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  Sport - A Surrogate Religion?

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By: Gisbert Husemann, M.D.
A Current Medical and Educational Concern (Original title: Der Sport - ein Religionsersatz? Eine medizinisch-paedagogische Zeitbetrach-tung. Der Merkurstab 1996; 49:222-5. English by J. Collis, MIL)

What can possibly be the link between such contrasting activities as physical and religious exercises? There is none; they have nothing in common except when physical exercises are practiced in an entirely one-sided way that begins to have counter-religious implications.
The physical body has not been brought into being solely by material laws; its physical substances and laws are subject to a higher spiritual plan. The shape adopted by the physical body belongs in the sphere of thinking. This was known in antiquity when the Olympic Games were established and organized as a public festival. The physical exercises of the Greeks served to make the body as supple as possible so that it could be the servant of the spirit. The need to practice the supremacy of the spirit over the body was deduced from the fact that the body is organized in accordance with the logos (kata logon, kai noun).
In this respect, sport has developed one-sidedly so that physical exercise has now become an end in itself and even the object of commercial enterprise. This needs a body that functions as perfectly as that of an animal whose instincts are focused entirely on the body. Animals swim, fly, build in trees or underground, and so on. In return, they have had to relinquish the ability to determine their own destiny with the help of thinking; otherwise they could not have achieved the bodily capacities that now dominate them. In earlier times, people were able to speak about the body as a temple. This gave an image of its divine origin, an image that allowed for a sense of responsibility towards its healthy development for higher purposes. Now that physical exercise has become an end in itself the opposite situation obtains.

By using the limbs one-sidedly - especially the legs, as in football - we are going against the original Olympic ideal of making the body obedient to the spirit. A world-class tennis player once said after a match: "My head is completely empty." Without realizing it, he was accurately describing the inevitable outcome of the one-sided use of the limbs, which draws thinking down into them and the instinctual sphere of the body. Having freed itself from that sphere in the course of evolution, thinking is once again sucked into it, there to become a bodily instinct. The empty head is quite simply the ultimate sporting phenomenon. Because of it the players can achieve the exceptional performances so admired by the crowd who get carried away on stormy waves of emotion when they witness someone "writing sporting history" with his legs.

The mass of spectators approaches the game in a wave of expectations they hope will be met. Tension rises and mesmerizes the crowd; its release can be immense and lead to violence. The other side of the coin is the desire for sensational experience in the stadium; this joins forces with virtuoso displays of instinctual movement, and the two make a whole. This has little to do with the human being's spiritual self-determination. At the time of the ancient Games there was also a philosophy. One of its propositions was: remove thinking from the human being, and he becomes an animal. (ektherioutai -becomes an animal, Aristotle)

The statements that follow are from reports published in the Zuricher Zeitung, the Frankfurter Zeitung, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and other papers. The objection that such things need not be taken too seriously will be dealt with later.

During the 1984 Olympics, a false start meant that Edwin M. had to kneel at the starting line for a second time; and "the Coliseum was as silent as a church." In the end, we read that he - like other competitors during those Games - "was not an ordinary mortal". Yet while the Games were still in progress he came into conflict with the law after molesting a detective, just like any ordinary mortal.

During the Germany-Brazil World Cup Match in 1986, a score of 1:0 had been reached. When the losing side renewed their attack a "mood of holy anticipation filled the stadium". The Queretaro stadium in Mexico was called the "cathedral of football". When Diego Maradona played in Stuttgart in 1989 people called him simply the "football god".

This vocabulary might be regarded as merely metaphorical, resulting from lack of imagination on the part of the journalists. Political scientist and psychologist, Iring Fetscher, thought differently, however. In 1986, he expressed the opinion that the magic emanating from a single individual during a sporting event could well have assumed pseudo-religious dimensions. Fetscher was referring to Boris Becker in particular, but his suggestion is just as valid in the case of the other examples. We shall show that pseudo-religious terminology is no accident but should be regarded as a symptom and that it is essential for parents, teachers and sport teachers to be aware of this.

A local Swabian newspaper ran a picture of football players carrying a banner. The caption read: "Our [name of club] is our religion and [name of trainer] is our god." This was also the text on the banner. Lothar Matthaeus [Matthew], a German national player, shot a goal from 25 meters over the heads of 15 players. Prior to this, he had been having a personal crisis. A reporter wrote: "First goal, and end of the Matthew Passion." After several faults by his team, a trainer raised his hands in prayer calling: "Deliver us from evil." When Juergen Klinsmann went to Tottenham, "It was Christmas in Tottenham because football is the religion of Tottenham." His Credo is the role of the attacker, his Communion his relationship with the stadium public (H. Blickensdoerfer's biography of J. Klinsmann). These expressions were not due to lack of imagination on the part of Blickensdoerfer, a successful sports writer; they described the mood he had experienced (Stultgarter Zeitung, 12 December 1994).

