Across the world, every week, millions of men and women descend on stadia in homage to sporting spectacles. Countless others, of all ages, slouch before TV sets, and even squint into smartphones to satisfy a compulsive appetite, which I know too well. In Ireland we have a particular grá for team sports, as participants but mostly as viewers, or even as virtual participants, with the advent of video games.
The rewards for sportsmen, in particular, are stupendous, but the inequalities increasingly stark. For all the heroes receiving the adulation of the assembled masses, there are countless others left on an unforgiving scrapheap, sometimes even injured for life by the ruthless demands of their professions.
The popularity of sport as entertainment stretches far back into history, of Europe in particular. The gathering of crowds for sporting occasions was a feature of societies during Classical Antiquity, where spectacles were linked to religious worship. Dedicated to Zeus, the Panhellenic Olympics of Ancient Greece ran from 776BC until 393AD, attracting participants from all the Greek cities, affirming a collective identity in the process. Today the divine survives as sporting metaphor.
Later, Ancient Romans were fanatically devoted to circus, involving gladiatorial duels to the death, to which the impressive ruins of the Colosseum attest. It was the poet Juvenela (d.c. AD100) who witheringly identified bread and circus as the means by which the political temper of his countrymen was becalmed.
On a less impressive scale, sport continued as an important feature of life in medieval Europe, where knights tested their valour in vainglorious jousts, often for the edification of damsels. Moreover, an obsession with hunting, steeped in ritual rather than necessity, was also evident among those at the apex of the feudal pyramid. Pursuit of animals was not motivated by their utility as food, still referred to, revealingly, as ‘game’: its consumption conferred a status beyond gastronomic pleasure. The hunt habituated men to the sight of bloodshed, and the thrill of the kill.
Pre-modern sports bore a close resemblance to warfare, and the conditioning of a participant overlapped significantly with a warrior’s training. Tests of physical prowess such as wrestling – advantageous on the battlefield – have long been popular, but also skills such as archery, or javelin, drawn directly from warfare or hunting. An audience could experience the thrill of battle without risking dismemberment; lurid passions sublimated in the gruesome spectacle. Whether this appreciation whetted or becalmed a thirst for blood is debatable.
George Orwell assumed the worst claiming: ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’. But to deny the pleasure that an audience derives seems curmudgeonly, and sport is often a source of community in otherwise lonely circumstances, that need not depend on antipathy towards the opponent. Such animosities as do arise may express underlying tensions; as when Hooliganism in Britain came to prominence after Thatcherism ripped apart the social fabric of that society.
The nineteenth century incubated most of the world’s sport in Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. There, mass attendance of sporting events by a new working class originates. Stadiums that could accommodate tens of thousands sprang up in fast-growing cities to satisfy a new-found appetite for weekend leisure activities. During the nineteenth century in Britain we find the codification of sports such as Football, Cricket, Rugby (Union and League), tennis, and field hockey all of which now have a global reach. We also see games such as golf, and motor racing emerging in more rarefied circles. Interesting, it is mainly in the Anglosphere that alternative sports emerged to confront the British invasion; in the United States, basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey; while in Ireland the GAA developed its own distinctive codes. This demonstrates the importance of sport as a source of identity in an English-speaking world where other culture markers, such as gastronomic appreciation, were less marked. In James Joyce’s Ulysses the character of the Cyclops is generally identified with the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, who spouts the xenophobic bile Orwell would expect. It is striking that most non-English-speaking countries have had far less compunction about absorbing originally British sports into their culture.
The popular sports in our time depart from Classical and medieval precedent – notwithstanding the revival of the Olympics in 1896 – in the skills demanded of the participants. Although most contemporary sports still require serious athleticism, their skill set would be of no particular use to a soldier, especially one engaged in modern, technological warfare; perhaps a gamer might be more useful. Nonetheless, modern sport remains tinged with martial fervour, accessing, and perhaps controlling, that primal instinct to compete and, for men especially, to discuss the competition. Orwell opines that: ‘At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare’, but in the 1940s when he wrote most men, unlike today, had military training and were simply reverting to type when they took to the field.
