Sport and Spectacle

Sport and Spectacle

I’ve never been a sports fan. I can see the attraction, in some ways, but I struggle to see the deep fascination so many people feel for them, or gaming at all for that matter. The concept of sport and the concept of play are completely separate, but somehow sport always enters into concepts of male perceptions of play. Maybe it was looking at Francis Bacon’s riffing on Muybridge’s wrestlers that set me off. Sport, in Bacon, has homoerotic overtones. Between his “Two Figures” studies of wrestlers to the single figure depiction of a man’s position on the canvas, the element of struggle is constant, as is spectacle.

Or maybe it was the constant presence of Hulk Hogan, Shaq, and other sports figures on commercials these days. I’m not sure. I remember an epiphany a while back about football— I think people in America like it because it represents war with easy resolution. Teams campaign down the field, and are victorious or thwarted— someone wins, someone loses with little room for ambiguity. There are no worries about good guys or bad guys, only teams who test their skill. Football is not like life. Football, and most sports, is amoral. There are simple rules. Life is messy, and the rules are ambiguous. Sport carries with it the qualities of struggle, spectacle, and a narrative move to resolution.

Reading Roland Barthes’ thoughts on wrestling in Mythologies, I was struck by his separation of wrestling from temporal narrative resolution. Unlike boxing or judo, which have a narrative arc, Barthes argues that wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle which exists outside of time— it doesn’t matter that the contest is fixed, but rather that an adequate depiction of suffering and punishment occurs to satisfy our taste for justice. The wrestlers, like commedia del arte characters, satisfy basic cravings for good guys and bad guys, and for retribution for moral warriors. The concept of morality is central, rather than resolution. If the good guys always won, there would be no need to tune in next week to watch the struggle replayed. With train-wreck precision, wrestling fans tune back into the struggle and the spectacle.

Spectacle takes its meaning from frozen moments of images, of faces pressed to the mat or raised in triumph. At the basic level, I think modern sport emphasizes the triumph over the defeat. It is closer to spectacle than contest, though sport must have elements of both. It offers resolution and justice, outside of time.

I can remember a conversation I had with a professor from another university a few years ago. He lamented that we live in a culture where heroism is short lived, and we soon forget the accolades and accomplishments of most sports heroes. Only a few have cultural staying power. Perhaps its because we constantly must be immersed in the struggle of others, to distract us from our own. Once they step off-stage, they become surplus.

Sports are an avoidance of the realities of time. We don’t want to be reminded of the fact that we all fade, that skill is fleeting, and that the good guys don’t always win. The fakest of all contests may indeed be the truest, because at least it recognizes the moral play we find ourselves inside. We want justice from others, and from ourselves— and its a quality so hard to discover outside the realm of the stage. When we take center stage, we become the buffoon, and cannot bear to stay there. Ultimately, wrestling with oneself becomes comedic rather than tragic. That is, if you’re paying attention to the spectacle.