Among the key indicators of an economic downturn is that people become more obsessed than ever with sport. The Depression Years in the late 1920s and into the 1930s saw baseball’s popularity soar in America, as did cricket’s within the British Empire – while boxing grew a worldwide following, along with other sports.
While sport – especially football – has never quite lost that ‘special’ place in civilisation’s heart, the last year or so has seen sport’s influence and importance grow again. It’s not just the sporting action of the recent Ashes series, or the World Athletics Championships, the Formula One world, Wimbledon, golf, rugby and, of course, the ever-present football that captures our hearts and minds. There’s the politics and intrigues that go on behind the scenes. As with the Depression Years, sport is now attracting its share of fraudsters: the Allen Stanford saga in England and West Indies cricket, and the recent Harlequins’ ‘fake blood injury’ incident for example.
As cross-cultural communications expert Richard D Lewis has asked: ’Is sport becoming the dominant human activity? Does it involve and influence human life more than religion, commerce, politics or even war?’
Along with travel, sport is the world’s fastest growing industry, claims Lewis. That we are obsessed with sport is undeniable. One game – football – has more adherents worldwide than all of the world’s religions put together. Indeed, says Lewis, we could say that football has assumed the mantle of a global religion, complete with credos, codes of conduct, sins (fouls), saints (Ronaldo, Cantona and so on), gods (Pele, Beckenbauer and Maradona) – and millions of disciples. There is even a Church of Maradona in South America – created by fans of the retired Argentine football player Diego Maradona whom they believe to be the best player of all time. It was founded on 30th October 1998 (Maradona’s 38th birthday) in the city of Rosario. They now, reportedly, claim to have over 100,000 members from more than 60 countries around the world.
Other sports have ‘gods’ too. Golf has its Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Tennis has Roger Federer and Rod Laver. Cricket claims Don Bradman, W G Grace and, in India especially, Sachin Tendulkar. In cycling, there’s Lance Armstrong and Eddie Merckx. Baseball has Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. Boxing celebrates Mohammed Ali and Joe Louis, and so on.
If sport is a world culture in itself, it is also affected by national cultures, which have their own preferences and quirks. This raises such questions as:
- Why has football a wider appeal than any other game?
- Why do the English see cricket as a way of life and how is it that disparate nations such as India, Pakistan, Australia and the Caribbean countries agree with them?
- Why are Americans obsessed with cricket’s watered-down version (baseball) while New Zealand and Australia are rugby-crazy?
- Why does bull-fighting still appeal to some Spaniards, cock-fighting to the Cubans and tossing the caber to the Scots?
- How is it that the Tour de France mesmerizes the French and the Italians for three long weeks?
- Why is Portugal the strongest country in roller hockey?
- Why do Japanese soccer players want to pass the ball to older players?
- Why do the Finns (a reticent people) excel in long distance running and skiing, rally driving and Formula One?
- Why do they top the Olympic medal count per capita while the USA is only 19th?
What is it about sport – compared with other value systems such as religion – that makes it so appealing? Maybe it’s the thrill of winning – and, so, feeling valued for your knowledge and skill. Maybe it’s the comfort of knowing that you are part of a much larger like-minded group of people.
Organised religion would want to claim to value people and provide them with similar comfort. However, some people argue that organised religion has fostered discord and conflict rather than harmony and peace. Yet it is sport that does exactly that – teaching its participants about controlled aggression towards opponents and even, in the case of some football supporters (well, supporters of Millwall and West Ham anyway), prompting unreasoning violence.
These sentiments, meant as a criticism of organised religion, are encouraged in the name of sport. Of course, people are prepared to mould any value system – be it religion or sport – to their own ends. We have to embrace a value system if we are to make any sense of our lives but we must be careful which value system we choose to embrace. Moreover, we must be careful how we let ourselves be manipulated by it – and, indeed, how we manipulate it.
In the end, then, it comes down to selfishness – and both organised religion and sport have some things to say about that.