Spanning centuries, sport competitions likely arose initially as preparation to repel invasion or assault by lawless groups/individuals or as a survival strategy; the idea being to stay in a continual state of physical and mental readiness to repel those who would attack to destroy life and property. They also likely involved elements of competition for prizes when not a part of military defense or conquest, the spoils of conquest being another form of prize.
It is significant to distinguish between physical competitions as good-natured challenges for the sake of competition and those that function as rehearsal for the purposes of injuring, disabling, maiming, or killing the opponents in preparation for military combat or aggression against others. Curbing or sublimating aggressive tendencies would be the goal of the former, while unleashing them would be the goal of the latter.
In addition to the more obvious physical and mental conditioning these “games” provide, the gradual shift in thinking in society as a whole towards acceptance of increasingly aggressive and brutal action is also important to consider. Some wonder if fiction like the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy take us further into accepting violence or aggressive behavior.
The common meaning of “bloodsport” involves shedding blood and/or killing an animal or person. The objective of the encounter is to make the opponent bleed or die. Many sporting activities may have a side effect of spilled blood or physical injury as a part of the game (being hit in the face by a basketball and getting a bloody nose), wherein bloodsport competitions include an intent to shed the opponent’s blood as part of the strategy (punching a boxing opponent in the face and spilling blood can obscure his vision and impair his ability). However, competitions for the purpose of killing an opponent remain illegal in most modern, civilized societies.
Such “games” have been played for millennia, so a look at some can give us perspective.
Two of the earliest forms of bloodsport come to us from ancient art. We know of the bull-leaping and boxing of ancient Minoan culture on Crete only from frescoes and pottery, so we can only speculate on the hows and whys of these activities: how did the competitions proceed and why were they held? Could there even have been religious motivations? We do not know if these events were to-the-death or scored by some scale within a time period simply to show off ability.
The bloody pankration (pan-krat’-eeon) of ancient Greece and Spartan city-state training of their young boys next come into view from history. Pankration is a form of hand-to-hand combat that did not make use of any weapon (somewhat like 21st century mixed martial arts/cage fighting), without rules or taboo actions–anything went. In the Military History Channel video series Warriors: “The Spartans” (2009?), hosted by Terry Schappert, we are told Pankration eventually was an Olympic event, but Spartans were banned from competition because of their training to kill rather than simply to overcome or disarm an opponent—too many non-Spartans were dying at their hands in the competition. The pankration of these Greek Olympic Games was NOT intended to be to the death.
Graeco-Roman wrestling was a later style of hand-to-hand combat that did not allow use of feet and legs except for remaining upright. Competitors grappled each other only from the waist up to try to force the opponent to lose his footing and go down, but wrestling around on the ground or kicking/leg locks to immobilize or pin an opponent were not allowed.
Suzanne Collins obviously drew on the gladiatorial games from ancient Rome in The Hunger Games. In this ancient Roman bloodsport, many participants were criminals or prisoners of war, so the arena gave them a chance to die fighting and met a social/civil call for justice for their crimes. Most, but not all, were to the death. Later forms of the games included fighting with and slaughtering thousands of wild game animals from distant regions of the empire. The Romans built arguably the strongest military in the history of civilizations, so the gladiatorial games were NOT preparation for civil defense or national security. They were meant for spectacle and entertainment…and for addressing the criminal element in society. Possibly originating in Etruscan funerary rituals, this combat evolved into a show of Roman dominance over the peoples they conquered and, more sinister, a vehicle by which ambitious politicians could raise their own name recognition as sponsors of such games. Gladiators were to accept the fate of death when it came with a stoic resignation. Spartacus disagreed…. The gladiatorial games went out of popularity in the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
In the Middle Ages medieval jousting became the competition of choice to keep sharp the physical strength and military prowess of the knight class. From the various Arthur tales and others, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we are informed of the structured formality of these challenges. Even the now-genteel and intellectual board game of chess has its roots as a military strategy exercise among medieval kings for outwitting opponents. (We know of a red-headed wizard chess player, don’t we…?) Ostensibly to train certain ones of the nobility for defense of the kingdom, knighthood returned the joust competition to a non-lethal form of practice for self-protection/civil defense, though the entertainment value must be acknowledged.
