Sport and Art, Pt. 2: The Aesthetics of the Sports Spectacle

Sport and Art, Pt. 2: The Aesthetics of the Sports Spectacle

By Ljubodrag Simonovic *

A sports spectacle is the climax of the sports aesthetics. To direct a spectacle is the highest form of manipulation with highly developed technical equipment and scientific methods. A sports spectacle tends to raise the marginal to the level of fatal, in order to marginalize the crucial social issues and leave their „solution” to plutocracy. Sport is always pictured in an idealized form, as it is the incarnation of the basic principles of the ruling order. At the same time, the spectacle promotes sports commodities, which means that it is a market manifestation of the basic principles of capitalism. The purpose of contemporary sports spectacles is not to produce a religious relation of viewers to the ruling values of the existing world, something Coubertin insisted on, but to offer them a possibility of an (illusory) escape from everyday life. Sportsmen do not fight for genuine human values and do not encourage people to oppose injustice; they are the incarnations of the ruling values and as such are mythological characters with legendary features and biographies, similarly to „heroes” from national mythologies, and are the hallmark of the epoch. At the same time, they are the billboards of multinational concerns and symbols of their expansionist („victorious”) power, which means that they are a specific commodity designed to ensure the strategic ends of the ruling order. The aesthetics of the spectacle has the same purpose, making sportsmen the incarnation of the ruling values and as such the symbols of capitalist paganism: to glorify the winner means to glorify the ruling order.

Sport is no longer the indicator of the developing capacities of the ruling order and thus the carrier of „progress“: its main role is to deal with the (critical) mind and perform a depolitization of the oppressed. The purpose of the sports spectacle is not to create a physically and mentally active man, but a profitable „spectator“ who will, in his leisure time, be pinned down to the TV set or will spend his „free time“ at stadiums and sports centres. The focus has been transferred from the ideological to the psychological level: sports spectacles serve to blind and „pacify“ people. The „grandeur“ of a sports spectacle corresponds to the miserable life of an ever bigger number of people. Everything is being done to blind the man deprived of his rights with glamour, offer him an opportunity to „experience“ and take part in something „big“ and run away from everyday gloominess. The „magnificent“ dimension of „winners“ is the other side of the humiliating social position of „losers“ (working class). The ruling establishment of capitalism has discarded the idea of a „happy world“, which for almost two centuries was the main ideological lure for working „masses“ deprived of their rights. Instead of the promised „better life“, those deprived of their rights are „offered“ increasingly bloody sports spectacles as the compensation for their increasingly bloody life – which is to „reconcile“ (Compte) them to the existing world and prevent them from becoming aware of its current (destructive) development. The stadium, as the most authentic space of modern man’s spiritual slavery, becomes a „space of freedom“ and the „oasis of happiness“,where modern cesars sit in “blue loges” not to watch the fights of modern gladiators, but to make sure that the „masses“ of those deprived of their rights are (still) under control.

In sport, the „beautiful“ is determined by the nature of the ruling order and not by universal human values. The victory achieved by an ever better result (record) is the basic criterion for determining the „beautiful“ – and this is being imposed as the ruling „aesthetic“ model („sports body“, „sports image“). The „beautiful“ has a positivist determination and is attributed to anything that symbolizes and glorifies the existing world and the ruling values: it is an attribute of the „victorious spirit“. Hence the highest „beauty“ is the body in combative exertion. A „sports body“ does not emanate spirituality, nobleness or naturalness, but a dehumanized and denaturalized (destructive) strength. Sportsmen are at the front line of the increasingly ruthless economic war and are reduced to a circus-gladiator billboard. Instead of a winner whose eyes have a look of the „magnificent beast“ (Hitler) with a „passionate cry“ (Coubertin), we have a sportsman who is in the functional unity with the „victorious strategy“ of capitalist concerns. The aesthetics of the sports space indicates the truth that the basic purpose of sport is not to create a „healthy body“ and thus a „healthy spirit“, but to produce a man suited to the nature of the ruling order. Stadiums, sports centres, body-building and fitness-centres are modern Procrustean forest mutilating man’s natural being and destroying Eros, imagination, the feeling of being part of the human community… Sports aesthetics is a spectacular manifestation of slavery and destruction of humanity.

Capitalism has abolished “paradise” in heaven and has created numerous illusory worlds which enable people to escape from life – which is becoming a capitalist “hell”. Instead of a universal illusion offered by Christianity, man can choose between virtual worlds which have become a commodity on the ever bigger market of illusions. „Freedom“ is reduced to an escape from the existing world. Capitalistically degenerated art transfers into the world of symbols whatever appears as a concrete human need: the struggle for a „nice world“ replaces the struggle for a just world. In it, creative powers become a power alienated from man which draws libertarian spirit from life and degenerates it by way of symbolism in which it acquires a caricatured and Don-Quixotean form. „Masterpieces“ of art become a highly concentrated power alienated from man, and a suprahistorical criterion for determining the „human“, which means an instrument for man’s spiritual submission. A „profusion of artistic expressions“, which are of a commercial character and technical form, is the other side of the spiritual misery in society. Beaux-artsare the ideological mask of a hopelessly ugly world ruled by the principle „Money does not stink!“, which is based on the destruction of life. „Artistic galleries“ are ghettoes for art. Outside galleries we have increasingly primitive and aggressive symbols of the ruling order. The whole life space has become a billboard of capitalism. Man is deprived of the right to illusion: it does not have only anti-libertarian, but above all an anti-existential character.

