“Sports are holy”

Posted on February 24, 2010


I didn’t plan a beach vacation to coincide with the Winter Olympics. But even if I had, it wouldn’t have worked. Flying four-and-a-half hours over ocean from New York does not get you far enough to escape the reach of NBC and (what King Kaufman used to call) its “hench networks.” So despite my biennial reluctance, I once again find myself being slowly corrupted by the Olympic TV-watching ritual.

Surely what most of us Olympics skeptics react to is not the Games themselves, but the way they are packaged and presented. And I found at least part of the explanation for this on the flight home in Esquire magazine’s Olympic preview by Stephen Marche, which asks in its title, Are the Olympics Ruining Everything? In 1000 words Marche hits most of the themes of this blog.

Marche’s piece is about the “spectacle” that big business and big media have made of sport.

In a culture overwhelmed by phony sports-religion — the cathedral ballparks, the demigod players, the rituals of trades and drafts, the fantasy-league cults of fandom — it’s easy to forget that sports still possess a seed of the genuinely sacred. You have to wipe away so much corruption and drugs and bloodlust to see it, but sports belong to what is pure and good in the difficult and degrading world of men.

Like all of us (or at least me and you, if you are reading a blog called “This Sporting Life”) Marche continues “to believe in sport’s holiness. I don’t mean that loosely or metaphorically. Sports are holy.” Why?

Sports celebrate an event during which anything can happen, capturing, as nothing else can, life’s basic unpredictability, and they show us how to live: We are supposed to face life’s uncertainty with the best we have. Contemporary sports, despite the ice floes of shit they have to navigate, still manage to produce many sublime moments, but every year these bright lights grow harder to spot against the gathering gloom of the business of entertainment.

I was watching a very predictable, if satisfying, hockey game on CNBC last night when the grown-up network packaged and broadcast the women’s figure skating short program. And one of the story lines — with Canadian Joannie Rochette skating the routine of her disappointing season to third place, despite losing her mom to a fatal heart-attack two days earlier — may well have been unbearable in NBC’s or CTV’s hands.

But even an Olympics cynic has to be moved by the account of her performance — which sounds to me like a sacred demonstration of how “to face life’s uncertainty with the best we have.”

Marche promised himself in advance of the Games this year that he was

not going to wallow in the easy cynicism that usually settles on me like the flu for the Olympic fortnight. I’m going to forget about the ceremonies and I’m going to remember that curling — especially women’s curling — is fun to watch, and that the biathlon is pretty cool when all is said and done.

Some great moments in life you work toward consciously for years, and some come in a flash. And sometimes it’s both. Yes: we are watching other people’s great moments. We may or may not learn from them. But at least we’re not watching their great American Idol moments.