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Sports, our last unifying force


I was getting ready for my quadrennial inveighing against the World Cup, remaining as I do immune from the excitement of the nil-nil thriller, as for example the one Netherlands and Costa Rica delivered the other day.


But this time around everyone agreed that the soccer was more exciting and, olé, olé, the Germany-Brazil semi-final served up eight (!) goals and lacerated Brazil's psychological wellbeing for at least a generation.  The weeping and gnashing could almost be heard across the Atlantic.

The scenes in Brazil were not singular, even if their thrashing by the Germans was nearly unique.  Sports fans sometimes feel more painfully the humiliations of a defeat than those on the pitch.  It may be unbalanced but it is certainly real.

Here in Britain this week the role of sports as cultural spectacle was highlighted.  England departed the World Cup some time back before those with casual interest pay attention, but this past weekend was sports-dominated.  In Formula One racing the British Grand Prix was held.  Over at Wimbledon the final matches were played.  The Tour de France got a foreign start in Leeds, and worked its way down to London on Monday, drawing absolutely enormous crowds.

I was surprised enough, not following international cycling, to learn that the Tour de France has often began outside of France for several decades now.  The crowds were immense, thronging the route to a degree where the cyclists hardly had room to ride.  Much like luge, cycling fails entirely as a live spectator sport — the peloton flying by at top speed makes it impossible from roadside to know anything about how the race is progressing.  At least in auto racing the drivers circle back for another look.  How then to account for the manifest enthusiasm for le Grand Départ in Yorkshire?

The spectators have come for the spectacle, not the sport.  Cultures need their spectaculars.  On Friday, Queen Elizabeth was in Scotland to christen the newest Royal Navy aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.  I am sure that Her Majesty was pleased with Her Majesty's latest ship — the biggest and most fearsome ever — and the government did their utmost to employ the occasion for propaganda effect ahead of September's referendum on Scottish independence, but it was not an occasion of great popular attention, as one imagines military pageantry would have achieved in times past.

It is easy enough to lament that serious matters — defence of the realm — cannot compete with cyclists and car racers and tennis players for public attention.  Yet a contented culture is not to be taken for granted, even if it is moved more by recreation than affairs of state.  It is a welcome relativizing of politics.  Still, it bears noting that in 1814 the Royal Navy was in battle against Napoleon.  In 2014, the Royal Navy is easily displaced in the public mind by the Tour de France invading Britain.

Popular spectaculars are an expression of the cult that lies at the heart of every culture.

We need common occasions for common feeling, even if not for any great common purpose.  Sporting spectaculars are now among the few occasions for that common feeling.  One Brazilian newspaper yesterday featured a black front page with one stark word: VERGONHA (shame).  Is all of Brazil truly disgraced?  Should they be ashamed?  Of course not, but on the other hand, it is salutary for a people to feel common shame from time to time.  If the football pitch is the only place to experience that, then so be it.

Popular spectaculars are an expression of the cult that lies at the heart of every culture.  We no longer have military parades and religious processions as much as we watch sporting spectacles — and lavish public and private money upon them.  We know then that the desire to participate in a great common, unifying experience is still intense, if manifest in different ways.  A cult of sport and its celebrities is no noble human achievement, but it apparently corresponds to a deep human need.

Next year Canada takes its turn in the international sports circus with the Pan American Games, though it is not sure that many watch them.  Not to worry, even this third tier of sporting spectaculars is thought to be worth more than $2-billion in spending.  We are also hosting the Women's World Cup.  Meanwhile, Brazil will move on from the $11-billion it spent on the World Cup to emptying the exchequer for the Olympic Games in 2016.  The World Cup moves on to Russia, which already emptied its exchequer for the winter games a few months back.  Vergonha.

It is all indulgent, even decadent.  But is it necessary, for without the spectaculars, what would bring the people together?  Brazil paid a high price for their vergonha, but they got a spectacular experience of being together, albeit in great grief.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Sports, our last unifying force." National Post, (Canada) July 10, 2014.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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