On the other side of the world a sport similar to Graeco-Roman wrestling, Sumo wrestling in Japan, has its 17th century origins in a trial of strength in one-on-one combat and as a form of spiritual testing, where a human is said to wrestle with a Shinto divine spirit. The winner of a sumo match is either the first wrestler to force his opponent to step out of the ring, or the first wrestler to force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet. On rare occasions, the referee or judges may award the win to the wrestler who touched the ground first. This happens if both wrestlers touch the ground at nearly the same time, and it is decided that the wrestler who touched the ground second had no chance of winning, his opponent’s superior sumo having put him in an irrecoverable position. It is interesting to note that the losing wrestler in this case is referred to as being shini-tai (“dead body”), even though not actually killed. Sumo competition was an important ritual at the imperial court, where representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fight (sounds familiar…). The contestants were required to pay for their travels themselves. The contest was known as sumai no sechie, or “sumai party” (Shigeru Takayama. “Encyclopedia of Shinto:Sumō”. http://eos.kokugakuin.ac.jp.). [A party? Makes me think of the Geico commercial with the sumo figure skater… “and now to finish with the ‘Baby Bird’ …” 8-)]
During the Renaissance, dueling (a la Mercutio and Tybalt, Hamlet and Laertes with rapiers) found its expression in self-aggrandizing revenge seekers, operating more like gangs than ordered, disciplined military units. We stereotypically think of the pistols-at-dawn, “Suh, you have insulted mah honor,” cheek-slap-with-a-glove form of dueling, but it started with blade weapons and progressed to firearms as the technology became affordable and available. These one-on-one competitions (of sorts) eventually became illegal because of their potential for disruption to civil society if allowed in public. Through the Enlightenment and Industrial Ages German fencing societies arose. Men engaged in this bloodsport with swords to the point of cutting each other on the cheek, but not to the death. The scar on the cheek was seen more as an honorable sign of one’s ability to stand and take the blow rather than of one’s ability to inflict it. This was a show of daring and skill to wound but not kill. (Search Wikipedia for “Dueling Scars.”)
The twentieth century saw the growth and development of the distinction between professional sports and professional military/law enforcement and the separation of athletic competition for its own sake rather than as training or conditioning for possible military action. Cultural studies scholars smarter than I have observed that modern professional sports (football, futbol, baseball, basketball, mixed martial arts, cage fighting/Ultimate Fighting Championship, World Wrestling Entertainment, and others) are a form of sublimation for aggressive tendencies—physical competitions to express or vent aggression without the fatal results and widespread social damage. (It occurred to me while writing that the rise of popularity for professional sports seems to parallel the Cold War—no open confrontation militarily, so we substituted athletic confrontations to defuse that tension….) They continue to serve as idle entertainment for spectators (though those hooligan futbol spectators do get way too serious about their team spirit when fights and near-riots break out). But we also see in the news media a seemingly increasing number of professional athletes arrested for domestic violence, public altercations, automobile accidents, rape, and other crimes involving physical and verbal aggression outside the field of competition. If they, as adults, have a difficult time “turning off” the aggression off-field or off-court, how much more so would less emotionally developed young people have a hard time making the distinction? And acting to counter it? We have to keep these unintended consequences in mind as we support our teams.
Of course, there are numerous other forms of sport not discussed here. Others more capable than I can dig into them for their illumination on these two literary series. In discussing these physical competitions and their effects on conditioning society, particularly the young in society, it is also important to distinguish the intent of the physical exercises between offensive/aggressive actions and defensive actions. Though two football teams facing off on the gridiron or two basketball teams on the court may have a superficial resemblance to opposing armies facing each other on the battlefield, the football/basketball players are not trained to kill their opponents, nor is the capture or death of the other team a goal. Boxing and cage fighting both have the goal of coercion of an opponent into submission via brute physical force only just short of death. Karate and other martial arts are viewed as training for self-defense and a form of spiritual discipline, most with the goal of defense rather than aggression. The spiritual discipline is about thinking one’s way through a situation and recognizing when the use of force is appropriate or not. Many moves also train one to meet force with alternative movements rather than stronger force.
Though various ones of these involve the potential for spilling blood to varying degrees, I hesitate to use the term “bloodsport” in reference to the Harry Potter saga because the object of the games in the series is not expressly to spill blood or kill. But there are superficial similarities in several of Rowling’s athletic activities.