„Individual Actions“

The theory of sport glorifies „individual actions“ by taking them out of the whole of eventand giving them a meaning which is supposed to give sport a „humanist“ aureole. The glorification of „individual actions“ is not the glorification of man, but of the ruling values incarnated in sport. Otherwise, the actions would be understood as man’s hopeless endeavour to assert his humanity in inhuman conditions, and this would be the critical starting point in man’s relation to sport as an institution. „Individuality“ is restricted by rules of the game determined by the nature of sport as show-business. „Individual play“ and „bravuras“ are elements of a directed performance in which „free play“ is but an illusion. Habermas also emphasizes that: „To the extent in which a coach allows his players to perform individual actions, sport has nothing to do with play. What is claimed to be play is actually a professional show on one side with consumers on the other.“ (1) By insisting on the reductionist approach with which the essence of capitalism is ignored, Habermas is not capable of realizing that coaches are only participants in the formation of a playing style the change of which is conditioned by the „spirit of time“ and requirements of the owner of the sports show-business. Coaches are modern slave-drivers being driven themselves by the whip of capital under which they must bend the knee – if they are to stay „in play“. They are the extended hand of club-owners who constantly change the rules of play in order to preserve the attractive character of sports spectacles and fill the sports halls (stadiums), which means to provide TV broadcasts and commercials. The estimated „public taste“, which is conditioned by the ever more impersonal and cruel life, represents the guiding principle of the owners of sports show-business in the creation of new rules which immediately condition the playing style and technique. The coach’s physical appearance, his clownish behaviour, his relation to players – everything is in the service of show-business. It is all about a modern circus, whose répértoire is directed by its owners and in which the coach, as well as players, have their respective roles. The „improvisation“, which Habermas identifies with (free) play, is but a part of the „well done job“ of a professional player (entertainer). Adorno and Horkheimer rightly observe that in sport, just as in all other areas of „mass culture“, there is a tense, purposefull undertaking, and a not so well informed spectator still cannot perceive differences in combinations, the meaning of changes which proceed from arbitrarily set rules. The organisation of the whole life is deprived of content.(2) The „racial quota“ in professional sport in the USA indicates that the rules of sports show-business are conditioned by the logic of profit. Assuming that the largest part of the audience is composed of „white“ people and that they want to see „white“ players so that they should not feel degraded (since sportsmen are a mythological incarnation of the „combative spirit“ on which man’s survival in capitalism is based), the owners of the sports circus must offer a certain number of „white“ players, in spite of their being below the level of skill of Afro-American players – who are their competitors on the sportslabour market. This is an obvious example of discarding the principle of „free competition“, which has a direct influence on the quality of play. At the same time, the place of the (main) coach and the ownership of sports show-business have remained, with rare exceptions, the exclusive privilege of „white“ people, which clearly indicates the (racist) character of American „democracy“.

The true nature of „individuality“ in sport is clearly shown if we consider several matches in the same sport in continuity. Then it can be seen that, in fact, we deal with typified „moves“ and „actions“ and that „individuality“ is reduced to variations within a patterned behaviour given by the nature of the concrete sport. A man who does not have a developed aesthetic being can only technically „work out“ the play, „cheat“ the opponent and make him a laughing stock, but he cannot realize his playing being. What motivates a professional player is not the „joy of playing“, but a fear of not meeting the expectations of the coach and of losing the place in the team. Existential uncertainty is the force that destroys playing spontaneity. In addition, the „joy of playing“ involves an unquestionable acceptance of the ruling value model which discredits man. Sport is less and less a space showing an opportunity for „personal initiative“, and more and more a space ruled by scientific mind manipulated by political and financial centres of power. The „development of sport“ is immediately conditioned by a further development of science and increasingly deep integration of the „sports engine“ into the capitalist machinery. Instead of being the creator of sports results, man becomes a tool for achieving records; instead of a „will to win“, the main „anthropological“ driving mechanism of capitalism, sport is dominated by a technocratic mind which turns the „breaking of records“ into a „scientific project“. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the quality of the sports play belongs to the shrines of a soulless artistry dominated by a planning mind which demands that everything should prove its meaning and effect. (3) The true winners in sport are capitalist concerns and teams of scientists and doctors who treat sportsmen as experimental rats: a means for experimenting with medicaments and realizing profit.

