How ‘sport’ lost its meaning

So, it’s (bread-and-)circuses time ‘at last’: Time to forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere; time also to forget about your own life, to forget about DOING anything, and instead to start sitting on your backside more; it’s time, once you are firmly sat, to project everything (jingoistically, of course) onto a specially-selected bunch of others, flown in with no cost or carbon spared.
It’s time to stop being and start SPECTATING.

Let the pointless ogling begin…

Yep: it’s the 2012 Olympic ‘Games’. . .

Let’s start, briefly, with the ‘greenest games ever’ (sic. – or: Pass the sick-bag, someone…). Can’t we, in this day and age, figure out better ways of spreading joy that don’t spread so much misery among our descendants? That is what they are going to receive from us, mostly: misery, courtesy of climate chaos (of which we have experienced a small taste here in Britain, this ‘summer’). Misery which is being contributed to by all this Olympic construction, travel, and so on.

I can hear one or two of you groaning already. “Why does he have to be such a killjoy?” Well, forgive me if I’m being curmudgeonly. It is probably because my potatoes, that I’ve just got back from seeking to harvest, have blight. (Why do they have blight? Because of this dreadful ‘summer’. (Why this dreadful ‘summer’? Probably because of incipient manmade climate chaos. (Why this manmade climate chaos? Because of excessive GHG / carbon emissions. – Which brings us back to the insane amount of flying, among other things, that our species is currently indulging in…including to make possible spectacles such as the Olympics…)))

Now let’s move onto the concept of sport itself. I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution. Goto for more detail…

It is true that at times of ‘great sporting events’, there is often some temporary boost to the numbers of people taking part in those sports. Is that a good instrumental grounds on which to defend all this spectating and getting-on-your-backside? Not really: Because imagine what we could do if, instead of saying to people “Sit still and watch these amazing geniuses [read: boring overpaid professional obsessives] perform!”, we truly encouraged everyone to BE, to participate, to DO… Imagine if as a culture we devoted the same energy and money to getting people active as we currently do to pacifying them… Imagine if we sought to enliven people’s own lives, rather than make them absurdly identify with others who in fact they cannot hope to emulate…

Or, as I think it should now be termed, ‘sport’. When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)

Let me be very clear, so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying here: I have nothing against sport (as opposed to: against ‘sport’). What I like is PARTICIPATION; what I don’t like is mere spectatorship. I like cycling – much more than I like WATCHING cycling, for example. I like playing table-tennis once in a while. I think our world would be far happier and healthier if we played sport, rather than watching ‘sport’.

And of course I am not just criticising the Olympics; not at all. On the contrary: the problem is rampant across ‘sport’. The trouble with soccer, nowadays, for instance, is that soccer is infected with the same cancer of professionalism as everyone else, as all major ‘sports’. Soccer teams don’t really represent their local town any more. They [players, and teams] are just bought by the highest capitalist bidder.

It’s time to end ‘sport’ — and bring back sport. Reflecting on what is wrong with these Olympics (see for instance & ) is an ideal time to start to do so…

But don’t just sit there! Don’t even just write comments on what I’ve written… Don’t just exchange a TV screen for a computer screen… (And if you do write comments, then do be a bit…playful…)

Rather, get out there, into the wonderful outdoors, and play.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Sport and ‘sport’ are not mutually exclusive. There’s no need to “end ‘sport'” in order to “bring back sport.” I know many people who participate in sport and thoroughly enjoy watching ‘sport’. And, it’s unlikely that ending ‘sport’ would cause people to begin participating in sport. It’s more likely that their spectating would move to a different specatcle.

  2. This site is ‘Talking Philosophy’. It would, therefore, be good, RR, if you actually talked philosophy: instead, your recent posts are more like partly hysterical rants. Enjoying the Olympics and engaging in sport are not mutually exclusive. Most of the points you made in your post on ‘madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution’ were strongly disputed; something which you ignore here. You urge us to ‘be a bit…playful’ if we post comments. And you say ‘Well, forgive me if I’m being curmudgeonly.’ I intend to do neither. If you made arguments, instead of posting rants, I would be more inclined to read and consider. It is certainly true that most of us cannot ‘hope to emulate’ the achievements of the Olympic athletes but it is not absurd to admire them: you present no reasons why it is. And while most of us will never emulate the achievements of the athletes at these games, some who are watching now will certainly exceed them. I look forward to admiring their performances in games to come.

