The sportive scene is a scene of parody, a parody of religion. Pierre de Coubertin saw sports as a new religion. However, differently from historical religions, sport is empty of spiritual or intellectual content. When the winning team of a soccer trophy brandishes the conquerors’ cup, it is certainly acting like a priest; however it is only celebrating before the masses the law of the strongest and the cult of brand names, bringing no message nor hope to humanity.
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).
Through sports, small countries try to appear to the world as greater and more powerful than they are in reality; and, ersatz and mirage of power, sport, from this perspective is also delusory. Rather than “the opium of the people”, as some call it, it’s rather an opium of states, or at least of some states, who imagine themselves as powerful and independent actors on the stage of history owing to sports; or else the opium that some states inject others with to add credibility to their own claims to power and independence (case of the GDR). All sports policies, of all countries, large or small, partake in this kind of opium. In other words, sport is not, contrary to Marxist interpretations sanctioning it, an ideological opium, which would put the citizens to sleep; but it is instead a political opium, with roots in the wishful thinking of states. Ideological opium is strictly indicated only for internal consumption. Political opium is for external use, an imaginary and ersatz foreign policy. Political opium is foreign policy. The political opium of sports makes little countries imagine they’re what they’re not in reality, while they allow the great states to revel in the ecstasy of reaffirming their power.
Why are we calling it opium, why an illusion? Sports are above all a myth, the myth beyond all myths, which replaces the others when they have collapsed. This is not a “total social fact”, as Durkheim would have said, but a total myth. Anthropologically myth is always the basis of society. We should take the word total in two ways. On the one hand sports are a total myth because it has eliminated all the others, substituting itself for them. The last great social myth was the Communist myth –“the Communist idea”, as François Furet said in The Past of an Illusion—which, furthermore, tried to include sports in its purview and even regulate it. The Communist myth believed that it could deputize the sportive myth as a lower ranking officer. However this collaboration between Communism and Sports, between the Communist myth and the sportive myth, was really a combat, a fight to the death; by reason of a basic contradiction between Communist values and sportive values. The analysis of sports in terms of totalitarianism—whether Communism, fascism, Nazism—turns out to be false also, since sport is not a political totalitarianism, although it can adapt to totalitarianism and live with it. Sport is a myth in which all the representations belonging to the imaginary of modernity, or to employ a vocable much heard today, “hypermodernity”, are braided together, in a very subtle skein. Its irresistible power comes from this amalgam; the sportive myth is a kind of ogre, swallowing all imaginary forms before recycling them in the form that is consumable planet-wide; and so, the imaginary of the struggle between Catholicism and Communism, Rome and Moscow, translated into the Tour d’Italie bicycle race, boiling down to the heroic combat between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Red Fausto and Holy Gino, Communist Peppone pedaling against the cure Don Camillo. The imaginary of a struggle between modernity and tradition in its turn was restaged by sports in the opposition between Jacques Anquetil, symbol of all-conquering modernity, and Raymond Poulidor, standing for old France. Likewise Miguel Indurain incarnated the new Spain, post-Francoist, post-traditionalist—and the years of the Movida. A social myth is a kind of glue, an imaginary capable of amalgamating a multitude of dispersed individuals into a coherent collectivity. The gatherings of sports fans near the stadiums, in pubs and cafés, as well as the streets, after sports events are a good illustration of this function of glue. Rather that a totalitarianism resembling political totalitarianism, sport is rather an ogre waiting for its moment to devour politics; it is more post-political than political.
It is rather a parody of the ideal—virtues like self-effacement, or Kant’s idea of the essence of morality, according to which one must always place the other ahead of oneself, have no place in sports. Public relations advisors, of course, recommend humanitarian gestures, outside of the terrain of sports, to the great champions, but this is blatantly contradictory to sportive logic. As a parody also of a game, the sports spectacle is very far removed from the gratuity and purposelessness of the game. A parody of fraternity—sports develop feelings of antagonism (unforgettable are the images of Imanon Harinardoquy and Dimitri Yachvili lashing out at the English in xenophobic language, on the register of collective hatred). Organizations like the IOC and FIFA are parodies of international organizations, imitating the UN. In fact, sports shadows reality, constructing a universe of simulacra. Words that have some meaning in reality are heard there, but they have abandoned all hopes to signify after passing through the gates of sport, where they are just empty sounds.
Countries think they are using sports for their own purposes, for the furthering of some political strategy when in reality the opposite is the case. Who emerged victorious from the rigmarole of a diplomatic ballet for hosting the Olympic Games of 2012? The winner was not the City of London, the English Government, nor Tony Blair, but the IOC, Olympism, sports—who were shown to be above nations. People pick up just the opposite message their states think they’re sending. In fact, the political message becomes diluted in the sportive one—more exactly in the message of IOC—which comes through loud and clear. Let’s clarify also what kind of message; the message emerging from this situation is less a message on the meaning and values of sports than a message of power. The sport authorities IOC, FIFA, show their power, flex their biceps. These parodies of the UN which are the IOC and FIFA, like that parody of reality which is sports, are only about increasing their power. When these organizations talk to states, the result is invariably the same; it’s their message, incarnated in an affirmation of their power as sports organizations that triumphs. Sports organizations phagocytize states; the sports domain phagocytizes the political and diplomatic domain. The most popular man in France is neither a political man, inventor, scientist, writer, or thinker—in short no one who could represent French culture at its most fecund. The most popular man in France is none other than the star of the soccer ball, Zinedine Zidane. Nothing show as clearly as this how politics has been devoured, but also literature, philosophy, the whole sphere of serious creativity and possibly civilization itself, by sports.
What is sports? We’ll propose two answers, designating two principal aspects of sports: Sport is the new spiritual eminence, and sport is an anthropo-factory, a fabrication of a new model of the human being. Western humanity has known different kinds of anthropo-factory (machines destined to make the human being or make human traits). The Catholic Church and the state once were machines linked to this project. Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, at the dawn of modern times erected a theory of the state as a mechanism whose purpose was to fabricate men. “Let’s make men”, was the watchword of this Hobbesian conception of the state: “the Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of the Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” God being dead, as Nietzsche spread the news in The Joyful Wisdom, and the state weakening also, you see sports today relaying the ancient anthropo-fashioning machines, just as if Capitalism, today triumphant, had found in sports a means preferable to the Church and the State for giving birth to the men it needs. So it’s important to think of sports in terms of this new anthropo-manufacturing quality, on the basis of a certain human substrate, a form humans arrived at after having traversed many millennia, of a certain state of humanity. Sport is now charged with fabricating a new form of humanity, more uniform and monotonous, for which sports of the elite perform the double role of matrix and regulatory ideal while sports of the masses assure the flow of a maximum number of human beings into this elitist mold. Sports are charged with the fabrication, through means such as the stimulation of mass emotions, the uniformity of methods and styles of playing (notoriously obvious with rugby, as Daniel Herrero has written, with styles rooted in territories and traditions evaporating, inducing a mutation I’ve mentioned in my book, Sport Against Peoples, “the soccerization of rugby”)—of a new human common to the whole planet. We should regard, therefore, the sportive as a mutant.