The so-called „playing sports“, created in the Modern Age, are actually surrogates incarnating in a „pure“ form the basic principles of capitalism: the principle of competition and absolutized principle of the quantitatively measurable performance. This is the basis and framework within which the elements of „sports play“ (such as dribbling, passing the ball…) acquire their meaning. The dynamics of their changes (above all, the rules of play, gladiator’s spirit and mechanized body) is not conditioned by the natural, cultural or individual needs of the actors, but by the capitalist whip which makes from them an attractive show-business. Instead of developing playing capacities and various playing moves, sport is dominated by a technicized destructive power which abolishes the very possibility of playing. In tennis, the service is expected to be so strong that the opponent is incapable of returning the ball; in volleyball, smashes should hit the ball into the floor in such a way that any kind of play becomes impossible; in basketball, the greatest challenge is the dunk-shot; in boxing, the strike should knock the opponent down to the floor;  the development of football has long ceased to involve the development of playing skills and individuality, but the development of stamina, speed, a „system“ of playing with less and less space for imagination and spontaneity… In individual sports, man has become a tool for achieving „top results“; in collective sports, man has become a wheel in the team that seeks to be a „perfect mechanism“. The players are not required to play, but „to do a good job“, which means to successfully accomplish the given task. In ranking the qualities which determine the „value“ of players, coaches put in the first place their readiness to serve to the „team play“ („conception“), which means to unquestionably execute the „coaches’ ideas“. An „obedient“ player who „works hard and thinks little“, is the prototype of a „good guy“. A man who seeks to realize his playing (creative) individuality, which means to have his „own ideas“, is undesirable as he „destroys the play of the team“. At the same time, a sportsman must actively participate in the increasingly merciless destruction of his own organism. Instead of having the conscious of a free individual, fanatical conscious is literally being inserted into a sportsman’s head, driving him into self-destruction for the purpose of achieving the required result. In addition, the „top sportsman“ must be capable of and ready to inflict to his „opponent“ (serious) physical injuries and to kill him, treating the opponent in the same way in which he treats his own body: it has an instrumental and destructive character. The „attractiveness“ of a sports spectacle is not measured (primarily) by the quality of the playing skill, but by the extent to which the drama of life is reproduced measured by the amount of the spilt blood and the number of massacred sportsmen.

Sportsmen’s clownish looks and behaviour are part of the sports show-business, in which the leading role is given to the „black“ players. In basketball, the most prominent in that sense were „Haarlem Globetrotters“, a basketball circus made up of young „black“ players from the poorest New York ghetto, which has become a role model in the contemporary American professional basketball. The image of the „coloured“ people created in sport is meant to justify their humiliating social position. In boxing, with (almost) complete domination of the „coloured“ sportsmen, boxers are not shown as noble fighters, which would be in line with the claim of the bourgeois theorists of sport (above all, Coubertin), that boxing is a „noble art“, but as beasts. Public media show us the picture of a sportsman who looks like a circus performer and, like stars in Hollywood soap-operas, is expected to entertain (depolitize and stupefy) the „masses“. The names of clubs and players’ nicknames have a circus and caricatured note, quite suitable to the ruling values. The extent to which sportsmen are degraded as people in the sports show-business can be seen from the performance of „Chicago Bulls“: they run onto the field imitating the roaring of bulls, the best players appear on posters as bulls with horns, while sports commentators begin TV broadcasts of their games with the following words: „The bulls have run onto the field…“. Special significance is given to the sports equipment. It has become a marketing robe, and the number of one’s „idol“ is a magic sign offering viewers the possibility to identify with their „idol“ and thus acquire some of his „power“. Of course, all that is meant to increase the profit and create compensatory mechanisms for those deprived of their rights: „idols“ are an instrument for creating the illusion that in capitalism everybody can earn money and fame. By becoming a show-business, sports is increasingly dominated by a circus and entertaining movement, which means a skill that does not develop man’s creative powers and enable people to develop their interpersonal relations: its aim is to „entertain“ the audience. It is a controlled „spontaneity“, while the man-circus rider is but one of the tools of the owners of show-business, used for making an „attractive show“. Play is not a free and spontaneous realization of man’s playing abilities, but a well-rehearsed technique of behaviour reduced to „working out“ the (entertaining) role of the player. The development of the playing technique in sport is straightforward and corresponds to the combative, progressistic, and ultimately, profiteering logic. A „better“ move is always the one which contributes more to the purpose of play, that is, to the realization of the given end. In sport, man literally becomes a mechanical doll, thus reaching the highest level of dehumanization and denaturalization in capitalist society. Sportsmen have turned from „heroes“ into clowns of capitalism. The truth about sport and sportsmen can be found in books written by retired sportsmen in order to show that sportsmen are human beings and not beasts, clowns or robots. What gives a special dimension to the sports show-business is that sports games, like horse and dog races, have provided a new way of betting. Sportsmen are reduced to impersonal objects of a gambling euphoria, which is one of the most perfidious forms of incorporating the oppressed into the spiritual orbit of capitalism – dominated by the separation of goods from their appropriation and the illusion that „happiness“ is the power determining human life.

