Dostoevsky on sport

‘Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony.’

The earnest and absolutely unique voice belongs to a character named Ivan Karamazov, as any connoisseur of world literature can easily confirm. Knowledgeable readers should also recall that the dialectical genius of The Brothers Karamazov (1880) ‘returns his ticket’ to the Kingdom of Heaven as he cannot stomach an eternal bliss if children have been wronged along the way. A divine order that allows for the little ones to shed tears is not worth accepting, he argues in front of his pious brother. ‘I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all!’

Truly, picking up just about any tome by Dostoevsky invariably pays back. No wonder one thing led to another when I recently started rereading him for no particular purpose and in no particular order. Eventually I found myself toying with the idea of applying Ivan Karamazov’s ethics to modern sport.

Not that Fyodor Mikhailovitš himself cared much about sport, though, and the only Dostoevsky ever involved in competitive sport (the Canadian gelding named after the Russian author) probably remained equally ignorant of his namesake’s literary achievements.

What arguably connects Dostoevsky’s oeuvre to the ethos of modern sport is the omnipresence of suffering. In the latter case, suffering tends to occur on a voluntary basis, the equine athlete being a striking exception. Human athletes too can be manipulated by their coaches or other powers that be, but most of the time they are in a position to choose whether to enter the pain zone or not. In fact, a number of athletes seem to relish the prospect of physical pain.

What about the underage athlete, then? I mean the various tribulations all too many kids regularly undergo – insults, taunts, harsh words by coaches, parents and spectators alike. How should we relate to their mental welfare, or, to be more precise, the lack of it? Is there enough intrinsic or potential value in sport to compensate for their tears?

Admittedly, junior sport is by and large a civilized affair and it may indeed contain some educational value. Ivan Karamazov, however, gives a wide berth to generalities, and so should we. Whether most children enjoy their games and derive all sorts of benefits from sport is, in this line of argument, beside the point. Ivan is obsessed with individuals instead of anonymous masses. And in every tournament there’s a child whose efforts end in a totally uncalled-for humiliation. If and when we refuse to consider him or her as a cog in the otherwise irreproachable sport system, we need to conjure a reply to Ivan’s query.

‘Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature (…) and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.’

Dostoevsky’s own answer revolved around the miracle of Incarnation. Approximately two thousand years ago, the Person behind the human tragedy assumed full responsibility for the Creation by stepping down and sharing the human condition. Since the Passion of Christ mirrors the agony of maimed and murdered children, God can no longer be conceived as a detached and therefore potentially guilty observer.

Alas, the edifice of sport is of human origin and there appears to be no equivalent of the Incarnation to absolve its architects. No gesture can ever cancel out the tears of the tiny child athlete. It follows, I presume, that a twenty-first century Ivan Karamazov would return his grandstand ticket out of hand, declaring that too high a price is being asked for the triumph of either team.

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