Sports on TV is gripping entertainment. Perfect bodies performing impossible feats. But where’s the soul, asks Shougat Dasgupta
Most mornings, I drag myself out of bed at 6.30am and warm up with a light kettle bell before I pull on a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and my tennis shoes. By 7am, I’m at the tennis courts near my flat waiting for my opponent. Together we’ll flail and thrash, move and swing with the grace and alacrity of a pair of walruses shuffling from beach to sea. It is a parody of tennis. Or at least, tennis as we know it from TV—all coil and whip and feline flexibility. A game played by the young and lithe, creatures, as David Foster Wallace wrote, whose bodies are both flesh and, somehow, light.
Wallace was writing specifically of Roger Federer, the ne plus ultra of the sport. It is a famous essay and its theme is rapture, religious ecstasy, as if just the act of watching Federer were a benediction. But it’s the earthbound, not the celestial, that interests me, the flesh rather than the light. And watching any professional tennis player in person, and I mean just about any professional player—the world number 678, say, toiling on a court in some tennis backwater, watched by the proverbial one man and his dog—is, in small part at least, an exercise in confronting your physical inadequacy. It’s a feeling made more acute if you’ve tried to do what the people you’re watching are doing, that is stand on a tennis court and make racquet obey hand, and hand (and feet) obey mind.
At the highest level, sport is performed as much as it is played; trophies and medals may be the hard currency of competition, but beauty is what stays with us, the unabashed aesthetic pleasure we take in watching bodies in their prime. A part of that beauty is the aesthetic pleasure of the sport itself, cricket, say, or football, but most of it is about form, about what athletes look like when they play. The athlete’s body has long been fetishised, its contours presented for our lingering attention as much in Greek statuary from a couple of thousand years ago as in ESPN Magazine’s annual “Body Issue”. But athletes and fans ache for more, to transcend the flesh and enter the light, to embrace unironically those lines from Keats about beauty being truth and truth beauty. We want so desperately for the beauty we discern in athletes to be revelatory of character, to tell us something not just about the athlete but ourselves.
Federer, for instance, is the platonic ideal of tennis players. He plays “perfect” tennis, a blend of the past, with its touch and guile and deft volleying, and the baselineprowling ferocity of the present. He is the player in whom the qualities most tennis fans want associated with their sport are most manifest. Nike understood this, turning the sublime into the ridiculous by outfitting him in blazers and cardigans at Wimbledon, conflating the style of Federer’s game, its “look”, with the patrician, clubby values for which the sport was once mocked. As if by hitting his backhand with one hand and coming to the net, Federer stood for a simpler past in which people knew their place and the world was run by urbane aristocrats. It may have been crass, but Nike knew what they were doing: in 2011, an international poll across 25 countries ranked Federer second after Nelson Mandela as the world’s most admired and trusted public figure.
If virtue can be ascribed, however tendentiously, to individual athletes or styles of play, the truth is too that ugliness abounds in professional sport, in the corruption and cheating that is rife. Our appetite for televised sport, whatever the scandals uncovered, remains undimmed. In India hundreds of millions of us watch sport from our couch. Most of it is cricket and the vast majority of the advertising revenue continues to pour into cricket coverage but it would be hard to find a mainstream international sport into which Indian viewers don’t have a broad televisual window. So confident are our sports channels in the Indian appetite for casual consumption that they have set up IPL-inspired leagues in football, badminton, hockey, kabaddi, wrestling, tennis and, rather obscurely, futsal. Do sporting events on TV encourage people to play more sport? Chances are, watching sports on TV encourages you to watch more sports on TV. India is a young country, with an estimated 65 per cent of the population under the age of 35. But all our sports-watching doesn’t appear to be translating into much playing. Part of this, of course, is a lack of facilities. Another part is a culture that doesn’t make room for sports, not just as a potential career but at a recreational level. Poverty looms as the overarching reason why India is not a sporty nation.