Confrontations are not as anarchic in most sports as they once were. Even in the 1970s a high profile rugby match could easily descend into an all-out brawl involving every player on the pitch, as with the British and Irish Lions notorious ‘99’ call against South Africa. Most sporting authorities now clamp down heavily on violence that is not permitted within the rules of the game, and the television camera makes it difficult for serial offenders to escape detection.
The demonic ‘Judge’ Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s blood-stained novel Blood Meridan (1985) describes war as ‘the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence’. He proposes that:
Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them.
Indeed, the higher the stakes, the more gripping a sporting fixture becomes, and the worth of the participant may be defined by his success or failure at crucial moments. But ‘the Judge’ is correct only to a point. Sport is never a zero sum game as a crowd will also honour a team or individual who loses with good grace, and sport is not simply about victory; ‘greatness’ is also measured by how a loser conducts himself in defeat. Moreover, cheats that betray the Corinthian spirit of fair play and endeavour to win at any cost are generally loathed. Users of banned substances in particular are treated as latter-day devils.
As we enter a phase of history when a capacity to kill another human being is, thankfully, rarely called on, sporting traditions have developed a scale of excellence individual to themselves, albeit atavistic tendencies still lurk in their appreciation. It is striking that Carl Jung regarded games as being of the utmost importance to the wellbeing of societies. He said that ‘civilisations at their most complete moments … always brought out in man his instinct to play and made it more inventive’. Sport, he proffered, connects us to our ‘instinctive selves’.
Ancient epics, the Greek Iliad, Odyssey and Roman Aeneid all feature games as an essential ‘heroic’ expression. In the Iliad after the funeral of his comrade Patroclus, Achilles offers prizes to competitors in a number of events. The first is the chariot race in which Diomedes emerges as the victor. Afterwards Achilles reveals his sympathies for Eumelus whose chariot fell apart due to the intervention of the goddess Athena, saying: ‘The best driver of the lot has come in last. Let us give him a prize for it is only fair. Make it the second, for of course Diomedes came in first.’ But this only leads to disputes among other participants, who then have to be mollified by Achilles. Throughout the games we see resentments boiling over into disputes requiring mediation. This might lead to the conclusion that our “instinctive selves” should, insofar as possible, be kept in check. But by avoiding sport altogether do we risk such instincts emerging in fields where resentments can less easily be contained?
Sporting success can raise the morale of a whole society, such as Ireland’s after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The connection that people many feel with a team or individual should, therefore, not be dismissed lightly. Even in defeat, fans can summon a spirit of togetherness that is not necessarily oppositional. It is not clear that defeat diminishes morale to the extent that victory raises it. As JFK said: Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.
The popularity of sports is often attributed to the decline of religious worship, but the religious side to sport has not faded entirely – the homage is to an ideal of bravery, self-sacrifice and togetherness, virtues often associated with spiritual traditions.
Moreover, with lives increasingly sedentary and indoor, sport returns us to the idea of a challenge that is based on an athletic skill that is both a natural gift, and the product of training. The audience is also mesmerised by the mental dimensions to any game, pitting their wits against the likelihood of an outcome, and plotting how a team or individual might triumph or fail. It can also be the subject of discussion between strangers leading to camaraderie, rather than conflict.
Sport has become a stronghold for mythology at a time when the fantastical, and even the religious, operate on the margins of a generally rational culture. Commentators are given free rein to extemporise, and journalists rhapsodise, about the divine characteristics of participants. We bow before sporting gods, satisfying a generally latent desire for non-rational explanation, and even attribute occurrences to supernatural interference; deus ex machina. Commentators, unencumbered by the usual constraints imposed on ‘serious’ reporting, vent superstitions and casually avert to magical qualities. ‘Legends’ gleam from the gilded pens of lead writers.
