Friday, February 6, 2009

PROSELYTIZING (FOR) SPORT. WHY PLAY SPORTS OR EXERCISE AT ALL? PART I

Assuming that most readers of this blog already enjoy sports in one way or another (I am not taking a huge leap of faith here), I doubt there will be any converts. My words will fall on mute ears and blind eyes, the first of several ironies—those in need of conversion will not read it and those already converted need not read it. Yet, a “service” is held below, as much in hopes of (re)conversion or reassurance as of advancing understanding. Alas! This may be a thread that would amuse Camus and his hero, Sisyphus, because of an underlying absurdity I leave up to others to explore. There are three parts. I entreat you, dear readers, to bear the burden with me, while the next two sections-as-postings “be-come”.*

Introductory Rites

Hymn. Let’s face the rock.


In the first place, why should we push the rock at all, when we know it is going to roll back down? To rephrase this in a way more germane and appealing to, ironically again, unsporting temperaments: Why should we care about pursuing sports and physical activity at all? Or to put it another way: what reasons can we, converts, give to those heathens and slothful cynics who shun sports and physical activity to join in our rule-governed exertions? Particularly when our allotted and cumulative energy in this valley where toil is guaranteed is a very limited amount, the expense of which sees us exiting for good. Before anyone spends any more energy on this, it would be good to have an answer to that.

Psalm. Pushing the rock and setting up the problem.

I am going to fling an accusatory stone (for which I will surely have to atone). A contemporary Spanish writer of note, Juan Manuel de Prada, whose novels have received all kinds of prizes in the old country, during an interview for the most widely read Sunday newspaper supplement stated, I suppose with no small glee, that: “Sport is the most nefarious legacy that Ancient Greece handed down to us” (XLSemanal, July 13th, 2008, p.78, my translation).

A bit of context will help to frame my choice to make an example of him in more than one way, and as model of “sinner” to be converted. Of a generously plump build, he comfortably embodies the stereotype of the pure intellectual suspicious of physical labors, down to his conch eyeglasses, double chin, and parsimony of movement (ironically, I am not trying to be insulting). According to him, he last ran when he was 16, a good quarter of a century ago. In other words, he could become the Saint Spare-Me-The-Sweat of couch potatoes some day (which is not too farfetched, given his dogmatic devoutness in matters Catholic and the frequency of his visits to the Holy See for journalistic purposes).

Penitential Rite: Becoming the rock and adding salt to the wound.

Camus speaks of how Sisyphus becomes the rock at one point in his struggle up the hill. Last year, after a public lecture I gave as part of my university’s faculty lecture series, where I explored the philosophical benefits of sport, a colleague asked me: “All this is fine and dandy for us who already enjoy physical activity, but how do we get to exercise or enjoy sports those who simply don’t like them?” Damnation and mortification! Shock on my part! Amid the flock, how dared this acolyte, model member of the “Health and Human Performance Studies” parish, come so close to apostasy?

And yet, both, her question and the Spanish writer’s remark bore the promise of epiphanic redemption should their challenge be met: Sport and physical activity are universally endorsed, often reluctantly and temporarily embraced by those on whom the message is forced upon, on a variety of fronts: many of these reduce to the utilitarian concerns having to do with the health benefits and concerns over the ever growing equatorial growth of waistlines and narrowing of arterial passages. Then, there is the more “pure at heart” eulogizing of the intrinsic enjoyment to be found in these sort of vigorous activities (just in what this intrinsic worth lies is puzzling itself, but something I leave for another occasion). Yet both persuasions prove, time and again, ineffectual. The devilish temptation to relapse onto the comforts of prostration, the inertness of reading, indulgence in the listless intellectual and sensual pleasures of the arts, computerized pastimes, or worse and more common, TV stupor—all garnished with copious amounts of fat-laced snacking—prove to be irresistible.

We have pushed the rock up the hill. The view from the top is not as magnificent surmised: the horizon is strewn with languid bodies as far as the eye can see. For most, this rock-pushing trek is not worth the effort. Unless your appetite devolves into a gluttonous hunger for self-induced, pointless punishment—the penitence for this being forced passivity, of course. But that is not our problem today. Rather, it is the opposite.

What will inspire those motion-allergic people to push their own rock up a hill (even if it might be pointless on some deep sense), not (only) because it is healthy but because it is … fun? How can we find not just solace but deliverance and embrace the good cause? The rock rolls down again.

Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza
Linfield College

* If adulation will not work with as sophisticated a mind as yours, perhaps the insinuation of shared toil after worthiness and atonement will. As an aside, and of all the things for which I could express contrition, I offer no apology for the less than orthodox nature of this post—stylistically heretical from a philosophical stance but genuinely seeking to follow Sophia, for those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

4 comments:

Carl Thomen said...

Your portly and lethargic author should remember that (to paraphrase CLR James) originally, when the games were held at Olympia, Plato and Pythagoras were always in the front seats. Socrates, Anaxagoras, Demosthenes, Pindar, Herodotus and Diogenes all attended the games. There had to be a reason for such a collection of intellects to appreciate sport, and indeed, when the barbarians could not understand these childish escapades and asked the great men of Greece why their athletes risked life and limb to dirty themselves in front of others, Lucian, in one of his dialogues, put the answer in the mouth of Solon:

“By seeing what was going on you would be able to appreciate why we are quite justified in expending so much ardour on these spectacles. I cannot find words to give you an idea of the pleasure that you would have if you were seated in the middle of the anxious spectators, watching the courage of the athletes, their beautiful bodies, their splendid poses, their extraordinary suppleness, their tireless energy, their audacity, their sense of competition, their unconquerable courage, their unceasing efforts to win a victory. I’m sure that you would not cease to overwhelm them with praise, to shout again and again, to applaud.”

As to why the spectators should join the game, I trust I take no ill-advised liberty when I bastardize the Bard:

We’re oft to blame in this
Tis too much proved
That with devotions visage and pious lack of action
We do sugar o’er the devil himself

Kamayani 'The Verbaliser' Sharma said...

As a highly confused and paunch-developing undergrad, I'm just going to blink and murmur that there's something to be said for the much-vaunted-by-Pythagoras 'contemplative ideal'.

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Martina said...

I do enjoy sports, however this post seems very condescending, and certainly won't "convert" any "slothful cynic who shuns sports and physical activity". While there is something to be said for the benefits of physical activity, I feel it is a stretch to glorify sports to the point of denouncing the "devilish temptations" of "relapsing onto the comforts of prostration, the inertness of reading, indulgence in the listless intellectual and sensual pleasures of the arts".
Sport is not a religion, nor should it become one.