Reflections on the futility/centrality of sport

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Stuart Cutler, whose blog I enjoy, said something interesting about sport here

He said “when you deconstruct any sport, it is ridiculous…”

I reckon he’s right. It set me thinking about something else-

“Bread and circuses”

A phrase used by a Roman poet to deplore the declining heroism of the Romans after the end of the Roman Republic, and as the Roman Empire began. “Two things only people desire- bread and circuses”. In times of unrest, the Roman governors threw huge spectacles, and handed out free bread.

At present, the Olympics fill our screens, but it seems only a sneeze since the football world cup raised a million hopes and dreams for English football fans. Flags waved from suburban windows and on car aerials. There was probably another song in the charts about football coming home, badly sung by an embarrassed set of England footballers. And the sun shone on the hopes of the whole nation, at least for a while…

I suppose I am a sports snob. I love cricket, and so got all worked up over the Ashes win over Australia (we were soon humbled by the return matches in Australia, which we lost 5-0!) but I am genuinely bemused at the effect of watching some men kick a ball about on a football field.

It has been suggested quite seriously by economic and political analysts that the success or otherwise of the England football team (and perhaps that of other nations too, even Scotland!) has a measurable effect on the nation. People’s spending patterns change, they impregnate one another more or less frequently, they vote differently, and crime and public order offences fluctuate like the league table itself. Such is the power of public entertainment, filtered through mass media, to a population hungry for meaning- for significance rather than the mundane predictability of life.

The Romans knew this, and perhaps little has changed, apart from the forms of entertainment themselves. They used to idolize men who fought and killed for entertainment. We now just reserve our thirst for blood for whoever the current England manager is. Why would anyone want that job?

But I too also love those moments of magic when a man or woman transcends what all have the right to expect, pushing beyond every psychological and physical barrier, and against all the odds, winning the prize.

A sublime goal scored by the 18 year old Michael Owen

A 6 smacked high over the boundary and into the crowd by Andrew Flintoff, right into to the hands of his proudly watching father (who promptly drops it),

And the time when I heard about Eddie the Eagle strapping on his milk bottle bottom glasses and launching himself from his garden shed, in training for the Olympic ski jump.
I remember these moments. As much as they can be, in a disposable age, they become almost eternal- they are public property, the milestones of our lives. We store them away like songs and smells that always take us back to particular time and place, and in their own way, they are as beautiful as sonnets.

But it is not enough. How can we elevate football or cricket or rock music or package holidays or anything for that matter, to become the pre-eminent point of emotional and spiritual expression in our lives? It seems to me that so many of us have let these manufactured things become the mechanism for fulfillment and borrowed success in our lives. We fill the voids in our lives with off-the-shelf imitations of reality, sanctioned and given shared legitimacy by TV. As with all things, it is hard to go against the flow.

We could talk about the state of the earth, of inequality, of poverty and starvation of children, of global warming and the melting polar icecaps. Or about the death of conversation, the end of community, and the breakdown of family life. But it is all a bit earnest, a bit oppressive. The issues are too big for us to grasp, and anyway, we are all entitled to a bit of a rest at the end of a working day, right? A bit of down time, a good match?

Yes, but time goes by so quickly. We start out full of optimism, and all too soon our children have grown, and mortgages have become the millstones that tie us to jobs offering little beyond a wage check. I believe in an eternal perspective, which offers a life in so many more dimensions. And in a God who sends his Spirit amongst the crowd, stirring like a wind on the waters, reminding us of what it means to be made in the image of a creative, Creator God, softening us from the plastic wrapping of our lives, bringing in life and love and freedom. Calling us to be so much more than passive observers of the TV screens-

But to see Flintoff in his pomp, humbling the mighty Australians, making them look like children bowling at their older brother, punching a smooth extra cover drive, then rocking back and smashing a square cut of withering power past a startled baggy green cap…

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