“A woman friend of mine said to me recently ‘I don’t understand what you find engrossing about overgrown men jumping all over each other.’ Now, I don’t know what other people see when they watch a football game, but what I don’t see is overgrown men jumping all over each other. I see the most intricate, complex and theoretical game in all of sport. A game that is at once utterly physical and completely mental.”
~~Robert Harrison, Introduction to In Praise of Athletic Beauty: A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Saturday, September 17, 2005)
“Sport is a fascination in the true sense of the word – a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying an explanation for its attraction.”
~~Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, In Praise of Athletic Beauty: A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Saturday, September 17, 2005)
What is sport?
We could go to the dictionary. But really, where’s that going to get us?
Many dismiss sport as mere entertainment, a distraction from the so-called ‘real world’. Some go so far as to label it a ‘waste of time’, as unimportant, as something for the ignorant. A pacifier? Unfortunately, sport is often dismissed as the realm of the lug-head, the oaf, the hooligan.
But is a good life only concerned with politics, with economics, with all the doings of everyday life? “It’s only a game,” they say. “This is important.” Why?
Why is watching sports considered inauthentic or as an escape from ‘real life’? Is it a distraction? Many would have you believe it is. But much of this resistance, this disdain for sport lies somewhere in division of what is ‘real’, of this world and important. Real life, reality is in your profession, in your material situation, in your day to day life. These are the things that matter. Sport is somewhere else, whimsical and luxurious. Something to be concerned with, engaged in at the expense of something more meaningful, something deeper. But what could be deeper than the sheer appreciation of beauty for it own sake?
Is not a full life one concerned with both the material concerns of life as well as the appreciation of beauty? For what is a human being but an animal capable of writing poetry, of dancing, of beating the goalie high glove-side!
Poetry is important. Dancing as well. So what exactly makes sport different from other forms of human expression? Why isn’t the perfect game, the winning goal, or a spectacular serve not comparable to the perfectly held high-note, the magnificent pirouette, or the stirring soliloquy?
So again, why is sport so often relegated to the sidelines of intelligent discussion?
It hasn’t always been this way. The early Olympians were demi-gods, almost transcendent in their straddling of the mortal and immortal realms. The Romans recognised the aesthetic qualities of sport, competition, in the perfect movement of the body through space, time, in the admiration for idealised form.
There is something almost transcendental about sport, something that unites us through the ages and across the world. It is a universal language. Something we can all understand.
Pindar wrote in praise of victory.
If ever a man strives
With all his soul's endeavour, sparing himself
Neither expense nor labour to attain
True excellence, then must we give to those
Who have achieved the goal, a proud tribute
Of lordly praise, and shun
All thoughts of envious jealousy.
To a poet's mind the gift is slight, to speak
A kind word for unnumbered toils, and build
For all to share a monument of beauty.
(Isthmian I, antistrophe 3)
Indeed, there is a certain existential centrality to sport.
The reality is present in the complexity, the intellectual and physical sophistication of the play. It is in the violence. All sport has at its core an essential violence, whether it be hidden as in tennis or out in the open like boxing. Indeed, the essentiality of boxing is in its violence. The nobility of putting oneself in front of death, of starring into the dark abyss of the human soul, of accepting the mostly suppressed rage that still dwells within us.
Sports such as football or hockey contextualise the violence. They ritualise violence. Re-enact it, play it out and legitimise it. But they also contain violence. Dispose of violence through intelligence. They complexify the violence and give it context. It separates the thug from the athlete, the brawler from the fighter.
A fist is a blunt weapon, but when used skilfully is turned into something of such accuracy and devastation...It turns the blunt to the sharp.
Jack Ramsey, the Hall of Fame coach of the Portland Trailblazers basketball club, when asked what he would want to do if he wasn’t coaching basketball, responded that he would like to teach dance.
Sport has the intransitive quality of being 'for itself'. No further justification or ‘reading’ is necessary. To win. To lose. Perfect emotions that leave no room for interpretation – and yet we continue to feel the need to interpret, to explain, to analyse... if only to fill TV time.
It is too often only discussed in terms of results, numbers, statistics. But is sport though merely a collection of statistics, of trades and free-agent signings? Is it nothing more than the results on the field and position on the leader board?
I was recently accosted by an acquaintance of mine. He was extolling the virtues of the third-line defensive pairing that the Vancouver Canucks were bringing into Nashville (they play hockey in Nashville? Huh.) and I must have had a decidedly blank look on my face as he interrupted his thought to ask whether I had a clue what he was talking about. I responded that indeed, no, I had not a clue what in fact he was on about. Shaking his head gravely, he stated that I wasn’t really a hockey fan, was I.
