This is our last week of writing engagements before we turn our attention to our final papers. Over the next two weeks professional North America sports like hockey and basketball will again began games. Major League Baseball begins later this week. So it seems like an appropriate time to examine the ancient religious link between sports and the gods.
The word “sports” comes from Latin root, deportare, means “to carry away.” That is, it can be argued that sports, like religion, allow the fans to leave their everyday world for a short period of time and get “carried away” to something more. In one of his famously poetic soccer stories, “The Fan,” Eduardo Galeano (2013) captures the religious allure of attending a soccer game. “Once a week,” he writes, “the fan flees his house and goes to the stadium… The city disappears, its routine forgotten, all that exists is the temple.”
In North America, as in many places around the globe, sport athletes are “worshipped,” or “revered,” by their fans (from the word, “fan-atic”) Why? In our first reading, Heather Reid points out the ancient Greek tradition of sculpting or painting (male) athletes as something more than human. She notes how “statues depict a philosophical reaction to victory in a religious context” (p. 284). On the next page, she writes, “The Greek athlete at the moment of victory most resembles a god, but like the leafy crown that graces his head, his glory is passing and ephemeral” (p. 285). She argues that for the ancient Greeks, “athletic beauty symbolizes the triumph of our divine, spiritual nature over our animalistic, physical nature” (p. 287). What does she mean? Beyond winning and losing, what is at stake in such sporting contests? What did the fans, or at least the Greek artists, take away from the games?
In our second reading, scholar and ex-baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti writes about his own attraction to baseball. As he concludes, “I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game.” Why? Again, what does the game provide fans like Giamatti? Why does it seem so important to start sports up in the middle of a still dangerous pandemic?
Finally, let’s return to Canada and watch the video of Virtue and Moir’s gold-medal ice dancing performance in 2010. They are dancing to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In a recent performance of the symphony in Toronto, the music was described in religious language as a “blazing summit of joyous ecstasy.” Are these dancers “beautiful” in Reid’s understanding of athletic beauty? Is there anything religious happening on the ice? Why or why not?