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Man has been playing catch with skulls and rubbing plant extract under his loin cloth since at least 7000BC, where in Neolithic era Mongolia in the Bayankhongor Province, there are cave paintings of wrestling matches, being watched by huge crowds. Go South West to Libya, in the cave of swimmers, there are similar paintings depicting swimming and archery. Further North in Europe paintings of sprinting tournaments have been found in France and in Far East Asia, Japan, other paintings have been found of what is thought to be an early form of sumo wrestling. Sport has been popular all over the world for a long, long time and until the skies burn and the rivers run dry, it always will be…

Why are we such a sports obsessed world? Well, it does provide us with a little entertainment in our short lives, but take a dive with me a bit deeper than that and lets catch a slightly bigger, more exotic fish.

Sport appeals to multiple areas of our psyche, anyone that’s ruined Christmas over a competitive game of monopoly will appreciate what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has to say about the situation in our brains, by likening it to a rider on an elephant.

The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters, is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will.

Our conscious minds might rationalise and conclude sport to be silly and meaningless. Why get so touchy over losing Monopoly? We don’t have control over our response is the answer. It is our elephant, our implicit/automatic responses that revel in us being better than the other team and there is no greater feeling than our tribe, or team, being dominant over another tribe.

be a sport golf tee space

Another great quote from Haidt, ‘Sport is to war, what masturbation is to sex’. In other words, sport is a fun, safe way to act out our impulses for war and all that it involves.

What is it about war though, that connects it so heavily to sport? Can war be a positive experience for people? War is horrifying and devastating, but in Chris Hedges book ‘War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning’, he claims that nothing in this world brings people closer together than war and that bringing people together in that way, opens up the most extraordinary possibilities of self transcendence.

This is a passage from it.

Glenn Gray: Many veterans will admit that the experience of communal effort in battle has been the high point of their lives. “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our” and individual faith loses its central importance. I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy.

I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

Can sport provide ecstasy of this kind, without the need to give up our lives? It can get somewhere close…

be a sport football

“ Sport can be a galvanising force in our scary mendacious world…”

Last Summer we had the Olympics in London and anyone that was in the country around that time must have felt what I felt, that it was something special. There was a warmth and a goodwill, that blanketed the whole country and made us a bit misty eyed for a few weeks. It felt good to be British and not in a UKIP jingoistic madman way. It made you desire for the welfare of everyone in the country, I think it made us more forgiving and warm. This was our team on display and we were nailing it, creating a special experience for the world and it felt good. In totally different circumstances, there was probably a similar vibe, but even stronger in New York after 9/11.

be a sport relay

Imagine… A man wakes up to the clock, he’s tired, he sighs as he enters the shower, feeling the weight of starting another day as grey and cold as the weather outside. He shampoo’s what’s left of his hair, scrubs armpits, scrubs groin. The same boring routine. He has coffee and toast that make him wretch because he’s too tired and anxious about being late for work to swallow properly.

At lunch he sits in a bathroom stall, he locks the door to enjoy the only moments of the day that he has to himself. He resents feeling stressed all the time for something so lacking in imagination or challenge. He’s tired of agonising over excruciatingly dull data. He’s even more tired of putting up with the facetious humour and diminutive nicknames in the office every day. Russian playwright Anton Chekov explained ‘affluenza’ particularly well when he said, ‘Any idiot can face a crisis. Its this day to day living that wears one out’.

team gb

This is an ordinary life and in ordinary life, we exist as individuals, we want to satisfy our individual desires and we pursue our individual goals. Once you have felt the effect of something like the Olympics and how it lifts you, why don’t we make more of an effort to create these feelings of self transcendence, at governmental level? Sport is one of our outlets. It is a way to transcend. The tragic irony of a ‘big society’ and one that is so faceless and corporate, is that the more of us that become part of this giant entity, the more we actually end up getting lost in it. I believe that the less that we feel connected to society, the more likely we are to act in ways that then only serve our petty selves and that is a great shame. There is arguably more misery in society now, in times of affluence and safety, than there was during World War 2.

We are all in danger of becoming like the poor, wretched Milquetoast I described, unless we continue to seek out avenues for self transcendence. Sport can be this galvanising force in our scary mendacious world…

Under religious auspices, communities are far more likely to create that Olympics vibe we all felt so briefly and that is one of the downsides of the influence of religion slowly eroding. I think that its no coincidence that the interest and profile and astronomical amounts money in sport, have risen so exponentially in the last decade. Without religion, there is an increased desire, consciously or otherwise, for us to shed our petty selves. In the last decade drug use has gone up, with MDMA/ecstasy usage being tripled, we’ve also seen the arrival of things like Facebook and Twitter and also music festivals which offer another form of mass self transcendence are now incredibly popular, with tickets to Glastonbury going from £105 in 2003 to £205 in 2013.

“ Sport is to war, what masturbation is to sex…”- Jonathan Haidt

Think of what is appealing about the music festival or a rave.

The rave involves empathy enhancing drugs, so a warmth is felt to all who are around you. The coloured light displays create the sense of being in a magic land. The repetition of a steady beat connects everyone in the room to one level in rhythmic dancing, and then slowly the music builds from its heavy bass and minimalism, to the sharper treble-y notes of clarity, bringing with it a sensation of rising, of elevation, shedding self and connecting with all, achieving mass orgiastic pleasure in the sense of oneness…

We crave connection and mostly sport plays, it attempts at giving us this purest sense of unity. It parsimoniously dishes out as fully as it did with the Olympics, but at its best sport is as ecstatic as a religious experience, it is as bonding as war, it is as exciting and joyful as a rave.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, ego still plays a huge role in sport too, especially as a player. The greatest thrill to be had in sport is when on the one hand you get to experience the thrill of connecting to something bigger than yourself, which just multiplies the joy of good performance and success and at the same time your ego gets to bask in the glory of your own abilities being recognised by others. It is the multiple orgasm… Olympic gold medallists and World Cup winners regularly suffer from serious depression after their greatest successes, as they realise there is no way that joy can ever be repeated, they often lose the motivation to do anything.

With meditation and mindfulness being just too boring and unfeasible in our loud western lifestyles, with raves and drink and drugs and casual sex perhaps being huge fun temporarily, but being ultimately destructive and damaging if you do them everyday, our practical outlets for daily self transcendence are really art, music and sport. Sport binds communities, delights us superficially and spiritually and I believe makes us better people. Long may it reign…

This article was originally published in Issue 004 of HYDROMAG (April – May 2013).

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