Without beauty in sport, we might go looking elsewhere
“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports”, wrote author David Foster Wallace, “but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.
The relation is roughly that of courage to war.” Although Wallace was writing mostly about tennis, the principle of beauty in sport applies equally to football.
And when tennis stars like Serena Williams are called on to comment on matches at the World Cup, from Wimbledon, we sense the relationship between beauty and courage may have gone awry.
Humans have used the epithets of war to talk about sport since Greeks began wrestling in their underwear. While the German philosopher Hegel believed that war promoted certain virtues – namely courage, others have since realised that sports promote the same virtues in a more moral way.
However, don’t be fooled: the World Cup 2010 is not a metaphor for war. It is war. Over two brutal weeks we have lost many men. I have seen the Italian light horsemen mown down as they charged towards New Zealand’s line.
I have seen Chileans take shrapnel that tore flesh from face and limb. I have seen Argentinians shocked by chemical warfare so advanced it attacked all parts of the body at once.
And what courage our Green-n-Gold footsoldiers have shown running out into the crossfire of vuvuzelas. Lest we mention the fearless FIFA officials risking their lives with stretchers to carry the fallen.
In the same week that we have lost three real soldiers in Afghanistan, how can we tolerate this mincing about? How can we watch sport that aims to promote virtue without killing, when the virtue is missing?
The truth is, many of us have had enough. What was once a beautiful game has become vastly ugly. It doesn’t help that at least one of our other major sporting codes, Rugby League, has been simultaneously dogged by cheating, racism and brawls.
So who’s to blame? The referees. The players. And Us. Let’s start with the World Cup referees: they’re clearly having a proverbial; Koman Coulibaly has already been dumped after disallowing a USA goal against Slovenia and plenty has been said about the Italian Job during Australia’s clash with Ghana.
The players – well, we’ve covered them, but we should pause to ask ‘Why the theatrics?’ That’s where we, the spectators, come in.
We demand winning. Or at least we think we do. But only because winning feels so damned good. On a national or even regional scale, victory borders on euphoria. For the average person, that’s a rare feeling.
We therefore place enormous pressure on these Ferrari-driving demi-gods to deliver. We don’t watch football because we need to prove our superiority over Serbia; we watch because we are starved of beauty and need to feel unbridled joy. And there is no doubt football can still be beautiful.
Poetic, elegant, even transcendent. To spectate while Lionel Messi weaves the ball through four players towards goal is akin to watching lightning on a string. Our eye for aesthetics tells us that at moments like these, football is more than a ball sport: it’s Art.
Unfortunately, we have backed ourselves into a cultural corner where we can only feel such joy if it’s mediated by mass sporting events or various forms of evangelism. Something about opiate and masses… When Australia scores a goal against Ghana, or the Wallabies win the Bledisloe Cup, we pump the air and scream because it proves ‘we’re better’.
But in truth, it’s because we can hug anyone we damn well like. (When John Aloisi slotted the final penalty in November 2005 to qualify Australia for the World Cup in Germany, a large man next to me in the stands practically lifted me off my feet. We embraced like a father and son reunited.)
Mega-sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics offer an important outlet for a human need to share beauty. The relationship between beauty and euphoria in sport is complex, but basically, the relationship is causal: we see something beautiful and we want to celebrate it with others.
At base, the occasional transcendent beauty in sport is the only thing valuable about hitting a ball into or over a net - an otherwise pointless achievement that justifies itself by the affect it has on us when done to perfection: pure awe.
There has been too little awe this time. We’ve had plenty of ‘feuds’ (England), a walk-out (France), coach-bashing (France again), a snub (yep, France), whingeing (Australia), a circus (Maradona), a second hand-of-god (Brazil’s Luis Fabiano - God has two hands after all) and a scandal involving some Dutch beer babes, though no one remembers which brand of cans they were spruiking.
As for awe, you might need to watch snippets of Pele on Youtube.
The ultimate consequence of a less beautiful game is less sporting inspiration. Less ‘Aloisi’ moments. Eventually, we stop watching and we look at something else. Without beauty in sport, there’s no telling what we might do. Maybe we’ll create beauty somewhere else. Or maybe we’ll realise we don’t need nets and balls at all.
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