Quidditch comes immediately to mind. Broom-flying prowess is the appeal with Quidditch, whether chaser, beater, keeper, or seeker. Each position showcases the flyer’s unique abilities, but aside from the scoring competition, Quidditch is not intended expressly as preparation for battle. This broom-flying expertise serves Harry well while passing time at the Weasley’s before returning to Hogwarts, in the first task of the Tri-wizard Tournament, and in the inferno of the Room of Requirement in the Battle for Hogwarts. Although there is a risk of serious injury from a fall at great heights, the injury is not the objective. Developing expertise with a broom, teamwork, and good-natured competition are.
Defense Against the Dark Arts class, the name implies, is supposed to teach defensive strategies, not offensive, take-action-first strategies. Compare the approaches of Lupin and faux-Moody with Umbridge. Lupin and faux-Moody expose the students to increasingly risky forms of danger in a controlled circumstance to help them understand how to handle the situation and practice using an appropriate level of magic. The killing or cruciatus curses would work against a boggart, but as the creature does not pose a fatal or injurious threat, the riddikulus charm will suffice. Umbridge, on the other hand, makes no distinction and refuses to teach any defensive spells at all. For her, ignoring the threat is enough to take away its power. Interestingly enough, even though Snape has long coveted the DADA position, when he finally gets it in HBP, his conduct of the class is not described. The featured professor is Slughorn, the Potions master…
The wizard chess match in PS involves the chess pieces attacking each other with gusto as they are moved around the board. The transfigured set is Professor McGonagall’s obstacle contribution, an aggressive challenge in the defense/protection of the philosopher’s stone. Although we may rationalize chess as a “harmless board game” of 2 ½” pieces, the subtle way in which it desensitizes the players to the use of force and aggression needs more consideration.
The dueling club in CoS (involving wands/charms instead of swords or pistols) is an attempt to start students on their ways to being able to defend themselves (Lockhart is the DADA professor for the year), yet because they are school children, the parameters of the “game” are tightly and artificially controlled. The intent is well-meaning, but the application is misleading in that wizard duels seldom take the almost ritualized form of each participant taking his turn at casting spells. In “real” life it is a free-for-all: Harry & Co. against Lucius Malfoy & Co. in the Department of Mysteries in OoP; the fight between Harry and Draco and fighting Deatheaters near the end of HBP; and the repeated fights in DH.
The Tri-wizard Tournament in GoF turns student attention from good-natured competition to potentially deadly bloodsport. Notice Rowling’s contrast of the non-lethal World Quidditch Cup in the first few chapters with the no-holds-barred, serious-injury-or-death, survival-is-a-win character of the tasks of the TW tournament—roasted by a dragon, drowned in the black lake, or killed by the sphinx, acromantula, or blast-ended skrewt in the maze. The “items” stolen from the champions for the second task turn out to be friends or loved ones, and the champions think that if they do not rescue them within the time limit, they will drown. (Quidditch matches are not held at Hogwarts this year in favor of the TW Tournament.) Although Viktor, Fleur, and Cedric choose to enter as possible champions, Harry does not. True enough, the Ministry of Magic restricts entries to those who are of legal age with the assumption that they accept the consequences of mistakes or failure in the tournament. Yet the adults do not intervene to stop Harry’s participation.
At least in the earlier novels, the “sport” element is there along with the risk of physical injury of contact sports, even if the object is not death or serious injury. And the risk of injury is down-played or minimized. Because of Voldemort’s return the kids form Dumbledore’s Army in OoP to get some form of self-protection for defense, not, as Umbridge/Fudge believe, as an offensive attack squad. Harry is suspended from the Quidditch team this year as punishment for challenging Umbridge’s authority, so he does not have that physical outlet to work through his emotional frustration. (Interesting side question: If Harry had been able to continue playing Quidditch, would he have had emotional energy to lead the DA?) Yet, the exercises he runs the DA trainees through have the intent to prevent or stop aggression, not inflict injury: petrificus totalus—freeze/stop action, expelliarmus–disarm, expecto patronum–shield, stupefy–dumbfound, and so on. In addition, he does not lead the DA as a form of retaliation for Umbridge’s unfair treatment, to “get back at” her. And some of the DA are tested for real in the Department of Mysteries before the year is over.
Although not “bloodsport” in the sense of actively trying to draw blood, inflict injury, or kill, these competitions/exercises build the characters’ tolerance (and that of readers) for the increasingly aggressive forms of action they have to take to defeat Voldemort and his Deatheaters. It is the gradual psychological change that we get concerned about.
