Watching sport is far more than just pure, dumb entertainment

Great Britain’s Mo Farah celebrates winning the gold in the men’s 5000m at the Rio Olympics. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Another Olympics has ended, having successfully captivated a worldwide TV audience. Many viewers only watch sports like rowing, diving, javelin or table tennis once every four years. But the attraction of the event as the pinnacle of sporting competition is now well established. The Games have evolved into a spectacle – an extravaganza –- that can enthral even the casual viewer.

But underneath all the glitz and showbiz aspects there is a basic and coherent attraction to this human activity called sport. As I’ve outlined in my book Watching Sport, we stay glued to TV screens for more than just pure, dumb entertainment.

Watching sport is a rational activity with aesthetic, emotional and ethical dimensions. It doesn’t just entertain us and help pass the time. It also has the capacity to enrich and improve our lives in many ways that are not always immediately obvious.

Watching sport as an aesthetic experience

In the first place, successful sports tend to be those with a distinctly aesthetic appeal. In this sense, sport can fulfil some of the same functions as the arts. The Olympics illustrates this point well. Sports spectators are often partisans, watching because they want to see their own favoured side win. But this is very often set aside during Olympic competition. Viewers will regularly watch gymnastics, swimming or the high jump even when no one from their own country is in the reckoning.

The casual sports enthusiast can pass hours watching gymnastics, for instance – immersed in the extension, power, strength, balance, suppleness and control of athletes he or she has never heard of from countries in which he or she has no special interest.

Clearly some sports have more aesthetic appeal than others although, with study, the aesthetic dimension of any sport can be found. And it is not as if the aesthetics of sport are achieved at the expense of its competitive dimension. After all, the participants’ aim is to win – not to entertain us aesthetically. But these two aspects are not in conflict. The greatest beauty is achieved through the striving for victory.

To win the high jump, for example, an athlete must have the most controlled technique, the strongest power, and extend his or her body to its full. These are all physical attributes that create awe as we see an athlete striving to fulfil the maximum human potential.

Every spectator is different, of course. People with different aesthetic sensibilities will be drawn to the athletic excellences of different sports. There are team sports such as hockey, for example, in which the aesthetic criteria applied are not directly applicable to individual sports. In addition to the individual contribution made by members of the team, success also depends on those players forming a coherent and well-functioning whole. There is an appreciation in seeing a whole emerge that seems more than the sum of the parts – as successful teams are.

The emotional dimension

It would be wrong to concentrate purely on the aesthetic dimension of sport in explaining its popularity. There is more that it can offer the viewer. It clearly also has the capacity to engage us emotionally, especially where we can see the significance of an achievement.

This may simply be down to us understanding the years of personal effort and sacrifice given by the athlete. But it could be broader than that.

The double-gold success of British athlete Mo Farah provoked a strong emotional reaction, not just in the UK. His victories come at a time when there is a rise in racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment across large parts of Europe, including the UK.

Yet the 33-year-old Farah, a practising Muslim, has become one of the country’s greatest ever Olympians. Who could not be moved by this? Who could not understand its significance to the way we perceive our fellow human beings?

A contest of vice and virtue

The final feature of sport which commands our attention is its moral dimension.

Sporting encounters can be understood as contests of virtue and vice. A sporting virtue tends towards victory. A sporting vice tends towards defeat. There is much that we can learn from witnessing this battle of virtues that we can apply to our own lives, in non-sporting situations.

Sport is a safe environment in which to run a kind of moral experiment. The goals of sport carry no real importance. No one’s life is saved or lost by jumping over a high bar, for instance, or reaching a finishing line first. But what we learn from sport can then be applied outside of sport in the moral situations we face where an outcome really does matter.

As a spectator I might learn from sport, for instance, to never give up even when the odds are against me, because sometimes an unexpected success can still be achieved. This could be a very useful lesson for me in other circumstances.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.