Sport as Religion

I have been a sports enthusiast as long as I remember. I played all manner of sports though tennis was always my best sport and I eventually became a teaching professional and a coach and was able to see the sport from a different angle and appreciate it even more than I had when I played. There are those who think sports are a waste of time, but I disagree. So does John Carroll, as it happens. You remember John Carroll? I have referred to his books frequently of late because they do provide an excellent spark to ignite thought. Or something.

In any event, Carroll has a chapter in his book Ego And Soul devoted to sport. He thinks it is one of a number of ways that modern  men and women find meaning inter lives. And he makes out an excellent case that sports in our culture have displaced religion and as such play a vital role in a culture that desperately needs something to draw people out of themselves. Sports do just that. We have heard that football, for example, allows those who play and those who watch to release their aggressive impulses. This is a healthy thing, though it apparently does not release enough aggression in enough people, sad too say. But sports in general have become larger than life and they make possible the ecstasy that is frequently identified with the religious experience by Zen masters and they also make possible the sense of euphoria and catharsis that are frequently associated with that very religious experience. Religion, for most people, has lost that ability and has become mainly ritual that leaves the participant empty and dissatisfied. Sports fills the gap, according to John Carroll. Take the Olympics, for example.

“The modern West has created one global cult of mythic force. The modern Olympic Games has become the pre-eminent international institution.

“The modern Olympic Games was initiated in 1896 by the a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin — 1500 years after the ancient Olympics were closed down by a Christian Roman emperor on the grounds that they were too pagan. Coubertin sought to recreate the classical Greek ideal of religious festival in which humans perform athletic and cultural feats at the highest level of excellence.

” Coubertin was strongly influenced by the English Public Schools. It was, in particular, the emphasis in Thomas Arnold’s Rugby on developing the character of the boys, linked to the neo-Hellenic ideal of a ‘sound mind in a healthy body.’ For Arnold, sport played a key role, but it was not sport for its own sake. Coubertin’s adaptation was to take education out of the school and into the public arena. He then harnessed sport to his pedagogical ends by orchestrating the games within a totality of brilliantly conceived ritualized drama. He created what would become the modern religious festival, dwarfing all others, rising, as if on cue, as the Christian churches began to empty.

“Coubertin was quite explicit that his was to be a religious revival, and that it was pagan. He spoke of new gods to replace the dying old ones. He lamented in the 1930s that the Games were turning into a marketing spectacle; he had intended them as a Temple, in which religio athletae was to be practiced. . . .

“The spirit of classical Greek religion had been rekindled. By taking sport, and setting it in a larger metaphysical context, a neo-pagan festival had been recreated that appeals to the religious sensibility of the secular modern West.”

We are all aware of the commercial spectacle the Olympics has become, with players being paid by their countries for the medals they win. But at the heart of this spectacle, especially during the grand opening of the Games, we can see suggestions of what Coubertin had in mind. The Games were to be the new religion. They were to provide for participants and spectators alike a deep religious experience, taking them out of themselves and moving them to new  heights of appreciation for the beauty that is athleticism at its best. Thus we have the religious experience par excellence: ceremony; aesthetic delight; ecstatic and cathartic experience. All in the interest of connecting us with one another and with the greater world outside the self.

Those who participate in sports have described the rare experience of “being in the zone” in which they don’t think but simply feel and act as if on a high. This is ecstasy as it is described by the gurus and mystics who meditate until they reach nirvana. Shades of it can be experienced in the company of great works of art, when the aesthetic becomes the totality of the world: the painting, sculpture, or music become all there is. At this point, as Carroll would have it, ego and soul become one. Balance is achieved. This can happen not only for the athlete but for the spectator as well — especially in large groups such as a packed crowd in a sporting event when “it’s all on the line.”

To a degree, all sports can achieve this, according to Carroll. Even the individual sports such as golf and tennis. They fill a vacuum that has been created by the death of religion which, all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, no longer enriches the spirit or replenishes the human soul of the vast majority of people in the West.

Certainly a novel and most interesting suggestion, is it not?

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