Sports skill, which in sports theory and practice is called „sports technique“, does not come from the cultural, but from the technical sphere that appears in the circus robe. Sportsmen are not guided by artistic inspiration, but by a rational pattern of play conditioned by the rules of show-business and based on the logic of war and capitalist productivity. In athletics and other „record-making“ sports, this is a war without the opponent: man „pursues a record“, which symbolizes the capitalist „progress“, and thus becomes his own opponent. Instead of the playing technique being subordinated to man as the universal creative being and instead of offering him a possibility for a specific individual expression, man is, even during the process of acquiring a playing technique, subordinated to the model of play, which means to a particular „playing technique“. In sport, mastering of a technique involves technicization of the body and the relation to it. To master asports technique involves destruction of a man’s playing individuality and his being reduced to a robotized model of „sportsman“. In „playing sports“, mastering a technique involves a circus-gladiator relation to the body. Man seeks to show his playing individuality, but he does that in such a way which leads to technicized and patterned motions, thus distorting his playing being. In sport, a bodily motion does not express man’s natural or „divine being“; it is a manifestation of the anti-cultural and anti-existential spirit of capitalism. It is not grounded in art, but in the ruling Social Darwinist way of life and the „technical civilization“ based on the absolutized principle of the quantitatively measurable performance.The basis of the sports motion is the industrial mimesis, the logic of industrial modelling, the principle of efficiency and rationality… The technicization of sport has become one of the ways of manipulation and submission of man: playing technique is the form in which the ruling order, by means of natural laws, establishes domination over man. To master asports technique means suppression and mutilation of man’s original playing, spiritual, rational and physical capacities and his submission to a dehumanized and denaturalized „progress“, which becomes a force majeurethe fatal pace of which man can slow down but cannot stop: sport symbolizes the victory of the „technical civilization“ over man. Instead of a (creative) unity of the spirit and body, there is a (repressive) unity of the given ends and a (degenerated) body and psyche. The mastering of a sports technique becomes the development of a dehumanized technique of motion directed towards the development of strength, speed, stamina and the creation of a loyal and usable subject. In sport, the model of motion corresponds to the nature of a concrete sport, which conditions not only the technique of play and rules, but also man’s physical and personal development. Instead of a man who has developed his universal creative powers, we get a „sportsman“ who is reduced to a specific body, motion and skill required by a particular sport. Sports technique is subordinated to a rationally established model of motion dominated by precision, mechanical repetition of movements, coordination, methodicalness, concentration, stamina, self-control, submission to „progress“ the pace of which is measured by quantitative indicators… These are all „positive qualities“ which are to enable man’s complete incorporation into „technical civilization“. The more dominant the principle of performance is, the less playing technique is a playing skill, which means the expression and assertion of human (individual) capacities, and it is increasingly a degeneration and destruction of the human, especially with the early selection.

Unlike the ancient techne, which did not distinguish between nature and man and involved the virtue expressed in an artistic form, sports technique is a capitalist form of gaining control over nature and thus deals with man’s natural being. As the authentic expression of „technical civilization“, sport mutilates man („disciplining“, the principle of „greater effort“, quantification, the absolutized principle of performance, mechanical „learning of movements“ through repetition which becomes the main way of acquiring the appropriate body and killing one’s individuality…) and disables humanization of nature through culture, which is the highest challenge of humanistic pedagogy. Instead of a free bodily movement, which is a humanized natural movement, sport is dominated by a repressive model of movement the nature of which is conditioned by the Social Darwinist and progressistic nature of the ruling order. Sports technique involves a specific space, which is the capitalistically degenerated natural space corresponded by a degenerated body and a degenerated „playing skill“. The dynamics of movement in sport is conditioned by the „life rhythm“ dictated by the dynamics of the capitalist reproduction and it deals with the natural rhythm of movement. The „perfect rhythm of movement“, the highest functional and aesthetic challenge, which used to be found in the animal world, now is found in technical processes and the progressistic spirit of capitalism. In this context, extremely important in methodological terms is the distinction made between progress and progressism, which means between the development of science and technique which are to enable the development of a free, spiritually rich personality and interpersonal relations, and the development of science and technique which turns into the destruction of nature, interpersonal relations and man himself. Technicization of sport is not the result of a direct influence of the industrial work on sport, as Plessner, Habermas and Rigauer claim, but of the fact that sport has become the means of the capitalist reproduction and, in that context, of the instrumentalization of science and technique by capitalist concerns and centres of political power. Sports technique becomes a means for turning man’s life energy into a destructive capitalist practice.

