One person who is unlikely to be cheerleading this summer’s international fiesta of sporting activity is Marc Perelman, a French academic who has just published a scathing attack on the very idea of organised sport itself. A provocatively timed polemic that situates today’s mass sporting spectacle at the very heart of globalised capitalism, he describes it variously as an instrument of repression that has bolstered numerous tyrannical regimes, an opium of the people and a modern emotional plague. Let the games begin!
Dazed & Confused: Come on, Marc – you didn’t manage to get tickets to the Olympics this year, did you?
Marc Perelman: No ticket, no games.
D&C: How do you defend yourself against accusations that your criticism stems from a personal dislike of sport?
Marc Perelman: I differentiate competitive sport, the sport spectacle, and physical activities free of institutional organisation. The question is not to like or dislike, but to analyse the sociopolitical reality of sport hic et nunc. If this takes place from the point of view of feelings, we cannot understand the mindnumbing reality of modern sport.
D&C: What are your personal memories and experience of sport?
Marc Perelman: As a young person, I was good at football and tennis, and I would ski. I competed a little. What I noticed concerned the relationship with nature: the sporting event is an immediate upheaval of our relationships with nature, which becomes a medium we must fight against to win or beat records, and no longer a dimension in which we can take pleasure.
D&C: Your book kicks off with a portrayal of how certain Olympic games and other events have supported tyrannical powers around the world. But is this the fault of sport itself, or are those regimes responsible for ‘corrupting’ the Olympic ideal of purity, brotherhood etc?
Marc Perelman: The Olympics, football world cups and so on are actually part of historical events. Sometimes they even constitute them; for example, the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. It’s necessary to analyse in-depth how that event was the preparation for World War II, a rehearsal on a sporting level for what was going to be held four years later. So yes, sporting events, co-organised by both political and sporting authorities, must take heavy responsibility for many tragic events: Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, Beijing 2008, Argentina 1978 (for football). For this year’s games, the question is whether the International Olympic Committee will permit the participation of Syria, a country in which a dictator has killed thousands of individuals, or if it will accept teams without women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain. You refer to the so-called corruption of sport, as if it were neutral, pure, immaculate... Actually, -sport intrinsically has all the attributes of a totalitarian structure: competition of all against all, worship of performance, violence on the body to beat records, hatred of adversary, chauvinism and sometimes hysterical nationalism, and so on.
D&C: JG Ballard’s 2006 novel Kingdom Come uses sports clubs as a mechanism in which a suburban form of fascism emerges – what do you think about this?
Marc Perelman: I have not read this book, but from what you tell me it sounds like an excellent work. However, I do not belong to those critics who see immediately the traces of fascism in the slightest repressive act. For me, fascism is an extremely organised form of society with considerable social power struggles and the initial crushing of the organised working-class. Sport is not fascism; on the other hand, in sport there is a real fascisation. This, for me, is the ‘sportivisation’ of cultural life, reducing it to only one activity: the intensive consumption of sport by impoverished populations.
D&C: Has global sport become a new religion?
Marc Perelman: Sport has undoubtedly become the global religion of our time. It did not cause the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant or Anglican religions to disappear: they are all still preserved, but something superior has hustled them. In short, sport is a new religion – with its gods (champions), paradise (victories, records), and hell (defeats). Sport is as much an opium as religion, but worse because religion is a form of protest against reality, whereas sport does nothing but increase the most miserable reality.
D&C: The excesses of sporting nationalism that you point to (violence, xenophobia, racism) mostly use football as an example. But what about other sports like tennis, to pick a random example, or rugby?
Marc Perelman: Rugby is not at the same professional level as football. The financial rewards are simply not comparable. Which rugby player gains a million euros a month? None. Financial rewards in football are such that they engage the processes of violence between players, between clubs and between supporters, who can very quickly become hooligans.
D&C: In the UK at least, football-related violence has decreased since the 80s.
Marc Perelman: What you say is partially true for the UK. The stadiums of the Premier League have been emptied of the general public with the raising of prices. So, one does not see violence any more in the English stadiums – on the other hand in lower divisions, violence is very current, though not so much reported in the media. Everywhere else in the world, violence inside and out of stadiums is continual. In north Africa, Greece, Egypt, football is the sociopolitical centre of violence between individuals.
D&C: If sport has in some ways taken the place of war and conflict between nation states, surely this must be a good thing?
Marc Perelman: Sport, of course, has not replaced war, which is present in most continents and very many countries. And civil wars do not disappear thanks to the famous Olympic truce. Sport instead prepares men for war because of exacerbated nationalism: see the conflicts in Yugoslavia, in Berlin and between Honduras and El Salvador. On all these occasions, stadiums became places of extraordinary power for nationalist mobilisation, chauvinistic hysteria, hatred of the other. War is prepared in stadiums.
D&C: Much has been written of the security ‘lockdown’ in the run-up to the London games. What do you make of this?
Marc Perelman: The games are generally a clear indication of the degree of submission of a nation to those who lead them. Who will resist the consequences of the Olympic flood – the mass tourism, the increase of rents and taxes, media conformity? Transport unions? Taxis? The games are a clear indication and assertion of power. And the Olympic games always strengthen those with power.
D&C: You are particularly critical of today’s electronically plugged-in young, whom you depict as lost in hero worship of sports stars and subservient to spectacle. Do you not agree there has been a reawakening of political awareness in today’s youth?
Marc Perelman: There is really no revolution today, despite abusive uses of this term. The economic system has not been affected. The forms of government remain unchanged. What took place in north Africa appears more a liquidation of the old dictators, quickly replaced by Islamist movements supported by young people who are more or less radical. As for European or North American movements of young people, are they really anti-authority in that they question the totality of society? And the sporting youth, that of the stadiums, is doped; it has no compassion for opponents, its aim is to conquer. This youth is not a model to be followed.
D&C: Ultimately, what are the main reasons you believe a critique of sport is important at this time?
Marc Perelman: Rome has just withdrawn from the list of competitors for the 2020 Olympics… This is an excellent initiative. Greece would certainly not have its current level of social decay without the 2004 Athens games, which were disastrous for its economy. Paying back the debt for the 1976 Montreal Olympics took Canada 30 years. There are many more examples. The colossal debts accumulated in Europe and the slow destruction of its welfare system, particularly in the UK, should cause us to think. The spending to organise this one fortnight’s competition is a bottomless pit, the barrel of Danaïdes. The London games will accelerate debt because of the debauchery of spending: construction of stadiums, mobilisation of the police, the army, security. What will be the legacy? London, nightmare city of the Olympic games!
Barbaric Sport: a global plague by Marc Perelman is published by Verso Books. This interview appeared in the May issue of Dazed & Confused
Photo by Adrian Crispin