In an exceptionally brilliant passage originally composed in the 1970s, Umberto Eco recalls having begged his father to take him to the ball game, which (in the Italian context) of course meant calcio. The young Umberto wished ‘to feel like the others’, as his translator put it in the 1986 anthology Travels in Hyperreality.
Papà obliged, but to no avail. Umberto couldn’t bring himself to behave like the other boys. The point of chasing the ball in skimpy clothes escaped him, and the sea of screaming spectators hardly made things better.
‘And one day, as I was observing with detachment the senseless movements down there on the field, I felt how the high noonday sun seemed to enfold men and things in a chilling light, and how before my eyes a cosmic, meaningless performance was proceeding.’
Apparently you don’t have to be a twentieth-century Italian schoolboy to experience existential solitude in the grandstand. Here in Finland scholars and journalists alike agonized over diminishing attendance at sports events for the better part of the year 2015. It had suddenly transpired that the nation’s youth had discovered other, less honorable pastimes than watching ‘senseless movements on the field’, to quote Eco’s clinical turn of phrase.
I said ‘less honorable’ because Pasi Koski’s scholarly text that triggered the Finnish debate had a distinct agenda. The professor’s interest in spectatorship was not purely academic; he was troubled about the future of ‘elite sport’ and missed capacity crowds for that reason alone.
As a conscientious scholar, Koski justified his concern with a nod to sport’s ability to create ‘collective meanings’. More precisely, he drew on the renowned theorist Johan Galtung’s thesis according to which sport is ‘one of the strongest structures and transfer mechanisms of culture ever invented by humanity’ (Liikunta & tiede 6/2014).
Interestingly, however, Galtung’s understanding of sport was completely different from what Koski would like us to believe. Not unlike the Neo-Marxist school, once so fashionable, the Norwegian sociologist perceived modern sport as a mirror image of modern society. ‘I actually think that competitive sports at the national level belong to the 1648 Westphalia system of world order and that its decline and ultimate fall is overdue like so many other aspects of that system’, he reasoned in the 1980s.
It’s hardly plausible that the Finnish sociologist could have been unaware of Galtung’s real message. Yet he managed to turn his elder colleague into a sophisticated partisan of sport, a trick that would have surely earned a rebuke ‘on the field’.
In brief, Galtung shared Eco’s distaste for sport. Eco’s essay merely gave Galtung’s theory-driven musings a slightly postmodern twist. (Among other things, Eco claimed to have lost his faith in God while watching soccer!)
What is the correct response, then? Should one start bemoaning deserted stadiums? Only if one is overly concerned about the Westphalia system with all that it entails. For the rest of us, the ‘meaningless performance’ represents an invitation to meaningful reflection, whether the ultimate crash will occur in our lifetime or not.