Bodily movement is based on the model of behaviour which expresses a certain value (ideological) model, which means that bodily movement is of a symbolic character: it reflects man’s position in the world and his relation to the ruling order. In Christianity, to kneel and kiss a hand (master’s or priest’s) is a symbolic form of man’s essential degradation, while asceticism and torturing of the body are symbolic forms of man’s degradation in existential terms. The aristocratic bodily posture („aristocratic bearing“: stiff posture, protruded shoulders, head leaned backwards…) demonstrates a nobleman’s „superiority“ and it is an estheticized bodily manifestation of the oppressive power. The same applies to „chivalry“, which becomes an idealized form (directed against the working man) of a murderous power. In Renaissance, among the emerging bourgeoisie we see the development of a playing (ludic) movement which is not normatively founded, does not insist on a (given) form and expresses an awakened humanity. It is dominated by man’s self-discovery corresponded by passion, impetuosity, aimlessness, joy of action regardless of consequences, joy of a free physicality, intellectual powers, imagination… Ludic becomes ludicrous, as opposed to the later strictly normative and repressive ludus (Huizinga), and its movement is most akin to the children’s movement. In capitalism, the ruling model of the body and bodily posture demonstrates the progressistic and expansionist nature of the ruling order – having its climax in sport. They deal with libertarian heritage of the popular physical culture, with Rousseau’s pedagogical doctrine and emancipatory intention of the philanthropic and dancing movements, based on man’s right to a free body and free movement. Sports play as a specific model of behaviour requires an appropriate model of movement (motion), body, man – and thus an appropriate pedagogy (obtaining legitimacy of the „universally human“) and appropriate aesthetics (obtaining the legitimacy of the „cultural“). Stylization of play is not based on the aesthetic, but on the functional principle, which conditions also the modellingof movement. In the sports movement there is no relation of man to the existing world. There is a positive „relation“ to reality whereas the human disappears in the „factual“. In sport, man’s authentic movement is abolished – the movement through which man relates to the world and expresses his peculiarity – and a model of movement is being imposed on him which corresponds to the nature of the ruling order. People become bearers of roles and thus are part of the (given) play. The „quality of play“ is not determined according to the manifestation of a specific human expression, but according to the extent to which the play of the „player“ corresponds to the model of a particular playing role. It is not a „humanization of man“, it is his „disciplining“ achieved by way of technique, man being not only the working power and tool for achieving results (victory, record), but also a source of energy and object of production (raw material). Movements are defined and patterned, and the rhythm of exertion and its intensity are in the service of achieving the given end. Skill has an adaptive and repressive, and not a creative and change-oriented nature. It is reduced to the imitation of imposed dehumanized and denaturalized patterns of behaviour conditioned by a specialist one-sidedness. A „variety of movements“ is achieved through loss of the human. Sport is dominated by a movement which is formally technical and essentially destructive. It takes man out not only from culture but from the living world.

Bodily movement is the creation not only of a certain aesthetic and living, but also of a social (class) form. This was the purpose of the ancient physical culture, and this is what Nietzsche insists on, trying, by way of physical movement (aristocratic manners), not only to produce the aristocratic way of life but to turn the „new aristocracy“ into an exclusive organic (class) community. Sport has an anti-social character. It turns man into „opponents“ and society into a „civilized“ menagerie. Horkheimer and Adorno are right: “brotherhood” of sports supporters protects from the true brotherhood. (4) A „sports team“ and „audience“ are pseudo-social groups and as such are forms of capitalistic degeneration of man as a social being. As „play becomes more developed“, so is the sports collective less and less a community of people, and more and more a group of robotized gladiators. Instead of human communication, sportsmen use the „body language“, which is reduced to a conflict between mechanicized beings as advertising billboards of capital.

As far as the argument that sport develops physical abilities, achieves „mastery“ and realizes the „impossible“ is concerned, the question can be raised: why is it not circus skills which represent a challenge, but sports competitions dominated by a denaturalized (technicized, destructive) Social Darwinism? A circus performance requires one to master one’s own body by acquiring specific physical powers, but it does not develop a ruthless combative character and a self-destructive conscious. It is not ruled by the principle of „greater effort“, as is the case in sport, but of the optimumeffort. Circus gymnastics requires an early specialization and the creation of a specifically built body capable of performing the given „acts“. The aim is not the victory or record, but to achieve the „impossible“, and thus one’s own personal achievement which involves a perfect control over one’s own body, high concentration… Circus gymnastics is similar to sports gymnastics, which has little significance for Coubertin’s „utilitarian pedagogy“ on which the sports pedagogy is based. It does not calculate the results according to a given model, the aim is rather to have a highly attractive performance which, through hard work, makes possible what „ordinary“ man regards as impossible. Skill is not grounded in culture nor does it make new forms of culture, which means that it does not have an artistic character, but is reduced to the technique of performance, the body being reduced to the instrument for „performing the act“. Circus skill is progressive only in technical terms, as it does not have a libertarian but an entertaining character. The circus demonstrates human powers at a technical level reflecting the characteristic risk of the ruling order: acrobats „play with death“, for example, in triple and quadruple salto mortale. It is a „victory over death“ through letting off the steam of the fear of life, where life itself is the stake and where man faces the spectre of death every day. Circus troupes are international, but it is not visible on the scene: acrobats are „united“ by their technical-entertaining skill, not by the variety of their national cultures. A circus group is based on cooperation and strict division of roles imposed by the „act“ which is to amaze the audience. It is no accident that Coubertin does not depart from circus players when he speaks of courage. Coubertin realized that circus is dominated by the entertaining skill and that in it there is no conflict between people and the development of belligerent conscious – which is the basis of his religio athletae that was to form colonial phalanges which would conquer the world. Similarly, mountaineering, gardening and other ecological activities, kolo and popular physical culture, playing musical instruments, dances, swimming and water plays, skiing and plays in the snow, various forms of children’s play with the ball and other objects, modelling, kite flying, cycling and mastering of other technical devices – all these enable man to develop his creative abilities, but they are all excluded from Coubertin’s (sports) „utilitarian pedagogy“. Only those skills are acceptable which involve a conflict between people and are aimed at a better quantitatively measurable performance. The essence of sports „mastery“ is the production of the ruling relations and values.

