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Sport as a Show

Today, sport is more than just entertainment, as explains Georges Vigarello, a specialist in the history of body representations and practices and joint head of the CETSAH(1)in Paris.

This Rugby World Cup garnered considerable media coverage, with each match being shown to the public on giant screens. Has sport definitively entered the realm of show-business?
Today, this dimension proves to be fundamental. But it is not new. As soon as sport took on its modern form at the end of the 19th century, sportsmen increasingly became considered heroes. The press created “halls of fame” for cycling and athletics, and subsequently tennis, as these players represented their countries during international tournaments. In parallel, the “show-business” dimension of their arts was orchestrated: Every effort was made to ensure that the smallest gesture became visible, the rules of combat were simplified, and rituals were created to reward the winners. Today, this process is further accentuated by television.

So the practice of sport as we know it is relatively recent?
Indeed, in France, it was only towards the end of the 1870s that what were previously referred to as games became sports. A watershed occurred when individuals started to be organized through the creation of democratic sporting associations– open to all if they paid a subscription–which gradually built infrastructures: stadiums, swimming pools, equipment, etc. This was helped by public institutions and new technologies. To be recognized by governments, these associations grouped themselves into federations. The rules of each game, which had until then differed from town to town, were unified. Sport sites, like sport seasons, became regulated, and athletes became professionals. This trend was pushed by three major developments: the growth of leisure activities, the democratization of sport, and the abrupt acceleration in communication networks.

In France, almost one in three people belong to a sports federation, and televised matches beat all audience records. How do you explain this keen interest?
First of all, there is the obvious pleasure procured by a spectacle. But also, by lifting us from everyday life, sport incarnates the qualities which are esteemed in our everyday existence, such as efficiency, resistance, health, and others. Finally, in the social imagination, practicing a sport represents the fundamental values of our society: the most important is equality of chances and the impartiality of results, and victory due to merit confirms individual moral qualities (courage, discipline, honesty, perseverance, etc.). In the world of sport, an ideal image of an alternative society is projected, in which our own society can see itself.

How can this myth resist the recent scandals that threaten top-level sports?
Despite the most visible Achilles' heels of sports–financial corruption, violence, and enhancement drugs– the myth still persists. This is mostly because a very strong need for idealization is projected onto sport. Making these sportsmen heroes renders them even more vulnerable to corruption. A problem that political decision-makers must face and help overcome.

Interview by Stéphanie Arc





Notes :

1. Centre d'études transdisciplinaires: sociologie, anthropologie, histoire (CNRS / EHESS).

Contacts :

Georges Vigarello,
CETSAH, Paris.


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