Conference pronounced at the University of Otago, Dunedin (New Zealand), June 23, 2006, in the context of the Colloquium of theForeign Policy School. Translated by Philip Beitchman).
As soon as the subject of sports comes up one thing is clear, and that there is no way of denying; that is that this is an enduring part of modern life, worldwide in its scope. It is as if life had been locked into sports: wherever you go, say to a forgotten native village deep in the Amazon jungle it’s just impossible to escape from sports news. They chat about the results of Calcio in the bars of Sao Paulo, and those of the NBA in the bistrots of Toulouse. From this point of view, sport can only be compared to religion. We are forced to regard the success of sports as an historical event, really one of tremendous importance, and based on its long lastingness alone, a phenomenon that defines an entire epoch. We are not dealing here with a mere epiphenomenon, or with a mass whim of the day, but a profoundly significant historical development. Possibly, historians in the distant future will be calling our epoch The Age of Sports, just like today we speak of the Enlightenment, the Renaissance or Romanticism? The word sports will then be the name of a historical period.
In effect, all of the traits of our epoch, as well as those of the consciousness of our times, together with ideologies that underlie it, converge in Sports. Sports are not marginal, they are central. They are at the very heart of the contemporary world—as a proof we need only to witness that commercial globalization is prepared for and facilitated by the globalization of sports. International sports competitions, like the World Cup of Soccer, have gradually, over the last half-a-century, accustomed people to finding globalization natural. Far from being limited to the role of a simple reflection, as one might hastily conclude, and as also the Marxist concept of “superstructure” might suggest, sports, as in the case of the other decisive cultural phenomena we have cited, Romanticism etc.—is rather a kind of matrix from which is engendered the very epoch we live in. Now the notion of matrix, we might not have noticed, is close to that of escutcheon or armorial bearings. The novel is escutcheon of an epoch (the 19th century, between Stendhal and Zola). Sport is the escutcheon of another epoch, our own. An escutcheon is a coat of arms—that is to say an ensemble of exigencies. Your family escutcheon, should you have one, tells you how high you have to aim, and how very well you are expected to perform. Therefore, armorial bearings or escutcheons are the matrix of behavior, establishing values that are calculated accordingly. Likewise, we cannot but recognize that sports, like armorial bearings and escutcheons are present everywhere through images. However these are the armorial bearings of democratic times—when everybody is supposed to have them. Everybody recognizes themselves in them, everyone sees in them the expectations he or she is supposed to live up to. Now sports dictate ceaselessly to contemporary men and women, both on the basis of how they’re played and also witnessed, and through the multitudinous commentaries that accompany them, many directives.
For example, without the worldwide dissemination of the sports spectacle, the compulsion of performance could not have permeated all domains of existence the way it has. Likewise belief in the value of competition has been imposed on men through sports—after five decades of a high dosage of sports spectacles most human beings are persuaded, rightly or wrongly, that competition is, in all domains of existence, the condition of progress. Furthermore, examining the matter more closely it certainly seems that performance has become the world’s Highest Good, the Good toward which all the other goods converge and which they must lead to. Something is considered good only insofar as it favors performance, the Good that is above all the others. To be a performing being in turn has become the virtue of virtues. Sport has developed a logistics allowing performance to outclass all other goals and virtues and to subsume them. Sport has succeeded in imposing this straightjacket on the modern world—from the routines of everyday life to the State, by way of business, school, associations, leisure, the obligation to perform dominates. The worth of a man or woman is no longer measured by traditional virtues (honesty, courage, modesty etc….), but by a capacity to perform more or less well. Sports have changed culture; from being a means, sports have become an end.
