This sporting lifestyle

The fitness cult has taken over the world and John Major wants to be a winner. But physical perfection is a dangerous absolute

Share
Related Topics
John Major's latest wheeze - a "revolutionary" British Academy of Sport combined with a network of sports colleges - is intended to produce a new generation of winning British athletes. Either this is another example of his characteristically lousy timing or he is spot on. We are, after all, in the middle of an Olympics that seems to feature an alarmingly large crop of chirpily heroic British losers. Perhaps that is precisely why we need a new sports initiative or, perhaps, it will simply make us ask: why bother? Leave the superhuman stuff to the American, the Chinese or even the Irish; we'll just turn up to moan about the buses.

But, of course, none of us, the Prime Minister included, can seriously hope to ignore the sports cult that has taken over the world. Political causes are dead, religion on the wane, even getting richer lacks any kind of spiritual depth. But sport and fitness seem, more than ever, to provide an absolute that crosses all cultural boundaries.

You can't argue with the simple spectacle of somebody running or swimming faster than anybody else. You can't deny that those honed, perfect bodies represent one instantly recognisable, universally acceptable form of human perfection.

Indeed, in a bewilderingly plural world, in which all values are relativised, they begin to represent the only such form. In every other field of human activity, excuses can be made. You don't get on in your career because you have been unfairly treated, or your genius is not recognised because the system is rigged against you. Losing athletes may attempt similar excuses; but, in reality, the other guy going faster, higher or longer is too final, too clear a judgment to be relativised by anything.

That is one reason why everybody takes drugs in sport so seriously. You might argue that chemically driving the human body to even greater heights represents a more exalted form of absolute. Medical technology might reasonably be seen as part of the whole ingenious mix of training and preparation. Why not see what the doctors can bring to the party? Why not have an all- druggy Olympics?

But, in fact, drugs drag the whole thing back down to the old excuse- laden, relativised marketplace. We don't like sporting drugs because we can't see them. Some hidden cocktail is driving these limbs, not simply the determination and fitness on clear display. Sport is reduced to a technological arms race like any other. Winning becomes ambiguous, as in Formula One motor racing - is it Damon Hill or the Williams car we applaud? Drugging an athlete makes him into a vehicle, a dualism of chemicals and body, when what we really want from sport is the simple, visible monism of human beings stretched to their physical limits.

And we seem to want it now more than ever. The worship of the idea of fitness became big business in the Eighties. Health, physical and spiritual, became identified with specific rituals - the gym, the jog - and with specific clothes that were worn even when not exercising - the training shoe, the tracksuit. Even Oasis, pop stars behaving badly, have helped to sell sportswear. Without them Adidas would be just another sports label, not an essential teen accessory. The company's three stripes, like the Christian cross, appear in contexts remote from but still dependent on their original, transcendent meaning. The stripes refer to salvation through the body, the cross through the soul.

So bodily perfection has become an ultimate state beyond cultural or material argument. You can quibble about whether you want more money, more art or more fun, but everybody, whether they admit it or not, wants a better body. Teenagers, given the chance, rebel against everything except sport. On television Gladiators captures this by placing real, super- cultivated bodies into a context derived from computer games. The performers told me that when they meet their youngest fans, the first thing the children do is reach out and touch them to reassure themselves that such iron perfection is real.

Whole nations, which usually compete over conflicting views of economics or ideology, feel obliged to confront each other bodily. Those Chinese gymnasts are expressions not just of an individual, concentrated asceticism, but also of the conviction of the ancient imperial Middle Kingdom that it alone possesses the key to all human perfection.

In America sport is even more intensely cherished. On the one hand, there is the world of the super-rich gods such as Michael Jordan, but, on the other, there is the world of the high school game. This world - simple, innocent, direct - is now being carefully resurrected by a people anxious to recapture the older, gentler America that preceded Vietnam and urban decay.

In the movies the best thing that can happen to an American dad - like Steve Martin in Parenthood - is that his underachieving son can make a heroic catch in baseball. And the supreme image of familial stability is the basketball net in the yard. This is not just a lowbrow phenomenon - John Updike's miraculous four-novel chronicle of modern America ends with its hero, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, dying of a massive heart attack while reaching to sink one final basket - "Up Harry goes, way up towards the torn clouds."

Can we, even after the Prime Minister's initiative, hope to compete with this? In sport, we neither have the Chinese imperial conviction, nor do we have that fierce American cultural desperation. Instead our triumphs tend to come from islands of individual eccentricity - such as those rowers with their weeping cox in Barcelona. We may feel that such victories spring from some gritty, specifically British character. But we never feel they are organic products of our system. If anything we feel they happen in spite of our system.

But, thanks to the National Lottery and John Major, a sports system is what we are going to get. It might work. But we shouldn't worry too much if it doesn't. Sport is, after all, an illusory and even dangerous absolute. Soul matters more than body and the last time an ideal of physical perfection was so worshipped the world had to go to war and six millions Jews had to die.

The Americans with their high school games are right. They want sport to exist as a reinforcement of small town values, peace and security; they want it to be part of, not the whole of, a culture. For the truth is that more subtle and complex absolutes are required of us if we want to die as well as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: the paraphernalia of a practised burglar – screwdrivers, gloves, children

Guy Keleny
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?