This enhances the appeal of ‘titanic’ battles, but sadly we are, increasingly, lured by the theatre from examination of the vexed political questions of our time. Juvenal’s concern finds a clear contemporary echo: ‘The People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’
The former manager of Liverpool Football Club Bill Shankly (1913-81) may have been speaking somewhat tongue in cheek when he said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, but he identified a prevailing obsession that had become the stuff of transcendence. It was fitting, then, that when the current manager of Manchester United F.C. Jose Mourinho (b.1963-) arrived in British football to manage Chelsea F.C. he chose to present himself as the ‘Special One’. For a time the confidence trick worked and he carried all before him, helped in small part by the unprecedented patronage of a Russian billionaire.
Sporting occasions now offer an outlet for Dionysian exuberance in lives increasingly constrained by social conventions. In what other arena of life can a grown man scream and shout with unrestrained fervour? Or dance half-naked arm-in-arm with fellow fans? Attendance imports a communal sense of belonging, evident in the crowd at an enormous stadium, and among transnational fans of football ‘clubs’. Support for a national team also affirms a sense of belonging to what Benedict Anderson described as the ‘imagined community’ of the nation.
The medium is, no doubt, the message. The collapse of distance achieved by televisual communication allows individuals, often living thousands of mile apart from their heroes to connect with one another. This process is accelerated in the era of the Internet where streaming bypasses the traditional providers. Furthermore, debates rage in the comments sections below articles and video clips.
Sporting spectacles fill an imaginative void as mythological themes are played out in real time. The truly great teams, it is said, are those that learn from defeat, just as the heroes of epic returns from the trial of Hades the wiser. We also encounter the tragedy of the flawed hero whose indiscretions are captured by the ravenous paparazzi, and often taken as a wider symbol of the failings of youth, or of the insidious foreigner.
Yes we can have too much of a good thing, and our attention to sports has now reached pathological intensity. Slick marketing has moved an instinctive pleasure into a compulsive and easily-satisfied desire; sports footage operates in a way similar to how pornography substitutes for what is real. In particular, the multi-billion euro football industry uses every opportunity to lure child and adult alike into purchasing television channels, and merchandise that is gaudily flaunted. More troubling is the expansion of online gambling that distorts further the relationship with the spectacle.
Young men are now paid unconscionable fortunes to play games, many would happily participate in for much less, or nothing at all. Televised sport used to inspire kids to imitate their heroes, now with gaming technology they don’t have to leave their couches, and assume their form on the screen; just as the obesity pandemic gathers pace.
The appeal of sport extends beyond the plebeian masses who seek bread and circus. Rupert Murdoch recognised long ago that sport would act as a ‘battering ram’ for his pay TV, an example most newspapers have followed. Sports coverage underpins the Neoliberal zeitgeist by providing an alternative, apolitical, space with elements of tragedy and farce; villains and saviours; loyalty and betrayal.
Latent passions are evoked through metaphors such as the ‘trench warfare’ of a tight contest or the ‘phoney war’ of a friendly fixture; ‘citadels’ are ‘stormed’, and where ‘no quarter is given’; along with specifically supernatural ideas such as ‘demons’ being ‘exorcised’. Stress is laid on the grandeur and importance of the events unfolding, and too much of our lives – mine included – are absorbed by these duels.
With the degree of psychic energy devoted to the affairs of the circus, it is hardly surprising that political involvement is increasingly the province of the paid-up professional, and that the percentage of the electorate voting has declined precipitously. Now politics, including elections, is explained by analogy with sport: as when the leader of the Irish Green Party was told he was playing senior hurling now by a member of Fianna Fail, after his party entered government. This widespread obsession is barely questioned by a media that feed on the fervour, or by politicians who feel compelled to display their colours, and appear as ordinary guys. Nevertheless, sportsmen can use their profile to alter prejudices, and even lead protests such as recently in the NFL, where players demonstrated their ill-will towards President Trump by kneeling during the US anthem. Moreover, at least today sports are no longer seen as preparation for war.