The question of whether the world’s most famous footballer, David Beckham, is a god is not as inane as it might initially appear.
Beckham satisfies many of the criteria for a religious icon. Jess, the protagonist in Bend it Like Beckham, worships before a shrine devoted to him in her bedroom, investing her dreams of football success in his totemic image. He is omnipresent, a global media icon whose visage stares back at us from television and cinema screens, newspaper photographs and magazine covers. English football fans make regular pilgrimages to follow their national team and its captain throughout the world, as they seek to recapture the glory of the 1966 World Cup.
Beckham’s ability to launch a ball 20 metres from goal and beat the keeper indicates that he possesses matchless, God-given abilities. Beckham does fall short of the mark, however, on the matter of immortality. Nonetheless, it is likely that his image will live on long after his death.
Sport is a window onto the sacred and profane in contemporary culture. Lance Armstrong’s seven victories in the Tour de France after recovering from testicular, lung and brain cancer are miraculous. Cathy Freeman had her prayers answered when she crossed the finish line at the 2000 Olympics and an “entire nation” rejoiced. Rugby union and league players such as Matt Rogers, Jason Stevens and P.J. Marsh publicly claim fealty to God as born-again Christians.
Rugby league’s John Hopoate probed the depths of on-field profanity with his bum poking antics. AFL star Wayne Carey was cast as Judas for betraying his team-mates after an affair with Anthony Stevens’ wife. Another footballing icon, Gary Ablett, was once a “god”, only to fall from heaven in retirement after being overcome by the temptations of drugs and gambling. He was recently resurrected into the AFL Hall of Fame to once again sit amongst the other gods of the game.
The point here is not that sport is religion. Rather, religious metaphor is a frame through which we represent and understand sport and sportspeople. Both religious and sporting imagery feature an array of symbols, insignia, emblems and motifs: saints and heroes; churches and stadiums; pilgrims and fans; exaltation and celebration.
Sport is an arena where athletes represent transcendence and the sublime, as well as tragedy and failure in the eyes of the Lord, or at least the supporters and commentators who often pass judgment in the style of a less than benevolent God.
These judgments extend beyond the playing field and into the private lives of stars. Collective judgment is passed on the moral worth of their behaviour through headlines, readers’ letters, talkback calls and online forums. These are the pulpits of public opinion. For those who inhabit the realm of elite level sport, there are only two states of existence on and off the field. Winning and losing: meaning that both salvation and damnation are immanent.
C.L.R. James paralleled cricket with art in arguably the best book ever written on sport, Beyond a Boundary. Sport and religious imagery are equally assimilable. Donald Horne quipped that for many Australians sport is life and the rest a shadow. If God gives life, then sport breathes life into the nation. That “Australia is a sporting nation” is a cliché, but it has been repeated so often that it has seeped into popular consciousness as would the Holy Spirit, making many believe in something that defies rationality. This is the nature of faith - it requires no evidence and is not measured by scientific or empirical criteria. And as with many faiths, fundamentalists are prone to reduce a rich and varied set of ideas, values and experiences to dogma.
Both religion and sport are cultural forms that mediate social and spiritual bonds. Attending mass is to stand both before a priest and the God that he represents. Supporting a team is to identify with players wearing the club uniform, but also the social and sporting history invested in that strip. Fans are proud to wear their colours. Through them they symbolically connect to a wider community of the faithful who share their belief.
For those readers thinking that altogether too much is being claimed for sport here, you are probably right. For as long as I can remember I have believed that sport occupies a disproportionate amount of this country’s energy and time, particularly given its importance relative to politics, the arts and education. My change of heart at and for this moment has as much to do with the state of contemporary politics and global security as sport.
This is a time for sport. We live at a moment in which greater focus on the abilities and beauty of the athletic body might imbue us with more respect and regard for the sanctity of life. The events of September 11, the invasion of Iraq and the response of insurgents, the brutality of Abu Ghraib, and the bombings in Bali, Madrid and London are horrific. Events such as these see the human body sacrificed, dismembered and defiled, rather than honoured or wondered over.