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Sporting success won’t fill existential void

The impending World Cup fever brings to mind some of my former triumphs on the soccer field. It was November 2004 and we were in the last minute of a hard-fought match. I received a pass and started a wide, outflanking run, neatly bypassing the cover defence before whipping the ball, left-footed, into the back of the net.

It felt good. True, my opponents were eight-year-olds, but it still felt good. Especially as my son Yossi, a pupil of the school at which the fathers-vs-sons match was taking place, had been one of the spectators. I came off afterwards, wheezing a little but still with a hint of a swagger.

“Nu, Yossele, how was that?”

Yossi gave me a black look.

“You knocked over Yossi Ziskind three times!” he scowled.

It reminded me of the time I spent on an Israeli army base, on a Jewish students’ volunteer programme back in the 1980s. We played an impromptu football game with the soldiers on the concrete parade ground, and — true to form — I collided with an opponent and wiped him out. He lay on his back, groaning, while I slunk away, appalled. Who needs Hamas with someone like me around?

Jews are good at winning Nobel Prizes but remain mediocre at sport. Even a big Russian influx has not enabled Israel to repeat its 1970 feat of reaching the World Cup finals. It has at least managed to pick up a silver medal at this year’s Olympics, which is all our own under-performing team has managed thus far.

Going back to the previous Football World Cup, I remember a friend of mine smirking over the fact that Iran had received a 3-1 pasting at the hands of Mexico in the first round. I saw things differently, arguing that it would have been better for Iran to do well, since it would have served to whet the appetites of ordinary Iranians for participating in the greater global culture. The more Iranians are happily kept occupied with trivia like this, the less they will be inclined to listen to their religious extremists, I said.

It was true what I said, albeit rather cynical. Bread and circuses was how the ruling Ancient Roman elite went about keeping their proletariat quiet. As long as people are well fed and kept constantly entertained, they are less likely to revolt against the existing order. With the decline of religious faith throughout the Western world, sport, entertainment and consumerism are increasingly being used as a means of filling the existential void. From what one is seeing in popular culture, however, this is no longer enough.

During the past few years, one can hardly fail to notice the extraordinary extent to which books and films on supernatural themes have been received. An obvious example is the Harry Potter phenomenon, in which a series of what are no more than children’s books have been received with unprecedented enthusiasm, including by large numbers of adults. In the movie industry, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequel Prince Caspian all entered the top 20 of the biggest money-spinners of all time. That Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has likewise enjoyed such success shows how deep is the hankering after traditional religious beliefs — in this case, Christian.

Coming back to books, even Harry Potter can’t compete with the phenomenally successful The Da Vinci Code, no more than a so-so modern-day thriller about the origins of Christianity but one that has become one of the most widely read books ever.

In the past six months two concerned Christians, both obviously seeing themselves as concerned friends of the Jews but nevertheless steeped to the eyeballs in myriad disparate conspiracy theories, have helpfully drawn my attention to the deeper truths contained within The Da Vinci Code. One actually sent me the book. It arrived along with a variety of other reading matter, including biographies of Edward Kennedy (why?) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (again, why?) and a copy of National Geographic containing baleful predictions of when the next big quake will hit California (and your point is?!). Also, a book on anti-Semitism (our library had three copies already) and a biography of Hitler. All were replete with copious but apparently purposeless underlinings.

There was no explanation from the donor of what I was supposed to do with it all, beyond a cryptic note saying that maybe he’s crazy, but then again, maybe not …

I could have cleared up that particular matter for him, but the package had arrived without a return address.

This kind of straw-clutching to which people are resorting only shows how pitifully debased the age-old religious impulse has become. Which brings up the point about why we should really be concerned when our sports teams do badly. South African sport is largely mired in mediocrity (cricket, rugby and golf excepted) but would we really be that much happier as a nation if it were not?


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Craig Craig 20 August 2008

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same…
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son (apologies to Charlene Smith)

  2. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 21 August 2008

    apart from the surreal title and viewpoint (Planck’s theory of Monochromatic Spin Paradox will also not help you fry a better wurst.) could I point out that Sport has an entertainment value and good effect on law abiding by giving people something better to do.

    When New Orleans (before flood) put money into free sports facilities as par of their crime policy the murder rate dropped. Allegedly because insead of hanging around and getting drunk and shooting each other, a significant number of young hoods found more entertaining ways of spending the evenings and a less fatal method of competion by playing ball, in informal or formal leagues.

    the money made from sport also is an entire industry, ranging fromt the actual venues, to factories producing equipment or posters or bubble gum cards of heroes, etc. etc.

    Putting a bit of money into SA sporting development could pay dividends as a way of escape from the ghetto, a way of providing less fatal competition than knife fights, a way of living for hundreds ranging from the players to the candy floss sellers at the sunday game, and create a local industry in sports equipment and maintenance, as it has done all over the world.

    From the British Yachting fraternity, to the French “Tour de France” in cycling, both of which have shown the results at the Olympics, let alone the millions made and thousands employed in the yearly events.

  3. owen owen 21 August 2008

    Sports, especially team sports help build national pride. Our mediorce soccer team is highlighting our lack of national passion. We don’t have a something that joins all together for a common cause.

    But we should be thankful that sport has largely replaced war as a nation builder.

  4. graham graham 21 August 2008

    This line is taken all too often by religious leaders. ‘Nobody listens to us anymore, and this is because society has gone astray.’

    Society is moving on from religion, its called progress.

    Its notable that you omit to mention the Golden Compass along with your other Christian-friendly supernatural themed blockbusters. All these movies provide entertainment, and entertainment has trends. You read to much into it by conveniently asserting that their popularity means we yearn for religion. This is a tenuous claim.

    Sporting success won’t fill the existential void – it was never meant to, nor does it claim to be able to – but neather will religion, contrary to everything it claims to do.

    Religion is a drug. It provides a sense of well-being that is at odds with reality, and which is ultimately debilitating to those who cannot function without it.

  5. Ariel Ariel 21 August 2008

    Alisdair, i like your point about sport being a “means” of nation building, as opposed to something we can indulge in “once we have sorted out all the other problems”

    I personally am not too disturbed by our Olympic athletes not performing so exceptionally well, and us as a nation not throwing billions into their fancy high tech swimming constumes (or whatever it is other nations are spending money on)

    I do think grass roots sports is worthy of investment!

    sport can be a fantastic means of uplifting people and a community.

  6. Craig Craig 21 August 2008

    @graham – The Golden Compass is an insult to the His Dark Materials trilogy – I am fine with David omitting the movie version ;-)

  7. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 22 August 2008

    give the ghetto kids some free footballs and then you will have a lot less bored kids and find the next Pele, since that’s how he started.

    Or find some dirt yards, paint a criket stumps on a wall and find out how the West Indians managed to get so many fast bowlers on their team.

    (and why they all stop smoking Ganja long enough to hold the bat and hit the ball, and not start jumping over the waves in the flooor, man.)

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