Opium for the masses: Sport becomes the people’s passion

It may not be enough to make grown men cry, but the World Cup has brought soccer buffs everywhere out of the woodwork. Even in Greece, which didn’t qualify for the 32-team field, little else seems to be on people’s minds, even as the government totters and nationwide strikes rage. Those I would never have suspected of being soccer fans, quite a few of them women and not least me, have been outed by the unfolding spectacle in the Far East, where Korea and Japan are acting as joint hosts. Soccer has become the world’s sport because of its immense appeal, and vice versa. Globalization has also leveled the playing field, as an IHT editorial said on Monday. The English have a Swedish coach, the Koreans have a Dutch one, the Greeks a German one. Styles mix and match, players routinely play for clubs abroad, and the field gets averaged out. The editorial could have added that the opposite is also true; soccer’s wild popularity everywhere has pushed globalization along. Thus, the French, Argentines and Portuguese fall at the first hurdle, while the Koreans and upstart Americans push on into uncharted territory, and Senegal threatens to bring the Cup to Africa for the first time. What makes a sport a world spectacle? And why are sports becoming such a dominant force in contemporary life? The Olympic Games are the foremost sporting fests in the modern world, of course, but we might learn more about their significance by looking at the booming appeal of other sports. With the 2004 Games having produced some unusual or odd stories this past week (a lawsuit against the friendly mascots; paid vacations promised for Olympic volunteers; Nelson Mandela signed on for the Olympic truce), the Games’ wider, sporting context shouldn’t be overlooked. Past perfect Some perspective on this 21st-century issue can be found in the 19th. The economist Thorsten Veblen, in «The Theory of the Leisure Class» (1899), believed that «the addiction to sports… in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of man’s moral nature.» Another 19th-century economist of some repute, Karl Marx, wrote (in 1844): «Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.» He could interchange «religion» with «sport» and make a pretty good case today. Sports have largely usurped religion and politics as captivators of people’s interest in our secularized, ideologically deprived but materially more comfortable era. Or so suggested a perceptive friend not long ago. Perhaps Veblen is right, that sports are a valid indicator of moral decline. Then again, they are a pretty benign focus of human fixation and interest. Identifying with club or national teams or hero-worshiping star athletes seems infinitely preferable to rooting for the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazi party. Certainly, for all the ugly hooliganism of soccer, far fewer people get killed over sports than they ever did over the other two. Sometimes success is measured by the lack of disaster. The Olympics, too, have shifted meaning, losing in some respects, gaining in others. The Ancient Games combined religious cult and interstate diplomacy with athletic events; the modern version has reached dizzy heights without either of the other two elements (even if Olympic truce devotees might argue otherwise). But what they lack in terms of mysticism they have gained in three key elements: global involvement, mass popularity, and modern historical precedent. The Olympics are part of an international phenomenon of sport in general; but they differ insofar as they are a celebration of sport itself, not just sports or a sport, like the ongoing World Cup. And there’s a big difference. One of the things the Olympics, the World Cup and selected other major events do share is a keen sense of history and precedent. During the Cup, even when the matches are not on, there is more than enough TV fare on offer, with reruns of past glories on the pitch. For genuine sports aficionados, this kind of nostalgia is often the best part, a history they can identify with, knowledgeably comparing scores, teams and games from long ago. In Britain, true tennis fans often say that the best days at Wimbledon are actually the rain washouts, offering the chance to re-watch televised (commercial-free) classic matches like the Borg-McEnroe duels of the early 1980s instead of the earnest battlers of today’s brutally paced game. In the World Cup, historical comparisons are routinely trotted out; Korea’s defeat of Italy to reach the quarterfinals was arguably the biggest upset in 72 years; the US feat in defeating Mexico to reach the same round was its biggest soccer story since it beat Britain in 1950 (were the Brits hung over?). Great sports have illustrious pasts as well as exciting presents. Another sport with a totally different social context, this time golf (a non-Olympic sport), is also arousing intense interest this year because of one figure. Out of the Woods Tiger Woods is emerging as possibly the best, or certainly most dominant, player ever at the ripe age of 26. He has won two of the first four major tournaments this year, the Masters and (last weekend) the US Open, and is so overwhelmingly dominant that many are practically conceding the Grand Slam (all four majors in one calendar year) to him before the British Open and PGA tournaments have even been staged. Woods is also interesting because he symptomizes all three of the elements mentioned earlier. Himself the product of public facilities, he has already helped revolutionize the sport’s popularity (except in Greece), bringing countless youngsters into the game on a mass-participant level. This Open was held, for the first time, on a genuinely public, not country club, course, in front of over 40,000 rowdy New York fans, semi-educated in the sport’s etiquette, shaking up the establishment. Second, he is the very embodiment of multiculturalism, with a black father and an Asian mother; and he has himself become a globe-trotting figure, winning nearly half the tournaments he’s played in Europe and elsewhere, an astonishing record in itself. Third, his main competitors are now the sport’s historical greats as he rewrites the record books (chasing Jack Nicklaus’s all-time total of 18 major wins). About the only thing missing is a winning public personality – unlike another world sporting figure he’s often compared to, basketball great Michael Jordan – but that’s another story. You know that sport is increasing in social prominence when two sports at the opposite ends of the populist spectrum – everyman’s soccer and elite’s golf – start to converge as world games, leaving old pecking orders behind and building nostalgic histories of their own. The Olympic Games, sport’s pinnacle, have managed to combine all three elements of global involvement, mass appeal, and history, which helps explain their enduring popularity and heightened interest, especially since 1980. A heady mix To be sure, many other ingredients are in the mix, technical advances in television key among them (instant replay, for example, is far superior to the grainy images of 20 or 30 years ago) and bringing sweaty athletes into our living rooms. Professional sports are now a non-stop, year-round traveling roadshow, with events carefully spaced so that sports share the limelight and don’t have their championships overlap. Are commercial sports a soporific for the masses, a way to keep the people’s minds occupied and their feet off the streets? Or are they a healthy way to satisfy their need for entertainment and cater to their more active lifestyles? People need diversions; the problem begins when they’re told what they need, not least by sports advertisers who create markets in order to sell into them. Sports can both liberate and help us identify; like anything, they’re best when kept in the right perspective. At least, remind me of that after the World Cup’s over.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.