Does sport have to be inhumane in the post-COVID-19 reality?
"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.” - George Orwell
Several years ago, while attending a global sports conference, I noticed that one of the prominent members of the International Olympic Committee was carrying a small book in French. Knowing that this individual had an inclination toward intellectual escapades, I couldn’t resist asking for the title and author. He replied, Robert Redeker, 2008, Le Sport Est – il inhumain? As I had not previously heard of Redeker, I asked some follow-up questions to establish his viewpoint.
Robert Redeker is a French writer and philosophy teacher, known for his controversial views on many aspects of humanity with a soft but critical spot for sport. He has also written two additional books dedicated to sport: Le Sport contre les peuples in 2002, and L'Emprise sportive in 2012.
For those of us who will be going to Tokyo to witness the Olympic and Paralympic cauldron being lit amidst hundreds of thousands of spectators during the opening ceremonies, it is also a perfect time to reflect on the current state of sport and the Olympic and Paralympic movement. Current deliberations are mostly led by the media, athletes, coaches, and this time by the World Health Organization due to the Covid-19 pandemic's unknown long-term impacts.
An ever-increasing number of leaders in sports as well as politics, education, and even religion are starting to pay closer attention to how sports can be used as a tool to benefit humanity. Critics such as Redeker have argued that it is an inhuman matrix and that contemporary sport dehumanizes athletes while focusing only on Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger - speed, height, and strength, as they are measurable quantities,) at the expense of social, societal, behavioral and anthropological development. Among all sports pundits, I have not yet heard the voice of philosophers, therefore, I will take this opportunity to highlight a crucial angle missing from this debate. I am one of those who wholeheartedly support the concepts and ideals of the five rings, but in the name of open-minded discussion, we should hear the other side, the darker side of some of the Olympic and Paralympic medals, in order to maintain a healthy balance. Competitive sport and its governing bodies thus cannot avoid being seen in a darker light. Some critics of sport have no hesitation in claiming that the modern athlete is a mutant, in the sense that “the best athlete is the one who surpasses the limits of humanity, exploding them” as Redeker strongly believes that we are witnessing a true “dehumanization” of the athlete.
It is in a high-level sport that athletes show what they are worth, and some also tend to go too far by taking illegal enhancement drugs. Depending on the type of dynamic (off-the-field and on-the-field) affiliation the athletes have with the environment (endorsement, contract, media exposure, celebrity status) in which they participate, there is a great temptation to turn to unlawful drugs in order to achieve victory. As the Council of Europe asked in a report on ethics in sports, “Has the modern-day “Robocop” become a competition-winning machine that coldly and rationally calculates the relationship between the anticipated benefit and the risk incurred, in order to derive maximum gain from the situation? If so, what makes an athlete comply or fail to comply with the rules of the sportsperson’s contract?” These are the troubling questions for which Redeker wants us to seek answers.
Philosophy is both critical and methodical and is dumbfounded by reality and the thoughts that it provokes. The Council of Europe writes “From Parmenides and Plato to Heidegger, from Hobbes and Hegel to Nietzsche, philosophers have often expressed” their view on the sport and physical activities that: ‘The sedentary life is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.’ Taking this idea to such an extreme that it is a paradox, Nietzsche wrote: ‘We do not belong to those who only get their thoughts from books, or at the prompting of books, – it is our custom to think in the open air, walking, leaping, climbing, or dancing on lonesome mountains by preference, or close to the sea, where even the paths become thoughtful.’” We need to keep in mind that Socrates was a gymnast, Plato a wrestler, Descartes a swordsman, Nietzsche a rambler, and Michel Serres a climber.
Ever since goalkeeping existentialist writer Albert Camus picked his last ball out of the back of the net almost 90 years ago, philosophers haven't had much time for sport. He even once said: "After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
Redeker argues that the 20th century has been the century of sport not only as a new ideology but also as an illusion of civilization. He claims that this century was sport-oriented in the same way that the Middle Ages were religious, “but while religion produced major works (in architecture, arts, poetry, theology, and philosophy) which defined a civilization, the sports era produced nothing of the sort.” According to a French musician, Frédéric Yonnet, professional sport can be defined as a spectacle. “The extent of such a spectacle in social life, via the major media (the written press, radio, TV and Internet) is an expression of the increasingly tight links between the sphere of sport and those of politics and economics,” write Bourg and Gouguet. Sport is the place where for better or for worse, science, art, technology, and social imagination meet. Sports-entertainment saturates space and time; it becomes a source of metaphors for all other areas of human life. Sports-entertainment also establishes the dictatorship of the performance of human life. Sport is responsible for production - through phenomena like massification of emotions - a new global common man. From this point of view, sport is the new global spiritual power. More importantly, it manufactures champions, prototypes of the men of the future. Regular sport is an intermediate link between sports-entertainment and philosophical practices of the body.
The sport needs masters of provoking thoughts like Redeker to keep it in check as we are drifting away from the sporting traditions of Greek and Roman antiquity, where the best athlete was a perfect man, as today’s athlete focuses on surpassing the limits of humanity. Robert Redeker in his essays and books launches merciless intellectual jabs at sport, but he forces the reader’s mind and soul to connect and reflect on the sport from a different perspective… and we badly need this “tough love” perspective to keep the sanity of all involved while attending the Circus Maximus in Tokyo and year later in Beijing.
This article is an updated version of its original version published in 2016 on People, Spaces, Deliberation.