But, I am. I love hockey. The smooth back and forth, the speed, the quick pass, the streaking breakaway, the crashing hit. I love the epic struggles, the heroic triumphs, the noble defeats. I think there is nothing better than the seven-game series. But I could care less for the minutia of off-ice drama.
“I often hear from my colleagues who are astonished at how much time I invest in watching sport, being in the stadium, how much money I invest. No, this is not a marginal thing. It’s not where I relax. I can’t say that.”
~~Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
When we watch, we rarely do so passively. We ingest every move with our entire body. Emotions are released and we are allowed to feel fully, completely. Watching is to participate in the spectacle, to play a role.
William Carlos Williams wrote about the crowd at the baseball game...
the crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness which delights them—
all the exciting detail of the chase
and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—
all to no end save beauty
So in detail they, the crowd,
to be warned against
saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous
it smiles grimly
its words cut—
The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight— it
is deadly, terrifying—
It is the Inquisition, the
It is beauty itself
day by day in them
the power of their faces
It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing
“The reason we care about sport, the reason we follow teams and athletes year after year, often passing that allegiance down through generations, isn’t because of the spectacle, isn’t because of the superhuman feats. It is because they represent us, sometimes as symbols requiring much suspension of disbelief, sometimes in the most direct way possible... They represent our tribe, who we are, where we come from, where we live. That’s the core of a rooting interest – self affirmation, community affirmation, national affirmation, cheering for ourselves, for home.”
There is a Shakespearian quality to the important matches. The emotions are perfect, unadulterated by the outside, by other concerns, other realities, other subtleties. They are perfectly contained within the moment, within the play, within the game itself.
It is to be fully and completely in the moment, committed to the now.
It is in the triumph of overcoming adversity, the drama of improvisation, the heartbreak of loss and failure that so intrigues us. It is the perfection of human drama. The intrinsic worth of every moment explained in its very existence. Every moment, every decision, every exertion amplified and exposed. Every play revealed for the beauty and importance contained within it. Every moment meaningful.
We often overlook that sport is always and will forever be a tragedy. There are always more losers than winners. Every win is accompanied by loss. Every feat of heroics paralleled by an equally heroic feat of failure. For every victor, a thousand more vanquished and defeated.
To watch a competitor at the height of his skill, someone almost superhuman, lose, fail is to redeem our own failures, our own shortcomings. Their loss is our redemption, our salvation. Their losses make our own smaller, and remind us that in the end, loss is the most human of experiences.
It is in the end about loss, but more than that about the triumph of the human spirit as it rises above, that shakes itself off and tries again. It is about redemption....
We revel in our wins, but can always sympathise with the loser. For how many of us truly consider ourselves winners? No, I think that in our hearts, we are all losers. And while we do rejoice in victory, there is a lot of comfort in the losses.
Sport, at its pinnacle, is a purely authentic human experience, and can be nothing but. It’s completely self-contained. It simply is. It needs no explanation.
It's human life reflected back on itself. It's fate, Fortuna, karma played out in real time.
We are sometimes told that more offense is better. But why? Who said more goals, more touchdowns, more baskets are better than fewer? I rarely watch sports highlights. A game is a whole. It is the balance. A balance between the offense and defence that is so beautiful, that makes the sport worth watching. It is in the resistance and the resistance overcome where we find the great plays, the moments of pure inspiration, of imagination and beauty.
We can see this in particular with those who will tell you baseball is boring. Baseball is a perfectly balanced sport in which offense and defence dance in harmony. Nothing happens you’ll hear them say. Nothing happens until something does. And then it’s an explosion. A moment of overcoming. And then the balance is restored, the game begins again. In baseball a perfect game is by definition a games in which ‘nothing happens’. And yet this could not be further from the truth. It is a game in which the pitcher (offense or defence...rather ambiguous if one were to really ponder it for a while) overcomes the resistance of the batters so completely that he able to make it appear as though nothing is happening. It is total domination.
And it is in this domination that the beauty is expressed.
To me, the beauty of sport is contained in the moment, on the field (or ice), in the expression of human will. It is in, as Kant would have it, the ‘purposefulness without purpose’ that sport finds its highest expression.
Sport is above all the physical expression of the human form and soul, the physical and metal, body and brain coordinated and acting as one. It is in the striving towards perfection, the overcoming, in the triumphs and defeats that the human story is told.
But in the end, sport can have no other end save the beauty of the human experience.