What scant evidence there is of participation in amateur sports is of young professionals in metropolitan cities with enough disposable income to rent facilities by the hour, techies in Bangalore, say, paying a thousand rupees or so to play an hour of five-a-side football. Once, catching an early morning flight, I watched a group of dedicated middle-aged cyclists, adipose tissue squeezed into lycra, take advantage of the 4am emptiness to pedal across Delhi’s otherwise unforgiving streets. In neighbourhood and city parks, there are the usual gaggles of walkers punctuated by the odd jogger, the pace leisurely, the effect on the waistline indeterminate. Gyms, in our cities at least, are plentiful and popular, if again only available to those with money to spare for the fees. Working out in a gym, though, is not sport.
When I lived in Washington, DC, my apartment was six short blocks from Rose Park, an extended dog run for the pampered pets (dogs and children) of Georgetown, a smug, expensive neighbourhood full of lawyers, politicians, professors and students at the smug, expensive university. The park also contained three public tennis courts and a hitting wall, attracting a high standard of tennis bum from around the city. For all the sedate doubles I played at Rose, with economists from the World Bank, lawyers with white shoe firms, think-tankers and bureaucrats, I also hit with homeless, recovering alcoholics, a bartender from Tunisia, a limo driver from Cameroon, a waiter from Indonesia. As for pick-up football in the US (soccer, if you prefer), class diversity is a given—the game is popular with white suburban families, as it is with working class Hispanics, and any number of recent migrants from Europe to Africa. You can’t get that at a gym full of aspirational narcissists running on a treadmill. A friend recently told me of a toddler birthday party in Delhi’s wealthy Golf Links neighbourhood at which the parents, mothers and fathers, all had that stiff, gym-honed physique, bodies built for show rather than utility.
In a country with an alarming number of diabetics and people suffering from hypertension, any exercise that people choose to take is to be welcomed. But what gyms cannot offer is the democracy of the pick-up game, ad hoc matches between two teams of strangers looking to play. Democracy, as opposed to brutal meritocracy of professional sport, is ugly, messy, inept. Professional sport is astonishing to behold, beautiful but remote: Nietzschean übermenschen striving to distinguish themselves further from the lumpen masses reaching for a snack as they watch the supermen grimly frolic. And it really is grim.
What joy there once was has been submerged in waves of filthy lucre. Money and success, whatever the moral posturing, are the only values to which professional sports ascribe. Football, being the most popular global sport, offers the most obvious example of the ways in which money affects ethos. For the people who used to fill stadiums, motivated by local passions, community solidarity, the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with their own, the insularity of football has been replaced by global ubiquity, by an international, cosmopolitan experience they can no longer afford. A not insignificant proportion of the crowd at a Premier League match is now made up of day trippers and corporate guests; a typical match might have more in common with a performance of a West End show in tourist season than a first division match of old. This is not to say that the new way is not inevitable, or that the past should be preserved in aspic, or that there have not been gains, but that what has been lost is community and some soul. Is there a place any more for glorious defeat?
Three of the greatest football teams in history were beautiful failures: Holland, led by the elegant, lank-haired Johan Cruyff, losing the 1974 World Cup final to the excellent but more prosaic West Germany; Brazil in 1982; and the Hungarians of the 1950s, the magical Magyars who lost to West Germany in the World Cup final—a match the disbelieving Germans still refer to as the “Miracle of Bern” —but changed the way football was played and conceived. Most of Pele’s thousand-plus goals have been forgotten. Two of his misses, though, from the 1970 World Cup remain iconic—a lob from well inside his own half that drifted just over the bar; and an audacious dummy with Pele going one way, the ball the other, and the Uruguayan goalkeeper stranded in the middle, looking like a man who is having his pocket picked on the right and his watch stolen on the left while he’s busy asking the thieves for directions. When Pele caught up with the ball, though, he shot fractionally wide. Victories, and goals, come and go, but sport must mean more to those who watch than the result. Athletes, conditioned to win, scoff at beauty without purpose. For the fan at the stadium, though, what stays in the mind are discrete moments of action, the jarring physical thrill of watching with tens of thousands of others as a player tries to do something new, make a game his own.
