The Joy of Sports


As the pandemic appears to be loosening and summer vacations approach, the joy of sports is essential to our new-found liberation.

The Swiss football team surprised world champion France in a once-ever qualifying for the European Championship quarter finals followed by a heroic battle with Spain. Roger Federer gambols on Centre Court at Wimbledon hoping to turn back the clock for another, and perhaps last, run at his favorite Grand Slam. And, for my cycling friends, I shouldn’t forget the annual Tour de France.
How to equate the joy of sports into our daily lives? What have we missed during the pandemic when most sports events were on hold? How do we analyze the spectator celebrations when the Swiss goalie Yann Sommer reached out to block the last French shot on goal? Why do we cheer from our living room chairs when Roger unleashes a down-the-line backhand winner? 
We all feel better when Switzerland beat France and went toe-toe with Spain right up until the end. The heroism of the underdogs gave us a renewed sense of national purpose, similar but different from the recognition of Swiss importance during the Biden-Putin summit. The summit was a political testimony to Swiss neutrality and its role during the Cold War; the football team emotionally demonstrated how Switzerland can truly punch above its weight. This was not active neutrality; it was physical proof of David beating Goliath.
And Roger? We still believe in the national icon. Despite two knee operations and almost 40 years, Roger is still there, as stylish and elegant as always. His grace, on and off the court, represent all that Switzerland projects itself to be. And if the Swiss football team can beat France and stay with Spain for 120 minutes, we can still dream that Roger can beat Novak and Rafa and once again enthral the world as a symbol of all that is best about Swiss made.
Michael Novak’s 1976 The Joy of Sports is one of my favorite books. In it, the theologian examines the relationship between religion and sports, especially in the United States. Selected as one of the magazine Sports Illustrated’s “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time,” it traces epiphanies which combined the physical with something otherworldly.
The book’s blurb sums it up nicely: “Combines an immediate enjoyment of sports with an awareness of the influence of athletic heroes on our society's spiritual life, and relates each popular sport to the particular virtue and grace it ritualizes.” 
While Novak focuses on American sports and their classic moments, the Swiss victory over France, its epic determination against Spain and Roger’s return to Centre Court can all be seen as part of Switzerland’s “spiritual life,” something that has been in the doldrums since the pandemic. The summit was mostly a Geneva event; the football team and Roger go much further.
There are no measurements for a society’s spiritual well-being. Various polls try to capture how happy we are, but happiness is not spiritual well-being. We all felt better when Sommer stopped Mbappe in the shootout. We all revel in Roger’s game and style.
Can these moments erase the anxieties of Covid-19? Can they help us to get back to our former lives? Maybe. Maybe not. But many of us live for these moments. And they should never be underestimated. Biden-Putin will be written about in history books, most probably as just a footnote. Geneva’s moment during the summit as “the center of the world” will quickly fade from memory. But the 2021 Swiss football performance in the Euro and Federer’s career are forever engraved in our national “spiritual life.”

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  • The question of how skilled athletes become sports idols is connected to the emotional behavior inherent within hero worship. Who becomes a hero has changed considerably with media technology. Albeit the mastery of the games requires considerable skill and endurance, why does this trigger the emotion and loyalty of spectators to degrees of frenzy and sometimes rage? Fans identify with them by wearing their uniforms/insignias and adopting their language and style. The hero's off-field character and behavior create intense scrutiny, emotional response, and media attention far exceeding logical reasoning. Surely Frank Fenner's smallpox research far exceeds the benefits gained from famous athletes. But few can experience such accomplishments vicariously and can only reward Fenner in recognition.
    Something valuable beyond the game itself can be happening, however, and the story of Syrian Lebanese baseball star Bill Anawata of the 1930's is a case in point. The L'Monar team created community cohesion in a very inspiring manner worthy of scrutiny.

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