That football could ever actually become a religion is, however, a false assumption since it is practiced by the instinctive language of the body. But it is important to recognize that it has become a surrogate religion. The instinctive life of the body has taken the place of the soul, where religion belongs and is practiced. So we are faced with a symptom rather than mere metaphors. Since the body is divine in origin, extreme one-sidedness in its use leads logically to a reversal of religious values. Religion and surrogate religion have in common the fact that neither of them can exist without continued practice. Training in football or any other competitive sport is ongoing. Without similar devotion religion, too, loses its meaning.

As we have noticed, terms that apply to all the main religious exercises were used. The mood of the stadium recalled the atmosphere in a cathedral. The phrases used derived from Holy Mass, Christian prayer, seasonal festivals and their music, all against the background of monotheism of the body. Borussia Dortmund won a match, so now "God is a Borussia player" (Stutt-garter Zeitung). F. Beckenbauer was called a "figure of light in German football". This is a reference to a central theme in religion which we won't go into.

A Roman newspaper. La Republica, spoke of the "sacred nature of these religious wars" and went on to describe the teams as having been called out on a "crusade" (Die Zeit, 7 June 1985).

Readers who want to understand this symptom of our time might be interested in what Rudolf Steiner had to say on the subject, although he spoke about sport in general rather than football in particular. In England, he was asked about hockey, cricket and so on.(1) His reply took account of the fact that sport played a considerable role in England and that in order not to estrange the children from the world there was nothing wrong with introducing them to the "popular fashion" of the time. "It is wrong to imagine that sport is tremendously valuable for development. It is not all that important for development... But it is not a good idea to resist something that is, perhaps, rather commonplace in itself by adopting equally commonplace means of resistance."

During the lead-up to the opening of the first Waldorf School a good deal was said about physical exercise - also in its relation to physiology and the rhythm of sleeping and waking.(2) Physical movement should be meaningful:

"When does the human being move in a meaningless way? The human being moves in a meaningless way when he does so in a manner dictated solely by the body."

Gymnastics gives the body its placing within the external laws of nature, while eurythmy permits it to move in accordance with the shaping power of words. Healthy physical movement comes about when we allow for an alternation between movements of the limbs directed to the outside world and movements directed inwards. One-sided physical movement is not compatible with the purpose of the human body. It is contrary to its purpose and meaning. "Exaggerated sporting activity is practical Darwinism." Its aim is to conquer, suppress, eliminate those who are weaker. This is another way of expressing the ancient philosopher's statement that the human being becomes an animal when deprived of meaningful thinking.

On 25 December 1921, Steiner spoke about sport to teachers in Basel.(3) He said that religion was no longer strong enough today to reach right down into the physical body in education. The power of religion had been reduced by the various religious beliefs: "It is no longer a strong power... It no longer works right down into the physical body... Instinctive feelings in this regard have led to modem humanity being brought into something else, something instinctively sought after, something that has entered into modem civilization in a way that is actually not really understood. I am referring to everything connected with sport." People seek to achieve in an external way what religion has lost in strength. "But in the future it [sport] will come to take up a different position in human beings, whereas today it is a substitute for religion. Such things appear paradoxical when expressed in words. Truth itself appears paradoxical today because we have entered unawares into so much that now belongs to modem civilization."

As a rule, a meaningful diagnosis can point to treatment. So if we are correct in the assumption that sport has become a substitute for religion, what advice should we give? The whole system of physical education needs changing, with every teacher having a part to play. tn particular - and this is no longer paradoxical — religion teachers and sport teachers are faced with the task of having to reverse the trend of sport away from its sub-human direction. This would involve bringing about a spiritual development for the body, a deepening of feelings for the soul, and a thoughtful awakening for the spirit.

We have already mentioned the need to alternate between gym and eurythmy. Just as the will exists between inner and outer life, so is gym part of external laws while eurythmy has to take account of the inner forms of words. The gymnastics developed by Count Bothmer with the children of the first Waldorf School stands between these two. As the rhythmic system establishes balance between the upper and the lower human being, so Bothmer gymnastics brings a healing balance into one-sided bodily movement. Rudolf Steiner acknowledged the value of Bothmer gymnastics.(4)

The degeneration of physical exercise that is now happening in sport has, over decades, led to today's absurdity. To imagine that this trend can be reversed in the short term is an illusion. The first thing to establish is at least a full awareness of the problem. Thereafter a new, younger generation can be called upon to bring meaning back into sport.
Gisbert Husemann, MD Friedrich-Liszt-Str. 27 D-737600stfildem Germany
1 Steiner R. The Kingdom of Childhood (GA 311). Tr. H. Fox. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1982.
2 Steiner R. Study of Man (GA 293). Tr. D. Harwood & H. Fox, rev. A. C. Harwood. London:
Rudolf Steiner Press 1975.
3 Steiner R. Soul Economy and Waldorf Education (GA 303). Tr. R. Everett. New York & London:
Anthroposophic Press & Rudolf Steiner Press 1986.
4 Count F. von Bothmer Bothmer Gymnastic Exercises. Tr. 0. Whicher. London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1994.

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