I wonder if it can be the same for those who watch on TV. What links global “communities” of supporters of Real Madrid, or Chelsea, Bayern Munich or Manchester City, or any of European football’s bumptious “big” clubs? It’s success. Winning. The result. Does it make fans less forgiving of failure? The consolations of failure were once the feeling that everyone, fans, players, whole towns and cities, were in it together. Athletes and fans have little in common, the former removed by physical prowess, by money, from the communities of which they were once part. Elite sports is now a television extravaganza eliciting little more than passive wonder, the kind you might accord an acrobat at a circus, a Siberian tiger in a zoo. Look at older pictures of footballers and what you see are working men, trim, rough-hewn, and fit but still of the same species as the rest of us. Footballers now are primped and pumped, machine-hewn, their diets and fluid intake monitored, their movements tracked, their lives a barrage of measurements and tests.
The result is the new athletic body: men and women who are bigger, leaner, stronger, more efficient than those who have gone before. This, as the world around them becomes indisputably fatter. Contemporary mores demand that we fawn over great athletes. In their glazed, precision-cut bodies we reposit national prestige—see the delirium with which India’s two Olympic medallists were greeted upon their return from Rio—and quasi-religious faith. “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” was the headline of Foster Wallace’s essay, first published in Play, a now defunct New York Times magazine. There is no disputing the fervour of our worship for athletes but it is Nietzschean rather than religious. God, Nietzsche told us, is dead. We have killed him. In his place is the übermensch, the superman. Incapable of transforming ourselves into supermen, we worship them in the form of the supreme athlete. It is to them that we look for our values, for moral guidance, to show us how to act. And, gleaming and bronzed, our athletes tell us what we need to hear: our salvation is retail.
We are what we buy.
Not surprisingly, Federer, whose balletic ease has empurpled so much prose, is also the sporting world’s most accomplished salesman, earning upwards of 60 million dollars a year in corporate endorsements. Once a long-haired, pimply, awkward young man, Federer has been fashioned, burnished, into the global exemplar of the good life; the heartstopping beauty of his game traduced into just another accoutrement of the moneyed, global elite alongside the Mercedes in the garage and the cashmere sweater in the closet. It could be worse. The Nietzschean superman has been used for more nefarious purposes than selling cars and clothes.
Perhaps it’s Olympic fatigue, that parade of marvellous bodies, or disillusionment with the empty spectacle of professional sport, or just middle-aged sentimentality, but, lately, as I trundle to the tennis courts in the morning, I’ve been having a recurring daydream. I imagine playing fields somewhere in Delhi, not fenced off, or privately owned, or part of some residential club, but entirely open to the public. Something like Hackney Marshes in London, with its gently rusting goalposts, or the great maidans in Bombay and Calcutta, the shouts intermingling from dozens of simultaneous cricket matches. A park where you might find a variety of people of a variety of ages from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of bodies, clad in shabby, mudstreaked, ill-fitting kit, and playing for the sake of playing.
This, to me, would be the antidote to the perfect bodies and shiny sportswear, the oppressive beauty of sports entertainment. Amateur sport is not some Edenic paradise; people, apparently, will cheat and take performance-enhancing drugs even when the only glory at stake is a tin trophy and kudos on Facebook. But there is something revivifying about a level playing field, both literally and metaphorically. So much of contemporary life is little more than a series of transactions, every encounter a calculation of potential profit, and our society so striated by class, that the simple batting back and forth of a tennis ball with a stranger becomes a refuge. Nothing is to be gained or lost and the world is suddenly marked by generosity, by the unalloyed pleasures of aimlessness.
When I lunge for a backhand, my feet thudding rather than gliding across the court, sweat coursing down my brow, I am reminded that a body is a cumbersome thing. But what does it matter? I’m out in the open air, playing a game for no reason other than I can, body creaking but spirit intact. And this must be what it is to be free.
This article was published in Oct-Dec 2016 issue of The Indian Quarterly.
Body and feature image credits: From Gallery of Losers 2012 || Sarnath Banerjee