Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Aesthetic and the Religious Experience of Sport

Sport is the opiate of the masses. If you think this sounds like an extreme statement, consider that people were burning effigies of Ricky Ponting and Steve Bucknor on the streets of India after Australia's controversial second test victory over India. Lest we think that this kind of response is only capable from cricket obsessed Indians, consider the scenes of jubilation that would have been occurring around homes, clubs and pubs around Australia when the Australian team had managed to pull off the impossible. Even before the cricket ball had completed the short journey from the edge of Sharma's bat to the safe hands of Michael Hussey, people began to take leave of their senses, even if only momentarily. I must make the embarrassing confession that I did.

The more subdued among us will suggest that people making that kind response to the cricket (or indeed any other sport) is a massive overreaction. After all, as the aphorism goes, "It's only a game". As true as this is, this only makes the response of so many to sport even more baffling and even more intriguing. What is it about this game and sport in general that makes people respond with such irrationality? And what other activity gets otherwise respectable and refined Calvinists on their feet cheering and yelling like card-carrying Pentecostals? Certainly not church, from my experience.

I would have to suggest that sport is firstly an art and secondly a religious experience. The first time I suggested this to my art curator friend, he responded to me with a flighty air of disdain. With that in mind, I begin my explanation with some degree of trepidation knowing that there are many who will refuse to be convinced on that score, to pardon the pun.

Sport is an art in that it provokes a response from the viewer. Not only is the viewer able to appreciate the technical proficiency of a sportsperson, they are literally able to involve themselves in the narrative of the sporting contest as it unfolds. Each twist or turn will provoke a different emotion, whether it be joy, anger or disappointment. We may choose to trivialise such responses as the product of mere hedonistic entertainment, but to do this would be to fail to acknowledge the extent to which an individual can truly engage with sport. In the theatre of Test Match Cricket, Ricky Ponting influences the parameters of the artwork. We are able to (and as armchair critics regularly do) criticise the artists. We might suggest that Ricky Ponting has literally lost the plot when it comes to a bowling change, or a decision about whether to bat or bowl after winning the toss. If we were behind the camera directing we'd have done things differently.

As well as being an art, sport is also a religious experience. I say this because sport is always played in an existential context and as such provokes existential reflection, even if we are not completely cogniscent of such reflection. Sport much be by definition existential because it is a competition between two or more teams and the way in which teams perform has a direct bearing on other teams. For instance, for one team to lose, another team needs to win.

The existential nature of sport goes far beyond the direct nature of the contest, however. When cheering for a particular team, we involve ourselves in a form of tribalism. Our involvement thus changes from a state of being detached onlookers to a state of being engaged supporters. Wanting one team to win and the other to lose, we have started to invest emotional energy into the result. For some reason it has suddenly become important that Australia win again. Precisely why this might be is not clear. Precisely why the performance of other Australians vicariously counts as "our victory" is uncertain. But perhaps this is not the point. The important thing is that we have started to define ourselves.

It may well be said that sport is neither an art, nor a religious experience because people don't consciously reflect upon a sporting contest as a frame of reference to understand our identity. To an extent this is true - sport usually does not consciously provoke a person to ask who they are or what life is all about. Sport tends to provoke an instinctive, pre-cognitive response, which would explain why I am on my feet cheering in a crowd of strangers before I even know what I'm doing. But in a sense, this is precisely the point. Our instinctive and pre-cognitive responses are the most honest for the sole reason that we have not had time to formulate a way to deceive ourselves to produce a response or an answer that is more to our liking. As such, these instinctive, pre-cognitive responses speak volumes about the people that we are, the relationships we have and the things that we value.

There is one final consideration in all of this: Why is it that sport generally tends to produce a much more profound and even a much more genuine response from people than organised religion, even among people who are dedicated believers? I must say that I don't know, although this probably speaks volumes about the structure of organised religion today and its disciples. Indeed this much be a concern for a regular churchgoer who is never able to get as excited about their faith as they are about sport. Perhaps it is worth looking at the secular religion of sport and considering why it manages to engage people in a way that church does not.

1 comment:

DNW said...


Great blog on the sport as religion topic. I remember many moons ago that the soccer boss Bill Shankly of Liverpool said, and I quote "soccer is more important than life and death". I think for some that is really the case!