Why Does Sport Matter?

By Tomlinson, Alan | New Internationalist, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Does Sport Matter?


Tomlinson, Alan, New Internationalist


Sport has become one of the world's biggest cultural industries, and the highest-profile events and contests attract the attention of increasing millions of people in homes, sports bars and stadiums. Along with film and music, sports create superstars and celebrities. They offer dramatic diversions from the trials and routines of working or domestic living, as fans follow the fortunes of their favourite teams and players. They offer collective experiences in an individualized and fragmented world. Anyone who has been hugged by a stranger in a stadium knows the uncanny yet sustained capacity of sports to bring people together, and sports' ability to create temporary but real and passionately expressed bonds.

Magnificent trivia sports might be, but we have come to appreciate the importance of the everyday, vital for many people's well-being and balance. All agree that sports activity, or sports spectating, can enrich everyday living, and that sports also offer a lucrative route for talented and ambitious individual sportsmen and -women to succeed. They contribute to national identity and pride, and international rivalries. Asking who plays what, where, and why takes us into fascinating areas of the global economy, international relations, consumer tastes, citizenship and public culture; asking such questions directs us to extremes of extraordinary wealth and deprivation, exploitation and co-operation.

We play and watch sports for fun, enjoyment, pleasure, excitement. But in some circumstances the fun soon fades. The great ice hockey player Eric Nesterenko recalled how much pleasure he got from playing as a child, but how the joy diminished the higher the stakes, and what was once play became routinized work. In the right balance, though, enjoyment and pleasure can come with the thrill of physical exhilaration, the tightness of the contest, the reaching for the 'personal best'. And in any contest or competitive encounter, sports provide ready-made dramatic narratives, with enigmas or questions posed along the way. Will s/ he recover from that knock? Is s/he a choker? Does the head-to-head historical record matter? In a myriad of ways, sports theatricalize everyday life, bringing spectators into the dynamic of competition. Unlike in theatre, the opera or the classical concert, where hushed rows look on in awe at the performance, most sports draw in the crowd, encouraging participation and interactive response.

Some also play because they are spotted by talent scouts, and given a vision of the good life based upon potential success; or because the government of the day demands a particular kind of new citizen whose physical qualities represent the values of the political culture; or because policymakers equate physical activity and balanced exercise with a healthy life, and a cheaper health services bill. There is nothing new in much of this. The Roman satirist Juvenal noted that mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was something worth praying for, and that panem etcircences( bread and races) became the focus of popular entertainment in times of declining political spirit. But what is always new is the contextual framing of a sport in time and place, which varies its meaning accordingly. People play sports or engage in bodily practices in modern affluent societies and the poorer countries of the world for reasons that may be very different from those of their predecessors; at the same time the nostalgia and sentiment that fuel sports fans claim historical connections and cultural continuity.

In The World Atlas of Sport- a taster for which is on the next two pages - we have embraced the everyday and the sublime, the mundane and the superlative. And at any of these levels, we know that sports produce marvellous human moments connecting the player and the onlooker. At the most élite levels, the athlete feels the emotions of the audience, and the onlooker is drawn into the production of the performance itself. …

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