The Principle of „Perfection“

In the philosophy of sport „perfection“ is proclaimed the highest aesthetic challenge. This is also indicated by Coubertin in his „Sports pedagogy“ : „Sport is a voluntary and regular cult of intensive muscular exercises motivated by a desire for progress and which is not afraid of risk. So, five concepts: initiative, persistence, intensity, pursuit of perfection (recherche du perfectionnement), acceptance of possible risks. These five concepts are crucial and basic.“ (5) In antiquity, „perfectioning“ involves the harmonization of man with the divine order which represents the unattainable ideal of (cosmic) perfection. Since the earthly world is doomed to perish, a pursuit of perfection does not involve the struggle to preserve the already existing world, especially not to create a new world, but to do such acts which will bring man closer to the cosmic perfection. At the same time, man looks back at the past as, according to the ancient view, people are less and less perfect as they move further away from their (divine) pre-being. In the original (ancient) Olympic doctrine, „perfection“ does not have a productivistic and progressistic, but a spiritual character, and is the climax of man’s complete (religious) incorporation into the established world according to the principle gnothi seauton, which means as the „Gods’ toy“.

The „pursuit of perfection“ is actually the imitation of the given model of behaviour. Man is degraded as an individual if he accepts the given model of play which becomes the basic value-related challenge. Spiritual, emotional and creative impoverishment is conditio sine qua non of „perfection“ in sport and the bourgeois physical culture. It becomes man’s „supreme“ alienation from himself as the playing being. „Victory“, „honour“, „beauty“, „happiness“, „observation of the established rules“, „pursuit of perfection“ and „mastery“ – all these terms are used to disguise the practice of dealing with man’s libertarian aspirations. What appears as „human“ is man’s endeavour to „accept the given role“ and thus give the human content to the model to which he must submit. Play before an audience becomes a behaviour in which man (hopelessly) tries to find a compensation for lack of humanity. Play is not the expression of freedom; it is the spasm of a desperate man who invested in it the last human element in him in order to get the applause from the audience. Self-valuation is not achieved through the development of playing skills, but through the (public) effect produced by the sports technique. The „greatness of a sports success“ becomes the measure of human degradation.

