Heaven for the winners, hell for the losers: is sport our new religion?

Sporting ecstasy… Germany lift the World Cup in Brazil. Photograph © Agência Brasil on Wikipedia
14 Jul 2014 @ 9.53 pm
| Opinion

Sporting ecstasy… Germany lift the World Cup in Brazil. Photograph © Agência Brasil on Wikipedia
Sporting ecstasy… Germany lift the World Cup in Brazil. Photograph © Agência Brasil on Wikipedia
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Miles On Monday

The weekly thoughts of York writer Miles Salter

Wimbledon is finished. The World Cup is over. The Tour De France has flashed through this sceptred isle and is now in somewhere more French.

So what do we do?

There’s something about the way that we treat sports stars as heroes, and the way that sport has become one of the very few unifying things, that reminds me of the loss of religion, something not lost on the producers of the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live (who yesterday included a section about York, the Tour De France, and the Mystery Plays).

Is sport the new religion? In a world where faith seems increasingly ridiculous (or at least dubious) we save our fervour for a winning goal, a heroic sports effort, or a team that beats all others.

One panelist on the Sunday Morning show referred to the crowds huddled around the Tour De France route as “ecstatic”.

Sport offers a touchstone for many people, a chance to look beyond the everyday, a glimpse of the divine, the immaculate

I’m not sure I’d go that far, but you only have to see the elation written on the faces of the Geman supporters last night (fireworks in Berlin, an awful lot of sausage and beer), or the despair of the Argentinian fans, as they witnessed the climax, to see the religious aspect of sport.

Heaven is a World Cup win. Hell is to be beaten.

(And hell for the Brazilians was to watch Germany play Argentina, although Brazil are so resentful of their South American neighbours that they’ll take accept a 1-0 win from Germany before spending longs years in football-induced purgatory. They’ll never forget the last seven days.)

Now, with the tournament done for another four years, Wimbledon paying its strawberry bill and the cyclists vanishing in a mist of Yorkshire nostalgia, we are left with… what? A hole?

A longing for excitement that only sport can bring? How will we cope?

The best of humanity

If I sound ironic here, I should pause for a moment of sincerity. Although I wasn’t keen on the 2012 London Olympics, which seemed an appalling waste of public money, it would be churlish to ignore the place that sport has in our social, cultural and economic landscape.

For all sport’s inanities (“It’s only eleven men kicking a bag of air around” as many say, and frequently), for all the ways it has been marred by the influence of big business, for all the ways it’s been amalgamated into a triumphant nationalism (“Two world wars and one World Cup” was a mantra I used to hear on the playing field in the early 1980s, directed at Germany, and now out of date), sport nevertheless captures the public’s imagination in a way that few other things do.

It represents, at its best, the best of humanity: courage, guts, discipline, teamwork, perseverance.

In his book, What Sport Tells Us About Life Ed Smith argues that sport is an integral part of our lives, and should be celebrated as such.

In a postmodern world where we no longer believe in the grand narratives of Christianity or Communism, and where politicians seem more remote and cynical, sport offers a touchstone for many people, a chance to look beyond the everyday, a glimpse of the divine, the immaculate.

Hang on. The language here is becoming quasi-religious. Perhaps it’s time to stop.