  3. Keith – It’s not your place to police the style of the bloggers on this site, and it’s simply incorrect to suppose that because the site has “philosophy” in its title that all the contributions here have to be “philosophical” in one way or another (that’s never been the case).

    If you don’t like something posted here then you’re welcome to say why, but you need to remain civil & charitable, and employ reason & argument. This is the case even if you (correctly) judge that the post you’re responding to is polemical and rhetorical.

    Shorter version: Don’t tell our bloggers it would be good if they talked philosophy, and don’t use expressions such as “hysterical rants” to describe their postings. (After all, it should be entirely possible to take apart a “hysterical rant” without voicing the accusation.)


  4. I don’t enjoy either sports or “sports”.

    I haven’t watched the Olympic games or even read about them in the press.

    However, a few hours ago I called a woman friend to ask her why I hadn’t heard from her during the weekend and she explained that she was watching the Olympic games on TV.

    Was is wrong with that?

    In spite of what you call “bread and circuses”, she is fully aware that her work exploits her
    and that climate change is a problem and that neoliberal economic policies help the rich get richer.

    I doubt that watching the Olympic Games for a few hours has changed anyone’s political commitments or has blinded anyone to social realities.

    There is an elitist thing, of which I at times am guilty too, of looking down on mass entertainment, like the Olympic Games and justifying our intellectual elitist snobbery in the name of making the masses more aware of their exploitation.

    The masses are already aware of the lives they lead. The way that they decide to deal with or face the reality of their lives may not always please you (or me), but well, it’s their option.

  5. Jeremy: Noted and understood. swallerstein posted a much better response than mine.

  6. Thanks swallerstein.
    You doubt that anyone watching the Olympic ‘Games’ has had their political commitments changed or has been blinded to any social realities. An easy comment to make, because pretty much unfalsifiable. But nevertheless, it seems to me, profoundly implausible.
    Are you seriously saying to me that the gallons of jingoism dripping from all the media coverage of the Olympics doesn’t affect anyone’s politics? You really think that no-one is made more nationalistic by it?
    Are you seriously saying that the distortion of the news agenda, such that day after day we hear about medals and ‘Team GB’ above Aleppo or the Arctic ice melt is not affecting anyone’s awareness of social political and ecological realities?
    I am well aware that there are decent people with a sound political philosophy who like the Olympics. But I hope that they don’t try to fool themselves that the Olympics has in the round no harmful effects, and I hope they don’t try to fool themselves that our ‘sport’-obsessed world, which has lost the true meaning of sport, is not in any way harmed by its obsession. (One very obvious harm: the lifestyle of some top sportspeople (e.g. footballers), with their earnings being so incredibly disproportionate to that of their fans’, puts them and their WAGs in prime position to have the harmful effect demonstrated by Wilkinson and Pickett in THE SPIRIT LEVEL, and commented on in my earlier posts: Goto and/or ).

  7. I have always found reality much more complex than the ideas or interpretations we try to impose on it.

    Personally, I love sports and “sports”. Growing up I played competitive rugby; I change to recreational soccer once I realized my limitations_I could not train, attend to the University and work at the same time. In my late years- I am currently over 50-I do triathlons. I nearly train 5/6 days a week. I run, bike and swim. In addition, I watch constantly sports; I love it. I love the competition, the techniques, the strugle to excell, to win.
    Surprisingly, I am very concerned about climate change; I strongly believe the resources of this world are not fairly distributed, and what is worst not rationally distributed. We spend billions and billions of dollars in trying to cure obesity, a problem that can be just solved by a healthy diet and exercise. With a portion of the money we spend in trying to cure/prevent obesity, we can prevent famine, and kids dying of hunger. Not so say the incredible amounts of money, we spend in trying to hurt each other or trying to exploit and take advantage of each other.

    To be honest, I never understood these problems, but I know they are not simple. Blaming it on the media, the Olympics, or anything else prevent us from a serious discussion about why we -human beings- behave the way we do. And the following question, what do we want to change and how.

    Again, I do not believe there are easy answers; there has never been.

  8. Rupert:

    As I said above, I have not watched the Olympic Games on television, still less have I seen the television coverage in the U.K., where you live, as far as I know.

    However, is the coverage really jingoistic, as you claim?

    Do they show tanks, soldiers goose-stepping and chanting “England uber alles” off key?

    Or does the coverage presume that people support the teams which represent their countries and take a certain pride in those teams winning.

    Is it bad that people are proud of their country and of their land winning sports or even “sports” competitions?

