Weekend arts and culture: In praise of slowness in sports

NFL training camps are open and major domestic European soccer leagues are set to begin (including the German Bundesliga today), which ought to placate those who have been grousing over a “slow” period in spectator sports.

For those of us who don’t mind the low gear of summer, with the baseball pennant races soon to take shape, these are the final few weeks to enjoy what I like to call “the perfect season.”

It’s about unwinding and getting unwired, and not just from gadgets. It’s about getting away from being connected to a constantly amped-up sports world pushed faster and harder by around-the-clock media and the hamster wheel of mindless commercialization that pays for it.

What about everyday athletes? In our popular culture, they too are presented to us in extreme fashion, with compelling entertainment value essential to the formula.

We are treated to endless tales of mountain climbers, adventurers and the restless among us seeking extraordinary thrills, seemingly as an antidote to uneventful lives.

The psychological aspects of their exploits are also examined on occasion — what makes somebody actually want to scale Mount Everest, or compete in a triathlon?

Yet the rank-and-file motivations of those of more modest ambitions and abilities may hold the key to a greater spiritual understanding of the human athletic drive.

Australian sports and leisure professor Simone Fullager throws around some familiar feminist boilerplate in an examination this about week of “the pleasures of ’slow sport’ cultures” in her country. She dubiously leads with the assertion that “male sport is facing increasing public scrutiny in relation to ethics, conduct and cultural legitimacy.”

(As if “female sport” is unsullied not because of its relative lack of wealth, but because of a presumed inherent virtuous supremacy of that gender?)

And you might expect that she would claim that non-competitive females, ideally in middle age, would have something important to teach everyone else about resisting the temptations of doping, money, fame and the other trappings of athletic accomplishment.

But I find something truly appealing in her conclusion:

The pleasure of cycling was not derived from owning expensive bikes, wearing lycra or achieving a fast time over a hard course. It was the embodiment of the “slow” ethos – a sensory engagement with the world, feeling exhausted and elated at what the body can do (despite age, injury or disability) and the creation of a mobile community. Competitive sport has its place for those who enjoy the thrill of the chase and the contest.

Yet there is a far richer array of sport and physical culture experiences that we need to explore through a different poetics of the body in movement. And speed is a relative concept – it is still possible to embrace the slow ethos and enjoy an exhilarating fast downhill ride.

Perhaps its my own middle age I’m thinking about as much as anything. But Fullager is also tugging, to a degree, at what might be considered the soul of sports, about what really gets men, women and children moving. Tending to the “poetics of the body in movement” is a completely intrinsic notion, and cannot be fomented by extrinsic motivations, such as exercise, diet and weight loss. The rank-and-file citizen who enjoys getting active for its own sake — in a non-commercial, non-competitive, even non-organized way — is indulging in free play, in a grown-up recess that is as necessary now as it is for children on playgrounds.

For the last few years, the Catalan choreographer Albert Quesada has been staging a work, mostly in Europe, called “Slow Sports” that features five dancers. “In this arena we try to understand how sports are experienced, and why they hold such a fascination for us,” according to a promo for the show, which will be staged again in November at the Biennale Charleroi Danses in Belgium.

This may seem a bit much for a typical sports fan to absorb, but the act of slowing down long enough to let in other, more essential stimuli is nothing short of revolutionary. And it’s the perfect ode to the imminent passing of a happily slow summer.

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