In sport, a „pursuit of perfection“ becomes an aesthetic disguise for „progress“ based on the achievement of results (records) which have an „objective“ quantitative measure and involve the absolutized principle of performance: „modern“ sport deals with man’s erotic, ethical and aesthetic being. „Perfection“ symbolizes the final world that can be „perfected“ according to the criteria of the given value model as the ideal incarnation of the basic principles of the ruling order. „Pursuit of perfection“ is not mediated by a natural movement or aesthetics, but by technique. In the past, the animal body and movement were the most important challenge for achieving „perfection“. Today, „perfection“ is achieved through the fundamental principles of „technical civilization“, the emphasis being given on technical precision, efficiency, robotized mimesis… Sport is dominated by unity and quantity, which means a positive one-mindedness and confrontation with the creative personality. Instead of the principles of universal development of human powers and, in that context, man’s perfectioning as the universal creative being, the highest challenge becomes a fanatical dedication to a particular sport. „Perfection“ of a particular sporting activity is achieved by man’s mutilation, especially in bloody sports as well as in sports dominated by speed, strength and stamina. That the principle of „perfection“ is but an abstract requirement and thus a way for obtaining an „artistic“ cover for sport is seen from the fact that there are no medals for the „perfectioning“ of play and physical exercises, but for the victory and records. Even in the events where the artistic expression could be important, as in gymnastics, the criteria of measurement („assessment“) destroy the specific and unique playing expression. What is particularly significant is that, in sport, specialization is becoming increasingly narrow, which is totally opposed to the physical culture ruled by the principle of a harmonized and universal development of man as a unified physical and spiritual being – which prevailed in the civil education of ancient Hellas and which is the basis of ancient paideia. It is corresponded by the principle of optimum effort which is of individual character, and is opposed to the principle of „greater effort“ (Coubertin) dominant in sport. Unlike the ancient principle of perfection – which had a cosmic essence and characterized the divine world which was of a holistic character, the modern principle of „perfection“ has a fragmentizing character corresponding to the division of labour and specialization. The „ideal of reaching human perfection“ which, according to Diem, is the highest goal of Coubertin’s Olympism, deals with the ideal of the development of man’s universal creative powers, and this means with man as the creator of his own world and with the open horizon of the future. „Perfection“ is the end of history. In the modern Olympic philosophy, the ideal of „perfection“, which man should unquestioningly strive for, was already created in ancient Greece. Instead of the idea of future and struggle for a human world, it offers a romanticized picture of the ancient world. The „perfect world“ is not the matter of man’s free choice and the result of his creative practice, it is the given which appears in the form of an idealized picture of the Hellenic world which achieved everything modern man should and can strive for. It becomes the incarnation of the ideal of a harmonized world in which mankind „was able to smile“ and where people „died happily“ (Coubertin). It was the time when demos had not yet appeared on the political scene of the polis and before the self-will of the ruling aristocracy had to face the universal principle of humanity which applies to free people (Hellenes) and was to acquire its highest form in Socrates’s moral philosophy, while in modern times it was to be turned into Kant’s „categorical imperative“. Coubertin sees in the ruling bourgeois „elite“ the „master race“ capable of returning mankind to the way it had left back in the ancient times, and this will be achieved by the final struggle with the emancipatory heritage of mankind and the idea of future. The restoration of the „holy“ Olympic measurement of time serves to return mankind to this „right way“. Future does not appear as a step out of the existing world and the creation of novum, but as a continuous development of the existing world and its „perfectioning“. In its original Olympic doctrine, Coubertin sees in sport an area in which the „best representatives“ of the white race, as representatives of their nations, fight for primacy – which leads to the development of their conquering-oppressive character and thus to the „perfectioning“ of the white race. At the same time, „perfectioning of the world“ involves the destruction of the critical mind and pacification of workers: the public (political) sphere is the privilege of the ruling „elite“. Sport becomes the chief political means of the ruling class for depolitization of „masses“ and for turning man into the objects of the ruling political will and „sheer“ working force. The fight for „perfectioning“ of society is reduced to a pedagogical reform which will lead to the creation of a uniform character of people and a uniform worldview. Physical exercises and sport become a means for cloning people’s character and spirit. The ultimate end of „perfectioning“ is to eliminate the critical and change-oriented conscious and the idea of future and to realize the idea of „order“ and „progress“ – the establishment of the total and final rule of capital over mankind and planet as the source of energy and raw material. As far as the ancient world is concerned, ancient society itself dethroned the aristocratic values from which the modern sports theory (especially Coubertin’s Olympic philosophy) tries to create an indisputable suprahistorical ideal of man, who appears in the form of slave-owning, aristocratic and bourgeois „master race“.

The demand for „perfection“ involves „harmony“. In antiquity, harmony means a harmonious development of human powers and the body based on the principles „know yourself“ (gnothi seauton), „measure is the best“ (metron ariston) and „beautiful and good“ (kalokagathia) – which involves arete mousike and arete gymnastike. The unity of man and cosmic order, incarnated in the Olympic gods, is the highest challenge (eurythmos). The demand for „harmony“ is actually an expression of the endeavour to prevent the conflict between gods, which is fatal for people, and ensure a harmonious functioning of the divine world. In ancient art, man is an anthropological manifestation of the ruling order. When we analyze Myron’s Diskobolos, we notice the ideal proportions, harmonious movement and unity of parts and the whole. Ears are almost blended with the head so as not to spoil the harmony of the whole. The body does not express the motion of an athlete who seeks to throw the discus as far as possible and win, but an (idealized) Hellenewho seeks to perform the act in a way which would not destroy the harmony of his body and thus the geometrically constructed cosmos – whose (anthropological) form he is. The body, bodily posture and expression on his face emanate an erotic charge, more noble than aggressive, which expresses the innocence of youth and corresponds to a paedophilic erotic vision. Diskobolos does not have a look in his eyes but it is hardly noticeable as his whole spiritual expression is given in his face and body. His face does not show a competitive urge, but spiritual blessedness. The body is not tense: it does not emanate a victorious will, but spiritual meekness. His figure is the incarnation of Plato’s view that a strong body cannot make the mindnoble, but a noble mindcan make the body noble, as well as of Aristotle’s idea of a „spirited body“.

