi Wama, etc. Dis wouwd be a gweat way to “cuwtuwawwy bond” wif diffewent, but eqwaw, ethnic gwoups. Oh, dat scwewy wabbit!

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