In HBP Quidditch is back, Harry fights with Draco, and Deatheaters assault Hogwarts. In this novel Rowling juxtaposes the comparatively tame nature of intramural Quidditch matches (remember the comic first-of-year tryouts scene) with the increasingly threatening presence of Deatheaters as the year progresses. When Harry confronts Draco about hexing Katie Bell, he nervously and in the heat of the fight uses the “sectum sempra” spell on Draco, without knowing what the results will be. But once he finds out, he does not use it repeatedly. (He tries it in anger against Professor Snape after Snape kills Dumbledore, but Snape deflects it easily and informs Harry that he is its creator. After this, Harry does not use the spell again.) In the last couple chapters the DA kids are able to stand their ground against the Deatheaters inside Hogwarts until the faculty are roused to join in the assault, largely due to Harry’s tutelage the previous year (and a little help from felix…).
The final novel provides the no-holds-barred use of magic both to inflict injury and in defense against injury. No practice exercises here. The few remaining DA kids at Hogwarts resort to more passive resistance than outright confrontations with the Deatheaters now on the faculty throughout most of the year. But in the Battle for Hogwarts they are a significant force against the Deatheaters. The previous couple years of training well-prepared them for the actual life-and-death struggle they face.
Throughout the series from Chamber of Secrets to Deathly Hallows, Harry’s signature spell is what? “Expelliarmus”—the disarming spell, a defensive spell to take away the wand of an opponent, not an aggressive spell to inflict injury. He even uses it in the final confrontation with Voldemort when Voldemort is using the “Avada kedavra” killing curse on him. Yes, this goes along with the “love trumps hate” theme of the series, and it shows that deadly force can be opposed successfully by other-than-deadly resistance.
The gradual conditioning of characters (and readers) to accept and maybe engage in or cheer on aggressive behaviors and attitudes gives us pause to consider, even if the storyline does not explicitly or positively promote such behavior. How much more willing are we to accept such behavior in others or to stand by and watch others engage in it and not oppose it? The increases in the bullying phenomenon in society should not be a surprise.
On the other hand, “bloodsport” is exactly the term to use in describing The Hunger Games trilogy.
The central plots across the three books and within each novel focus on characters as aggressors in the kill-or-be-killed annual Hunger Games arenas and revolution in the Capitol. All are to the death and require physical and mental challenge/warfare. Collins is definitely commenting on the use of adolescents in military service. In fact, part of her inspiration was televised Iraq war news footage juxtaposed with reality TV programming and how callously, unthinkingly, we viewers flip past them in our search for entertainment. In an interview in Inside Higher Ed about her book Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, Barbara Toblowsky discusses the way visual media contribute to this conditioning:
Gabriel Weimann in Communicating Unreality (2000) explored the concept of “cultivation,” which argues that repeated and consistent depictions over time both reflect and inform public views. … When these views are expressed over time and in a range of media, they become impossible for all viewers/players/readers to avoid, even if some members of the audience have yet to form an opinion. This makes the representations very powerful — and instructive.
Although Weimann and Toblowsky are discussing film and television depictions of college life, the basic idea of repeated, frequent portrayals reinforcing the depiction as “that’s the way it is” is the important part. The more often we see a situation depicted in a certain way, the more readily we accept that depiction as “normal” or “acceptable.” The more frequently we see portrayals of aggressive fight to-the-death, the more we are willing to accept that sort of action as acceptable.
Panem’s President Snow has cultivated the narrative of rebellious districts, not grateful to or appreciative of the beneficent Capitol, that must be kept under control to prevent future uprisings and social disruption. Capitol TV controls what the districts see for news and entertainment. As the first book opens, the inhabitants of the Districts have accepted this narrative after 73 years of repeated presentations of the first rebellion. The squalor of living conditions, severe food rationing, lack of mobility and job advancement in the Districts all work together to grow a society controlled by a small elite group that believes it may do as it pleases with the society….including the to-the-death competition of the Hunger Games. After 75 years there are few who even remember the first rebellion (apart from the narrative of President Snow) and the latest couple of generations have shown no signs of rebelling. They appear to have accepted the situation.
We can contrast Tributes and Peacekeepers in terms of untrained civilians versus highly trained law enforcement/military personnel. Tributes are drawn from all districts and are from whatever the working-class caste of that district is: miners, fishermen, farmers, and so on. But peacekeepers only come from District 2 (which is also the only district allowed to have career tributes and train them).