More so even than religions, which, comparatively, have been diversified (none has been imposed on the whole planet, none has succeeded in establishing a total and stable geographic universality), whose dogmas often are subject of contention, whose believers might fall prey to doubt—sports, with its undeniable propensity to parody religion, in the register of kitsch, covers the whole planet, and with very little in the way of opposition. As this kitsch parody of religion, sport has relayed the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It attempts to conjoin the idea of Empire and the idea of the Church, together in the universality and the government of souls. The World Cup of Soccer is certainly this universal Assembly (all of humanity around the chalice, this Jules Rimet Cup, which the victors, like officiating priests, lift triumphantly to the heavens on the day of victory)—however no spiritual or intellectual message is conveyed, no hope for humanity, no promise for the human condition, will come from this ceremony, where only the cult of brand names and the law of the strongest are celebrated. The cult of the lycanthrope (the wolf man, homo homini lupus) is what surfaces in this ceremony and not that of the God-man. Sport is the mercantile and empty, pitiable and derisory, parody of the Catholic ideal, one made of plaster and trickery—of an assembly in a universal church, and a communion around the chalice, but with liturgy around secular personages that are raised to the sacredness of priests. Sports fans are a sacerdotal caste, like the false liturgy sports events suggest, but this is a bargain basement sacerdotal caste, which has nothing to transmit. The World Cup of Soccer is nothing but the Catholicity of emptiness! As to the lack of opposition to sports, this is cause for some real astonishment. Who is against sports? No one, or almost no one. The Inuits are as interested in the World Cup as the Argentineans, Congolese and Europeans. Sports engenders the same excesses as religions. However, sports fanaticism, often devastating in its effects, is in fact a parody of religious fanaticism. The wars between fans parody the wars of religion. Not that the protagonists of these jousts are insincere, far from it! They are as passionate about their beliefs as religious people; but the difference is that there is nothing in what they believe, no content. They believe in a something which is nothing. The difference between sports and religion is that with sports there is no idea, and possible no real ideal even. Sport does not blaze the way for humanity’s salvation, and conveys no eschatology. While the salvation of humanity constitutes the law of all religion, sports can only propose the law of the stronger. This is the spiritual poverty of sport.
In the West, for ages past, power and political life had turned around a theological-political axis. The political order was grounded in theology, and could be legitimate only in pretending to realize theological goals. The authority of power came from on high. The international diplomacy of the states also hinged on religion, its interpretation(s). In France there was much debating of the question of subjection or independence in rapport with Rome—Gallicanism and ultramontanism, movements advocating the supremacy of Rome, challenged the mission of the nation. In other words, theology was the symbolic matrix of political life. The death of God, or creating an equivalency between religion and civilization occurred around 1850; and eventually it was Nietzsche who reported the event. Today everything turns around a different axis, the sportive-political. The ballet of all the great heads of state before the International Olympics Committee, in July 2005, in order to obtain the Olympics Games of 2012 is a good example of this. Sport has become an inexhaustible source of arguments and metaphors for political leaders. This sportive-political has taken the matrical place that once belonged to the theological-political. The sportive-political limns the values, behavior, and imperatives whose model is shaped and then escutcheoned by the universe of sport—and this in the political sphere, but also more widely in the society at large, including the economic sphere, as well as that of intimacy.
Politics can be defined as the pursuit of power—power being any reality that amplifies liberty of action, the condition of independence and also of security. Theology, once, intervened to pose limits for power. Rome and Heaven were the frontiers beyond which power could not go. The king by divine right was accordingly limited by God. Sport, in contemporary politics, plays an exactly opposite role—not that of limiting, but rather augmenting power by wowing minds. Little countries as well as big ones play this game. China finds nothing more urgent than to pass for a great sports power, possibly even passing the USA in this domain! Sports was the front line of the cold war between the USA and the USSR; but let’s not suppose that with the death of the USSR, now that the capitalist system has no rival, the function of sports in terms of power has vanished. States are well aware that sports are the key to the minds of contemporary men and women. Sports are utilized to increase the imaginary power of the state. We’ve known, at least since The Prince of Machiavelli, that in politics what is imagined has the effect of reality. For small countries, whose political power is either limited or nonexistent, sport becomes an ersatz of international politics. It can function to disguise the fact that the state is not independent, giving the illusion of independence, to hide its diplomatic subservience—sports certainly played this masking game in the former German Democratic Republic.