    It seems to me that in an increasingly individualistic world it is positive for people to feel a sense of community, be it based on sports or “sports”, with those who live near them.

    As I look at contemporary society, I sense that the real danger is not that people take pride in their country and their local community, but that we all become isolated atoms, buying globalized goods at globalized malls, without any sense of connection to those around us, besides our immediate family unit, if that.

    The world imagined by John Lennon is so imaginary that it is no longer even a plausible utopia.

  9. swallerstein: I of course completely agree about the absence of community in our world today. But what kind of community is encouraged by mindless identification with a nation, what Perry Anderson called an ‘imagined community’ (MERELY imagined)?
    Community can however be created by sport (as opposed to ‘sport’).

  10. I can understand Rupert’s viewpoint in this matter. So we might ask what is the good or use of sport as it currently stands in the World today? It surely is a human trait to have the desire to be as good as one can get, at one’s chosen career, job, or interest. Yes there are some who are unprogressive and content merely to doddle along without too much blood toil tears and sweat. Had we all been like that then the human race would not have survived.
    So what do we see in professional sport, what does it tell us, teach us, does it help us understand anything? I would maintain that much can be learned from it. In the first place we see current limits of human endurance, strength, determination, resolution, planning, total commitment. This ramifies into Medicine, Sports science, Training methods, Psychology, Ethics. The human being at the peak of his/her physical, and sometimes mental ability.
    I have been watching the ladies weightlifting at body-weight 50Kg. It is astounding; the ability to get 135Kg. over twice their own bodyweight above their heads with the right technique and above all the huge additional demand of concentration and determination. I did weightlifting in my earlier days and accordingly know full well what is demanded and these ladies would have left me standing, or should I say flat on the floor. So I admire these people, a huge success in what they have chosen to do and examples of Human achievement.
    Would it not be ridiculous to think Andy Murray should mere have confined himself to playing friendly club tennis matches rather than aim for the top. That is against basic human nature to survive, we must be progressive. I will not discuss, nor am qualified so to do, the financial aspects in Sport other than to say human greed infects almost everything.
    The sort of human determination I have described above can surely also be detected in say Philosophy. What Philosopher worth his salt, who has not already done so, would not like to write a best seller like Russell’s “The Problems of Philosophy” or Ayers’ “Language Truth and Logic” or publish a paper which sets the philosophical world on fire like Edmund Gettier’s short paper in 1963 which shaped much subsequent work in epistemology.
    For those who watch sport I would advise them to stop basking in reflected glory it is not WE who have won the match it is the players. Get out do it yourselves and try to improve that is the way forward.

  11. Thanks Don. Useful points, by and large.

    One thing: I am hardly saying that Andy Murray should have confined himself to friendlies. But I do think professional ‘sports’ have fundamentally lost the ethos of being _sporting_, and of caring about something other than winning; and I think Murray stands as a sad and powerful symbol of this, as my earlier piece sought to show.

  12. Re:-Rupert Read August 1.
    I am not sure that it has ever been the case that any body in any kind of organised competition would not have loved to win it, or alternatively have done their very best even though they knew their chances were slim. What is the point of entering a competition if one does not attempt to win?What is the point of having a competition if people are not going to try to win? I note some Badminton players have been expelled from the Olympics for just that reason. They hoped an early loss would give them a better draw later. Generally people who do not give of their best are poorly regarded both by the public and those others who compete against them. How foolish would be a chess player who had his mind on something else other than winning. I can think of no greater insult to one’s adversary than not having ones full mind an attention on winning. Nobody wants to win because the competitor is not fully engaged with the game. I would be interested to know what you think Murray should care about other than winning.
    With the greatest respect, I suggest that you, surely mostly endeavour to do your best in Philosophy and your Political interests. You would not get far politically if others thought you had other agendas. The financial aspect underlying sport is in a sense accidental. Time was when the Wimbledon champion received virtually nothing for his efforts they were amateurs in those days. Then tennis was commercialised it was big business and big pay for the best players. I don’t wish to go into the morals of all that it is fait accompli and I am not enough of an economist to suggest how a change for the better could be effected. I do not think you can expect the likes of Murray to have the intellectual insight you have in what goes on in the world of finance. Additionally he would never suggest to you how you should conduct your professional life he is just a simple hard working tennis player. You know how to do Philosophy he knows how to do Tennis.
    I do understand your argument but feel your criticism and the need for change should be focussed not on the players, but on whatever, or whoever, is responsible for the finances on which sport rides.