Compare the career tributes from District 2 to all other tributes from the other districts. The career tributes receive training as aggressors, not defensive resistors, before the reaping each year. The training includes both physical maneuvers/actions and tactical planning strategies. But the other districts are not allowed to give their teenage population any training at all towards the Hunger Games. Their only training is in the week before the actual game starts. Their previous life experience has not conditioned them to handle the aggressive physical and psychological attacks by the career tributes. And the psychological trauma of facing a probably brutal and painful death makes them incapable of thinking past mere survival. This puts them at a huge disadvantage in the arena.
A second form of disadvantage is in the selection of adolescents aged 12-18 to be Tributes—the youngest, often the physically weakest, compete against the oldest, often the physically strongest. Even without the long-term training, poorly trained 18-year-olds are physically more developed than poorly trained and undernourished 13-year-olds. This would be due to the older teens having some vocational training to prepare them for the work of the district.
The intrigue of the formation and dissolution of alliances in the game contributes to the psychological warfare that goes on during the game as a form of mental/psychological bloodsport. It may be the more damaging in the long term—the drugged-out “morphling” tributes; Finnick the male prostitute; Haymitch the alcoholic; Joanna the unhinged; the career tribute brother-sister berserker team Brutus and Enobaria; the apparent incomprehensibility of Beetee and Wiress. All struggle with various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder from their “wins” in the games. These winners are all coping with memories of their time in the games and living with themselves in the knowledge that they took the lives of others who had done them no wrong. The week of physical and strategic training just before the game begins does nothing to prepare tributes for the psychological warfare and its aftermath for the survivors.
Collins is careful to limit Katniss’s aggressive actions to the fewest number of deaths as possible: the boy who killed Rue and Cato in Book 1; no kills in Book 2 (though she is shocked at the killings that result during the Tributes Tour of the Districts); the unknown Capitol resident and President Coin in Book 3. In the first book her killings are a reaction to the aggression of someone else, not initiated by her, or a mercy killing for Cato at the end of the game. In the second book Katniss is on defense and trying to avoid as many of the other Tributes as possible. In this book we also see Haymitch’s winning strategy—hide out for as long as possible until as many other tributes kill off each other as possible. By the third book Katniss has become so accustomed to the aggression around her that she shoots an innocent Capitol resident who could become an informant on the actions of Squad 451, and she sees that President Coin presents a continuing threat at the end and shoots her instead of Snow.
In Mockingjay we learn of the highly structured life of District 13, its people always on standby for military action in self-defense. Simulations of different possible attack scenarios would have been substitutes for the real thing. Its armament stockpile is for defensive purposes rather than offensive. Yet, the leadership has hesitated to initiate aggression against the Capitol until Katniss appears as a rallying figure for the other districts. They know 13 cannot take on the Capitol by itself, but they are definitely ready to lead the other districts when that occasion arises.
It is interesting that, while both Rowling and Collins profess personal anti-war sentiments and put anti-war themes in their fiction, both also have their characters draw lines for acceptable behavior, past which they are definitely willing and aggressive in standing firm against wrongs committed and the coming “evil”; in effect, to go to war for those beliefs. These authors are careful to make sure that it is the very last resort, but neither takes it out of the discussion entirely. Discussion of their uses of bloodsport in their imaginative worlds has important implications for us readers.
In our world outside Hogwarts and Panem we have to be mindful about how we expose our youth to the non-lethal competitions and the potential for passive conditioning that makes them more aggressive and lethal activities of military action easier to accept/tolerate and engage in. Maybe it is a matter of perspective—one view decries the exposure earlier in life as making it easier to accept the aggression and violence into adulthood. The other view accepts the exposure as preparation for the external threats more informed in how to stop or defeat those threats with both non-lethal and lethal means if there is no other option. It is not a matter of one view being somehow morally superior to the other. Both perspectives are needed to handle life. Of course we want to avoid confrontation and take active steps that way. But when the confrontation cannot be avoided, we need to be able to answer that as well.
Competitions are not new, nor will they go away anytime soon. It is the spirit in which we engage the competition and the lengths to which we will go to win, that we need to keep in mind. The priorities we set help us determine our level of effort in those contests and the “real-life” situations they mirror.
At the encouragement of Kris Swank, author of “Harry Potter & The Hunger Games: Part 1, The Hero’s Journey” and “Part 2, Dystopias” (previously published at The Hog’s Head), I took on the third article of her series, “Part 3, Bloodsport in Panem and Hogwarts.” Please enjoy the previous pieces at the links above!