Is sport like sin? One disapproves of it but yields because the flesh is weak
Almost 11,000 people were in Leopardstown for the final day of the Christmas festival last Sunday to watch Hurricane Fly cement his place in racing -- no, in sporting -- history. Just short of €1.5m was gambled at the track on the day. The attendance was up significantly on the same day the previous year, as was the amount spent on the Tote and with the on-course bookmakers.
This was some sign-off to the 2013 sporting year -- a year which saw Ireland welcome home a world champion in athletics, set a record for the number of Irish-trained winners at the Cheltenham festival and delight in the revitalising of the hurling championship. It was also a year when the total attendance for the GAA's football and hurling championships once again easily broke the one million mark, a year when Irish people flocked to all manner of sporting events.
For fans all over the country, the 2014 sporting year kicks off this weekend, principally -- and with all due respect to the All-Ireland league and this weekend's race meetings at Cork and Naas -- with the GAA's traditional provincial football competitions, which get underway today.
Barely a week after the last sporting year ended, the new one begins. Barely time to draw breath, and you can be sure that many of those who flocked to Leopardstown last Sunday -- and to Limerick -- will be out again today. The new year has been rung in, it's back to business.
It's a peculiar thing, this obsession with sport. We are no different from many other nations, our people no more or less obsessed with sport than others. But how can we explain it? Can we apply any logic to this obsession? What is it about the human condition that attracts us to often defy reason in pursuit of it?
Having spent an entire day watching the cricketers of Australia and his native South Africa slog it out in a Test match, writer JM Coetzee was exasperated. He had become so emotionally involved in the game, he wrote to his friend Paul Auster, that he had put aside the "two or three books I am in the middle of reading".
"So why waste my time slumped in front of a television screen watching young men at play? For, I concede, it is a waste of time. I have an experience (a secondhand experience), but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Does it strike a cord you recognize? Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but one yields because the flesh is weak?"
In his reply, the American writer offered the view that there is "pleasure in the new, but also pleasure in the known".
He added: "There is no question that games have a strong narrative component. We follow the twists and turns of the combat in order to learn the final outcome. But no, it is not quite like reading a book -- at least not the kind of books you and I try to write. But perhaps it's more closely related to genre literature. Think of thrillers or detective novels, for example, which are always the same book, endlessly repeated, thousands of subtle variations on the same story, and nevertheless the public has an insatiable hunger for these novels. As if each one was the re-enactment of a ritual."
In further exchanges between the two writers, which can be found in the book Here And Now, they explore the 'aesthetic pleasures' and heroism of sport, and ponder the notion that "sport has no interest in the ethical".
Sport "responds to our cravings for the heroic only with the spectacle of the heroic" writes Coetzee at one point. 'We cried out for bread and you gave us stones.'
People crave competition and challenge. These urges are summoned from deep within us and in some ways they achieve their most undiluted expression in how we engage with sport, either through taking part or observing.
"It would appear that from deep within the human psyche, through time and space the human impulse for play, athletic competition and strategic combat is manifested," writes Thomas D'Arcy in his book The Sport Spectator -- A Post Modern Perspective. "Throughout the evolutionary process and from early hominids onwards through the Paleolithic era, to the classification of Homo sapiens there is evidence of the human quest for adventure, discovery and excitement."
In Ireland, passion for sport has been intensified through the way we have married these primitive urges with a curious mixture of parochialism and nationalism. Ireland thrives in sport at its most rudimentary, such as in two neighbouring parishes 'going at it', just as much as it thrives in sport as a national expression of wellbeing. Our enemies one day, are our brothers in arms the next.
The life and death struggle, notes D'Arcy, "is the principle metaphor for sport and provides a forum for human conscious and unconscious conflict to be resolved. Sport can be seen as a type of surrogate war and becomes a symbolic battle."
There is no rest from this conflict. And the restlessness creates a vaccuum which needs to be filled -- be that through the Married v Singles game in your local club over Christmas, your nearest O'Byrne Cup match this afternoon, or the many other attractions which will either take you out of your home in the months ahead, or confine you to your television.
And on this weekend, as much as any other, we can bask in the optimism that a new sporting year brings. We can, as Paul Auster wrote in an exchange about Roger Federer: "Awe at the fact that a fellow human being is accomplishing such things, that we (as a species) are not only the worms we often appear to be but are also capable of achieving miraculous things -- in tennis, in music, in poetry, in science -- and that envy and admiration dissolve into a feeling of overwhelming joy . . . And that is where the aesthetic and the ehtical merge."