Friday, December 19, 2008

what is sport? - roland barthes

(Translated by Richard Howard, published by Yale University Press, 2007)

This little book is a gem. It is originally a script Barthes prepared for a Canadian documentary. The French philosopher (I can say that here without groaning) explores the role of five national sports including the Tour De France and Spanish bull-fighting. What pearls of wisdom does he have to offer? Several, and also a writing style in translation that is lovely to recite.

A man alone, with no other weapon than a slender beribboned hook, will tease the bull: call out to him... stab him lightly... insouciantly slip away.

But Barthes is not blind to Spain's obsession. He comprehends the significance of the bull's death and places this archaic ritual as a tragedy in four acts. I shan't spoil the fun by telling more since Barthes' short piece of narration will occupy your eyes for only a few minutes. Still, it has the potential to occupy your thoughts for some time to come.
...the Tour is incorporated into the depths of France; in it each Frenchman discovers his own houses and monuments, his provincial present and his ancient past. It has been said that the Frenchman is not much of a geographer: his geography is not that of books, it is that of the Tour; each year, by means of the Tour, he knows the length of his coasts and the height of his mountains...

There is no doubt that sport dictates the ebb and flow of Melbourne. Does a Melbournian measure train trips according to the number of stops before or after Richmond and the MCG? Time according to the number of days before or after the Grand Final? (Or on a shorter scale, before or after half-time?) Can weather be associated with cricket, tennis or football seasons?

Anecdotally (and I suspect supported by statistics that I admit I have not recently consulted), the waves and surges of fans and participants that enter our cricket grounds, football ovals, tennis courts, velodromes, athletic tracks, swimming pools, gymnasia, hockey pitches and even our lawn bowls greens, far outweigh the streams that attend or present at art galleries and live performances.

Melbourne prides itself on being a "cultural capital". Do the bean-counters still employ the trick of including sporting events as a cultural activity? Is riding down Beach Rd. in a 100 strong bunch of lycra-glad, carbon and Campagnolo wielding men cultural? Or sub-cultural? ;-) Given the chance, on a balmy summer's evening, I'm a sucker for the buzz of freewheels or the grumble of boards under a sprinting bunch. All the better if my freewheel buzz or my wheels' thunder adds to the melee. Hopefully I can participate with style.

Style? Here Barthes again has a lovely way with words.

Style makes a difficult action into a graceful gesture, introduces rhythm into fatality. Style is to be courageous without disorder, to give necessity the appearance of freedom.

So what is Sport? Sublime. Sublime in the way a practiced artist wields a brush, a baton, breathes life into a flute or a character. Sublime also in the way a sculptor forms a marvel from a mass. Life's confusion can be executed with style only by a few. An athlete approaches this ideal as closely as an artist since each pushes the bounds of the possible. The latter pushes the possible for the future. The former, perhaps only for the present.

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