Three cheers for the amateur sports person
In the late 1960’s, the great Italian thinker Umberto Eco cast his gaze over the World Cup and the Olympic Games and was troubled by what he saw. Forty years on, his analysis of professional sport remains just as valid, perhaps even more acutely so.
Sport is a waste - but what a glorious waste it is. If I fling a stone for the sheer pleasure of flinging it, and not for any utilitarian end, I have wasted kilojoules accumulated by eating, and earned by work. Now, this waste is profoundly healthy. It is the waste necessary for play. And humanity has a deep physical and mental need for play.
Play means being free. The mantra of the early trade unionists was: “And on the seventh day, they played sport. Just for the sheer pleasure of it.”. That eight hours recreation symbolises something, it symbolises modern society’s freedom from the tyranny of indispensable work.
Now, if I fling my stone, and another man beside me aims to fling one further, the recreation takes on the form of a contest, which is also a waste of physical energy and of intelligence, the latter providing the rules of the game. But this recreational waste provides a gain for both of us.
Contests develop and control the competitive spirit. They reduce innate aggressiveness to a system, and brute force to intelligence.
In the mid-1990s I was at a dinner at the University of Sydney, which had double-booked speakers. Both men had been University Blues, but their philosophical differences could not have been more marked. On the one hand was the idea of sport as “a part” of your life; on the other hand was the idea of sport as ‘the only’ part of your life.
Lamentably, the latter has usurped the former. What the media shows and most often talks about as ‘sport’ is in fact nothing of the sort; it is professionalism. Or, if I may coin a neologism, it is sportentertainment.
Spectator sports are not sports, in the sense of a situation in which a person, with no financial incentive, and employing his or her own body directly, performs physical exercises in which they exert their muscles, cause their blood to circulate and their lungs to work to their fullest capacity.
Sport is something beautiful in that regard, at least as beautiful as sex, philosophical reflection and religious ecstasy.
But sportertainment has nothing to do with “sport” in that sense; not for the players, who are professionals subjected to tensions not unlike those of an assembly line worker, except for the highly questionable differences in pay. Nor for the consumers of sportertainment, the overwhelming majority of whom are doing it from lounges in front of their TVs.
Sportertainment leads to the first degeneration of the contest: the raising of human beings dedicated to sports competition.
The athlete becomes a being who has hypertrophised into a single organ, who turns his or her body into the seat and exclusive source of a continuous play. The athlete is a monster, the geisha with the compressed and atrophied foot, dedicated to total instrumentalisation.
The athlete as a monster comes into existence at the moment when sport is squared, when sport—that is, from a game played in the first person—becomes play as a spectacle for others, and hence a game as played by ‘others’ and seen by ‘me’. ‘Sport’ becomes ‘performance’. It is an opera; it is a play; it is sportertainment.
If “sport practised” is health, like eating food, “sport seen” is a defrauding of health—and I will not even go into the psychological and physical debilitation of performance enhancing drugs and professional sports regimes.
When I see others play I am doing nothing healthy; I am only vaguely enjoying the health of others, which in itself would be a sordid exercise in voyeurism. .
And since talking sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practising sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the consumer of sportertainment thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he does not actually engage in sport. He is the classic “Norm” of the old “Life: Be in it” TV commercials.
Present-day sport then—sportertainment—is an industry, one dominated by image, money, personalities and consumer brand loyalty—just like the entertainment industry.
We have not yet totally lost the idyll of sport but we are well on the way to losing it. Even my beloved rugby, once the home of the well-rounded gentlemen who embraced the amateur tradition, now finds itself overrun with monosyllabic narcissists with sleeve tattoos, sybaritic lifestyles and bad attitudes to women.
So let us raise a cheer today—not for the pretty, vacuous Barbie and Ken dolls who have leached off taxpayers and will ultimately find themselves in commentary booths or sports administration offices, perpetuating the scam of sportertainment.
Let us give a cheer to the “C” grade sides who go out and play each weekend; to the 38-year-old stockbroker who risks life and limb as a flanker in a social rugby competition; to the kids who are doing their Higher School Certificate and still find time to get out in the paddock; and to the mums who play netball on a Wednesday night and save a portion of their housekeeping to go to the Masters Games in Queensland each year.
Let us raise a cheer for those who do for love what others do for money.
These honest amateurs are the real sportsmen and sportswomen of Australia—and they are dying out. Frankly, I would rather see Australia with no Olympic medals but with everyone playing sport than see the pestilence of sportertainment that confronts us today.
If we must spend taxpayers’ money on sport—and that is a very big ‘if—let us build a nation of well-rounded humans, not the Frankensteinian assembly line of professional athletes created for the gladiatorial arenas of sportetainment.
This is an edited version of a speech given in the NSW Parliament.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…