Social Science blog

03 August 2011

St Augustine in the Olympic Park.

Simone Bacchini writes:

 If someone had said to me that one day I’d be writing about sport and the Olympics, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. Even now, when my friends hear about it, their reactions vary from the slightly bemused to the totally incredulous. That’s not surprising. As a child and teenager, my very curious mind just seemed to be programmed not to care about sports. And my body followed suit. In school, I remember the torture of PE classes; the humiliation of being picked last for the football team – ironic, considering I never wanted to be involved in the first place – and the boredom of having to watch matches. Maybe an Olympics would have helped; but Italy had had its one already, so no chance for me to be “inspired”.

 Then came the British Library; and the Sport and Society website. Looking at sport “through the lens of social science” did it for me: there was a way in which I could be interested in sport after all. (Ok, I still can’t play it, but that’s another story). Gender, discourse, social exclusion and inclusion, personal narratives, and even – hold your breath – spirituality. I mention spirituality because I’ve recently come across two most interesting edited volumes; both deal with the subject in relation to sport.

 The first, “Sport and Spirituality”, by Parry et al. (eds.), looks at the “spiritual” dimension of the sport experience: its transcendent, metaphorical, and ethical values. This may surprise us today: in the run-up to London 2012, I’ve heard many things mentioned but spirituality was not among them.

 But it shouldn’t. As Parry reminds us, for Coubertin, the man who revived the Olympics at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a ‘religion of athletics’ was central. We may not wish to dwell on it (especially in the West, in these secular, post-religious, and politically correct times), but the entire Olympic spectacle mirrors a religious ceremony. There are rites, symbols, “priests”, and a congregation. And isn’t all the discourse of the Olympics - especially the forthcoming one, with all its talk of “inspiration”, “transformation”, “bravery”, and “triumph over hardship” – reminiscent of religious language?

 The second volume I’ve been enjoying is again edited by Parry et al. “Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports” has an ambitious aim: to look at some of society’s ethical dilemmas as reflected in sports, and to discuss possible solutions which are grounded in a theistic understanding. Sounds all very complicated and abstruse, I know; but in reality the papers collected in this volume offer interesting insights – and yes, possible solutions – to problems that anybody perusing current reporting on sports and the Olympics will have come across. For example: why doping? What do we do about it? Is the competitive nature of sport at the root of all of its problems? And is competitiveness a bad thing?

 I’m not sure how your average sport enthusiast would react to this, but I must admit that I was fascinated by Mark Hamilton’s use of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the great theologian. He basically argued that there are no evil things in creation, but that one can give something (sports, for example) too much importance and that this will result in evil. Ergo: athletes and fans, you can enjoy sports but, at the end of the day, it’s only sports. And winning shouldn’t be all (I can’t believe it: I’ve just reduced Augustine’s thought to a few words!).

 So, in conclusion, there are many ways to look at sport and the Olympics. A “social” approach may just be what some need to be reconciled with it. It did me. Keep an eye on our website!


 Parry, J., Robinson, S., Watson, N.J., and Nesti, M. (eds.)Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2007.

Lending collections shelfmark: m07/32223.

 Parry, J., Nesti, M., and Watson, N. (eds.) (2011). Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports. London: Routledge, 2011

London reference collections shelfmark: SPIS796.01

Lending collections shelfmark:8026.515780 no. 4.


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