In modern society, the demand for „harmony“ becomes the demand for a harmonious functioning of the existing world, which is similar to the aristocratic „order and measure“ (order et measure) as the criterion of measure is the extent to which man fits into the existing world. The harmony of the manifest form by suppressing the human becomes the basis of „beauty“ – which becomes a mask for the monstrous life produced by the ruling order. „Perfection“, „mastery“, „creativity“, „beauty“ – all these are parts of a mosaic which covers up the destructive capitalist nothingness. Instead of creating a human world, the prevailing tendency is to immortalize the existing world. „Harmony“ becomes the aesthetic way of creating an apparent „order“ in the chaos of everyday life. It involves the acceptance of the established world and an endeavour to create a picture of „harmony“ in which man will find compensation („peace of mind“) for the horrors of his life. „Harmony“ obtains a prophylactic and therapeutic dimension: it becomes a spiritual drug. The demand for „harmony“ in sport has a positivistic character: it is reduced to the destruction of the critical and change-oriented relation to the existing world. It is an aesthetic form expressing the basic political principle which strives to prevent social (class) conflicts that offer a possibility for creating a new world: harmony is the „sister of order“ (Coubertin). According to Coubertin, the basic purpose of Olympism is to bring order in people’s heads and give life a meaning – to which corresponds the „holy rhythm“ of the Olympic Games which by no means must be interrupted. The Olympic harmony deals with humanistic harmony, which means with harmonious interpersonal relations based on the guiding principles of the French Revolution, with a harmonious development of physical and spiritual powers, with a harmonious relation to nature… In sport, man is hermetically closed: the world develops according to the laws of „progress“, while man is but a means with which the ruling order is to enable its freedevelopment. The demand for „perfection“ and „harmony“ deals with the dialectic of history, which means with disharmony which is the basis of dynamics of the historical process and the basic presupposition for the creation of future. There are no leaps, there is no change-oriented practice which crushes the ramparts of the ruling order and opens new horizons. The libertarian physical motion expresses man’s disharmony with the existing world, it is a form of not resigning to the „destiny“ determined by the process of capitalist reproduction. Imperfection, openness, uncertainty in terms of possibilities and their creation, right to illusion and mistake – all these are challenges that man cannot avoid on the road to future. As Goethe says in „Faust“: „Man makes mistakes as long as he strives to something higher“ („Es irrt der Mensch, solang’ er strebt”), but „a good man in his vague impulse is well aware of the right way“ („Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange/ Ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewusst”).

The claim that „top sport creates new aesthetic values“ (Matveev) is based on the identification of the achievement of higher results (records) and the achievement of higher (human) values. „New“ has a quantitative and not a qualitative (historical, cultural, libertarian, visionary) dimension. A better result in sport is not a more cultural and thus a more valuable form of human practice. „Top play“ deals with man’s ability to create a true play which will help him realize his creative being: in football, kicks to the goal are variations of the model of movement given by the nature of football as an institutionalized repression which appears in the „playing“ robe. As far as man’s legitimate need to achieve the „unachievable“ is concerned, it is in sports theory used as a proof that in sport, in spite of all „bad“ things, prevail „true“ human challenges. There is no doubt that man’s pursuit of self-assertion by achieving the „unachievable“ is that „natural“ stake with which man enters sport and which remains as a motivation throughout one’s sports career. However, to „overcome the horizon of the possible“ refers exclusively to quantitative shifts on the basis and within the framework of the ruling order, and not to the opening of a new horizon which will go beyond the existing world. A confirmation in terms of values („Supreme!“) is given only to the performance that confirms the developing power of the ruling order (a „Fantastic record!“), while the true meaning of the record-mania is a mindless and fatalist submission of man to the existing „rules of the game“. The development of sport does not follow a particular aesthetic pattern: the road to „perfection“ is cobbled with victories and records. Sport is not ruled by taste, which is subjective, but by quantitative indicators with an „objective“ value, which express the fatal pace of capitalist „progress“. Mimetic impulses do not spring from nature or art, but from technical processes. A robotized body represents the highest aesthetic model. The final result of „perfection“ is a dehumanized and denaturalized „man“, the Olympic zombie, devoid of reason, libertarian dignity, Eros, the creative, imagination, nobleness… By focusing all his ambition on becoming „someone“ by way of sport, man inevitably becomes the slave of sport, which means that he fits into the ruthlessly grinding machine designed for achieving „topresults“. If we bear in mind the limited capabilities of the human organism, it is clear that the absolutization of the principle of performance leads to man’s destruction.

Sports play is only apparently dominated by uncertainty, which is one of the conditions of freedom, in which the most important moment is coincidence. Every action has a number of alternatives. In fact, they are necessary accidents. „Uncertainty“ is conditioned by the very nature of sport as the incarnation of the ruling relations and values and it is reduced to the question: who will win and what will be the result? Basically, it is about an apparent uncertainty, and thus an apparent freedom: the winner is always the ruling order – man is always the loser. In sport, man produces chains with which he is pinned down to the existing world. Sport deals with the visionary conscious and aspirations to create a new world. Sports play is, like the ancient drama, the enactment of everything that has already been acted and in that sense it is the copy of copy ad infinitum. In spite of insisting on „progress“, philosophy of sport discards the idea of future. The orientation towards an idealized past becomes the source of „true“ and „eternal“ values symbolized by the flame of the Olympic torch which „can never be extinguished“ (Hitler).

* Lubodrag Simonovic (72) was a member of the Yugoslav national basketball team, which won the world championship in 1970. Several times he played for the national team along with Sergei and Alexander Belov. He was a participant in the Olympic Games in Munich. In protest against the cover-up of a doping scam with Puerto Rico, he left the Games, after which he was expelled from the national team. The author is a Master of Laws and a Doctor of Philosophy. He has published ten books in the fields of philosophy, sociology and historiography. His texts have been translated into English, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Turkish. He taught at domestic and foreign universities. He is married and has three children and six grandchildren. Simonovic lives in Belgrade.

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March 2024