The way people suddenly get passionate about shot-put, shows us that humans are hungry for meaning…
Ok, I admit I’ve got the Olympics bug. It’s kinda like Christmas. It’s like every year I’m like, you know what, I don’t think I’ll bother this year. But then it rolls around, and everyone is talking about it, and you literally can’t escape it on the TV, and the bug gets you.
I realised it had me as I was sitting in the waiting room at the GP this morning, watching Australia play England in field hockey.
Now normally, I couldn’t care less about field hockey. I don’t know the rules, I’ve never played it, and I don’t even know anyone who’s played it.
But throw green and gold uniform on one of the teams and suddenly I’m hooked. Suddenly I care a great deal about the outcome of the match, and whether the Australian half-forward has fully recovered from his knee reconstruction.
And that’s what the Olympics offers – the chance to become deeply invested in sports that you actually think are just a bit silly. I don’t want to name names but I’m looking at you race-walking.
None of it makes any sense unless you think about sport as an artistic endeavour.
And I would actually say that sport is the highest form of art. And I’m not just saying that as a former sportsman who resents being dragged along to the theatre. Sport has everything you want from art.
First up, it has aesthetic form. The captain of the US Olympic gymnastics team recently suggested that the men should perform shirtless in order to attract more interest in the sport. I reckon the idea will get up. You have to admit that they are remarkable human specimens.
(The female athletes at the Olympics are also remarkable specimens but I’m not allowed to talk about that. Not since the beach volleyball finals in London.)
There is also incredible demonstrations of grace and movement. I challenge anyone to watch Lionel Messi cut through 5 defenders and nail one from just inside the box, and tell me its not beautiful. Or what about Brett Deledio riding on the shoulders of his opponents and taking a spectacular grab?
There’s also all the drama and intrigue of a Greek tragedy. The strategy, the match-ups. The seasons going from strength to strength or collapsing in a heap.
Now you might say that these things can be a bit hard to get a handle on unless you’re intimately involved in the sport. But that’s true of any art-form. The few times I’ve seen ballet, it’s just looked like a few toffs flopping about. But I’m sure that if I had a more nuanced understanding of the art form, I would get a lot more out of it.
In fact, that’s pretty much the role of commentators. To help draw out the drama and intrigue that we might be missing. It’s probably what a lot of art forms lack. Ballet needs live commentary.
“Popovic is going to have to dig deep here to pull off that splitty-leg thingy, and the trainers have been saying the knee is fully recovered from the Paris season. But oh nope, he’s nailed it. A true champion.”
What’s more, a lot of that drama comes from the unscripted nature of sport. It’s totally improvised and live. Most art forms follow a tight script. Not sport. Anything can happen. That’s what makes it exciting.
One of the big criticisms of sport is that it doesn’t mean anything. That you can’t compare it to Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett for the way it helps us understand our unique role in the cosmos.
But I think this misunderstands the nature of meaning.
Meaning isn’t something we receive. It’s something we give.
Take me and the men’s hockey heat. The Aussie uniforms effectively transformed a meaningless event (for me), into something rich with meaning. Suddenly, my whole sense of who I was a person – my sense of national pride and the way I thought we looked in the eyes of the world – was riding on the result.
Sport is the perfect vehicle for this process of assigning meaning – precisely because it doesn’t try to take on any meaning. It never pretends to be anything other than sport.
It becomes a blank slate for us to lay whatever stories we want on to it.
And we want those stories. Our lives need to have meaning. And so we’re out there looking for things to get invested in. How many people actually give a toss about men’s hockey? How many Collingwood fans actually live in Collingwood?
I think there’s a big sign-post here to the happy life. Humans need to have meaning. If you want to be happy, you need to have a sense of meaning. How you get that is up to you. If it comes from barracking for the Magpies or from helping run an orphanage in Cambodia, up to you. I’m not going to judge.
But if you’re going to tell me that art should tell you what its meaning is, not just leave it up to us to lay whatever we want on it, then I would say that you’re a fascist. Stop telling me what to believe. But I might also point out that a lot of modern art has gone in that direction anyway.
“It’s a small red dot on a large white canvas… What does it mean?”
“Whatever you want mean Jon, whatever you want it to mean.”
“Oh. Righto… C’arn the Tigers!”
The Olympics is a great spectacle of meaning. And for a brief period of time, the whole world is looking in the same direction. That direction might be towards a bunch of sports no one cares about, but there’s some sort of power in that collective focus.
… if only we could harness it for good.
Oh, and all of the arts budget should be given to sport.
What does the Olympics ‘mean’ to you?