Are Sports Religion, Science, or Just Plain Fun?

The physical meets the metaphysical on the sports field

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The appeal of sports, especially of high-performance athletics, is that they permit us to judge people precisely by what they do. This greatly simplifies life because it greatly simplifies the search for meaning. We might be interested in motives—the athlete’s, the spectator’s—but our primary interest is in a moment of action that either fails or succeeds. That the action is not merely physical but is indeed an extremely strenuous, intensely ritualized rendition of a highly developed physical skill makes it all the more definitive because meaning becomes, in this way, strikingly specific and discernible, explicit and self-evident. The body is given not simply an artistry, an expression, as in dance, but rather a goal. Sports do not etherealize the body but make it more concrete.

Sports are about the finality of the consequences of an action or a set of actions, the immediate, intractable drama of making a physical but deliberative choice upon which one’s fate rests. Thus, sports make human life a metaphysical expression intelligible both as a higher purpose and as an absurd futility in ways that religion, for instance, cannot.

But even more important is the connection between sports and science. Sports provide a context for demonstrating the rationally engineered human body. This suggests something about the values that sports represent and reflect in the modern world. Sports are not a science, but they could not be played and enjoyed today without science. Sports are all the things religion and science as mystery and measurement aspire to be in the realm of the human imagination; and so, in many ways, for purposes of expression, sports are better than either. They are magnificent junctures of spectacle and explanation, of ritual and reason.

Sports, finally, are about our hope for order and, paradoxically, our realization that our hope will be dashed. This is why, ultimately, sports are such powerful attractions. What attracts us is the contradiction of trying to find a sense of permanence in an ephemeral, contrived, minor expression of the human will. Buried in the activity of play are innocence and experience, triumph and tragedy.

If we train like athletes, we believe, we can protect our bodies against the relentlessly encroaching chaos of decline and unbeing. The body, after all, is the last frontier, and our history has been merely the projection of insecurities about our physical presence. If this is so, sports may be the greatest religious experience, the most refined and profound encounter we can ever hope to have with the reality and the unreality of ourselves.

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

Excerpted from Body Language: Writers on Sport, edited by Gerald Early. Used with permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. Copyright 1998 by Gerald Early.