  13. Some reactions to RR’s issue-packed blog.

    First – I can’t find a definition of sport (as opposed to ‘sport’), so I hope I’m not too far out in taking the former to mean sport practised without monetary or other reward, as distinct from ‘sport’, characterised by RR as “madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation …infected with …a cancer of professionalism”.

    Few would dispute the claim that some modern sporting events are marred at some level by such offences as corruption, greed, cheating, bribery, political manipulation, verbal abuse, slander or direct foul play. But such “infections” are not common practice. That is partly because – significantly – today’s greater public questioning and confrontation have brought demands for transparency, and this ensures that most offences are detected and punished. But it is fair to say that not all forms of unfairness have yet been challenged. As RR notes, only rich clubs can still buy top players from around the world rather than do their best with local talent. And in some sports the prohibitive cost of equipment and training (horses, boats) if an individual is to have any hope of turning professional in it, is unobtainable. Even so, the existence of some surviving abuses does not justify the assertion that competitive sport has now “lost its meaning”, or that professionalism is itself “a cancer”.

    What noble meaning, indeed, did sport ever have? English football began as a violent, rule-free conflict between two opposing sets of villagers, each battling to get a blown-up pig’s bladder back into its own territory. A 13th century report has one ‘player’ running straight onto an opposing ‘player’s’ dagger. For centuries tennis required a marked-out private court, and equestrian sports were elitist. So when and why did the sporting ideal of fair play and a level social playing field creep in? Judging by the stated aims of the International Olympic Community, these ideals were far from in place when the IOC was formed in the early 1890s. Its original cleaning-up agenda included among a dozen principles we would take for granted today an intolerance of cheating and violence. It implies that in the recent past corruption and foul play were masked or denied. So in one sense sports authorities are more actively addressing Rupert’s claim that “It’s time to end ‘sport’ — and bring back sport” than ever before..

    The London 2012 Olympic jamboree is a special case of sporting show-casing, and I agree with RR that much of its expenditure on unnecessary frills and frolics could be better put to funding accessible sports centres around the UK. Setting the Games-funding bar so high that only the richest of nations can in future afford to host the games is not good for world sport. Every media reference to the 1948 Olympics, hosted with post-war frugality, underlines that this is a real aspect of the shift in sporting priorities that RR deplores. Moreover, what exactly did the early part of the £27 million opening ceremony have to do with celebrating sport? RR’s fears about gross carbon footprints emanating from London 2012 are also to some extent justified. But while travel could perhaps be better organised into communal flights for the all competitors and families of one nation, it is clear from the grumbles of those excluded from flying across London during the period of the Olympics that there may have been a balancing reduction in unrelated air traffic.

    Moving back from expense and environmental issues to ideology, the epithet ‘jamboree’ traditionally means a rally with a purpose, and the IOC’s purpose does not currently stop short at organising a four-yearly competition between the world’s finest sportspeople. It aspires to global fraternisation, seeking “to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.” The relatively new embracing of competing rivals, and the kissing of winners by medal-presenting IOC officials on an informal podium may be a positive step towards brotherhood. But the school-pageant jingoism of the early part of the opening ceremony was hardly going to foster international harmony.

    I can’t go any further than this with RR. Most of what I wanted to say about competitors’ mechanical and greedy attitudes to participating in their sports has been very well said in responses to his recent blog ‘Commercial corruption of sport: Andy Murray, for example”. To quote two comments:- “Do you condemn anyone who wants to excel in their chosen field?” … “We all have only one life to lead and we should make the best of it.” To paraphrase Spinoza, we are determined to survive according to our natures, while applying the grid of reason to the way we play this out. Making the best of our lives usually trying to earn a living in an arena to which we are suited by nature. Here, sports professionals make a punishing choice. Competing with the sole purpose of winning can involve more relentless personal effort, physical pain, obsessional single-mindedness, meeting others’ expectations, patriotism, bad luck and, in individual sports, loneliness, than most other career choices. Financial reward may only be an incentive if losing means having to give up the sport.

    The philosophical problem of personal identity uses as a standard argument the idea that in the case of sports achievers there may be a total investment of personal identity in the practice of the chosen sport; maybe even in the arm that holds the racquet, or the eye that seeks the bulls-eye. Viewing one’s body as a machine is no more sinister than the philosopher’s honing of, pride in, and dependence on the brain as the means of making the best of his or her life, and fearing that it will malfunction. While granting the need to continue freeing sporting events of corruption and commercial exploitation, I think there is no place for judgementalism towards those who strive for sporting excellence.

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