The Death of the Picador
by Francisco de Goya, 1793 (Photo: Alamy)
WHAT IS SPORT? What is it that man puts into sport? Himself, his world. Sport is intended as a statement of the human contract.’
Following the decision to suspend the Premier League, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp issued a statement to the club’s fans: “First and foremost, all of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another…This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things. Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all.” For a German speaking on English soil, the irony, pathos and stoicism of his words would be self-evident.
For Liverpool, 25 points ahead of Pep Guardiola’s all-records-smashing Manchester City at the top of the table, two wins away from their first league title in 30 years—and their first in the Premier League era—the gods and fate seem to have come together to take it all away, again. For Liverpool, too, the not-guilty ruling last November in the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster had shut the last window for closure for the families of the 96 killed.
The global sport market was valued at $489 billion in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic has laid that world to waste. Initially, as UEFA and Europe’s domestic leagues, fumbled with their responses, there was the spectacle of the absent spectacle. Matches were being played in empty stadiums, even in devastated Italy’s Serie A. In the beginning, some leagues thought it could still be business-as-usual. Others moved their matches behind closed doors. Finally, everything was stopped. When UEFA announced the postponement of Euro 2020 by a year, it was giving up more than $2.5 billion the tournament was estimated to have generated this year. Conmebol followed, announcing the postponement of the Copa América. And, for the first time in its 124-year modern history , the Olympics have been postponed. They had been suspended for the World Wars, but never postponed.
Long before (days and weeks are longer now) the governing bodies of the world’s most popular sport, in its two powerhouse continents, made up their minds, the Indian Premier League (IPL) had been postponed, the Australia-New Zealand ODI and T20 series had been called off, and the multiverse of American leagues had been shut down. The National Basketball Association alone rakes in $9 billion in revenue, about half that amount from media contracts. Spanning TV deals and ticket sales, the losses bite not just organisers, teams and clubs but also players, the more so, the lower down the food chain they happen to be. That’s why UEFA decided it was best to first allow the domestic leagues to finish their season, however late in the year.
‘Death lies in our cots:/ in the lazy mattresses, the black blankets,/ lives a full stretch and then suddenly blows’ —Pablo Neruda
Italians are singing from their balconies in the evening. Death isn’t stalking their empty streets but their homes and hospitals. A 21st century pandemic, even in the land of Boccaccio, is more amenable to Breaking Bad, which is not a bad thing, Vince Gilligan having created perhaps the closest approximation to a novel for television 12 years ago, and presumably more aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally fulfilling, or purging if you will, than free subscriptions to online pornography Italians have reportedly been offered. Everybody can’t sit around telling stories and Andrea Camilleri died last July. Everybody doesn’t have people to tell stories to. Or, people to tell them stories. The death of sport, notwithstanding the promise of resurrection later in the year, is the silence at the heart of the void. When Neymar gave PSG something to celebrate against Borussia Dortmund before empty stands in the second-leg of the Champions League Round of 16, the fans were still roaring outside. Now, the arena has closed itself off completely. Everything has changed—or little has, if you happen to be a gamer or a subterranean nerd or both.
The ancient and the ancestral turned into a lived—and shared—spectacle. The burden of history and religion that sport carries is the cause. The spectacle is the effect. The removal of sport from life is a loss we cannot gauge yet
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‘Sport is a great modern institution cloaked in the ancestral form of the spectacle. Why is this? Why do men love sport?’ French semiotician Roland Barthes (‘Of Sport and Men’, translated by Scott MacKenzie) had asked, and answered: ‘First of all we must bear in mind that everything that is happening to the player is also happening to the spectator. But whereas in the theatre the spectator is only a voyeur, in sport he is also one of the actors…Here, watching is not only living, suffering, hoping, understanding, it is also saying it…it is to communicate.’
The ancient and the ancestral turned into a lived—and shared—spectacle. The burden of history and religion that sport carries within it is the cause. The spectacle, often ritualised, is the effect. Thus, this removal of sport from the lives of women and men is loss of a magnitude the individual fan or spectator, or participant by extension, cannot yet gauge even if they feel it. Because, when we watch, and communicate what we make of what we watch, we unconsciously hark back to that history. No two performances of a play or an opera are the same. But it follows the same script and we don’t buy tickets to tomorrow’s performance, if we’ve watched it today. Sport, unlike theatre, never repeats itself.
The scripted ritual ends each time the ball is kicked or bowled or pitched or thrown. Beyond that, the script is unwritten—including whether the pass will be completed or find the net, whether the bat will connect with the ball. Patterns of play and patterns of inspiration, close approximations and attempts at emulation, may be witnessed but football or cricket, like most sport, never repeats itself. Therefore, it is easy to forget the truism that sport is a ‘struggle for survival’, albeit ‘reduced to the form of a spectacle…its dangers and humiliation removed.’
The bullfighter who terrifies the public with his bravery in the ring is not fighting bulls, but has lowered himself to a ridiculous level, to doing what anyone can do, by playing with his life: but the toreador who is bitten by the duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget that his is constantly throwing his heart at the horns.’
—Federico García Lorca
Bullfighting, barbaric and beautiful, is not a sport but a ritual. And yet, it is in many ways the ur-sport. And spectacle. Not every form of bullfighting—and it has existed across the world—has death scripted into its endgame. Jallikattu, for instance, is not meant to end with the death of either the bull or the youth hanging on to its hump. Many more human participants have died over the years from their injuries than bulls, although that doesn’t preclude the debate on cruelty to the animal. But Spanish bullfighting, especially the Corrida, cannot exist without death.
Singling out the Spanish bullfight, the Corrida to be precise although he doesn’t make the distinction, Barthes says: ‘All our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is not true theatre, for here the deaths staged are real.’ And the death or deaths can’t be repeated. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, exploring the aesthetics and metaphysics of the bullfight, makes that connection too. Barthes sees in it something more: ‘The bull now appearing on the scene is going to die, and it is because this death is fatal that bullfighting is a tragedy—a tragedy in four acts, with death the epilogue.’
Ever since, thanks to Francisco Romero, commoners on foot replaced noblemen on horseback, this fatal finality of the bull’s death has been contrasted against the greater tragedy of the matador (or even a picador or one of the banderilleros) dying. For, when that happens—and if they happen to have a great poet as their friend—they are immortalised, as Ignacio Sánchez Mejías was by Federico García Lorca. The hierarchy makes a difference. Among the toreros, the matador is the real deal—and matadors die the most among toreros. But the bull’s death is the expected climax of a ritual which varies because of the bullfighter’s style. It is that style of displaying courage and enacting a real death that people go to see, that matadors earn their names for. That’s the heart of the spectacle. Lorca saw the bullfight as a struggle with death on the one hand and with geometry on the other: ‘The bull has its own orbit: the toreador his, and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists’ (‘Theory and Play of the Duende’, translated by AS Kline).
Sport and death share a close bond that has nothing to do with the rituals of bloodsport. It is because sport is about the living, about reaffirming their faith in their own state of being alive, about winning the struggle for survival and then beginning all over again, the next time
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Perhaps the closest equivalent of the now mostly proscribed Corrida, when it comes to the aesthetics of danger and the play with death, is motorsports, Formula 1 racing in particular.
F1 is a spectacle but death is not part of its official script. And yet, the sport keeps a window open for precisely that. When Ayrton Senna died in 1994, it wasn’t just Brazil and the world losing one of the greatest sporting heroes of all time. Senna’s death too became part of the spectacle—the fatal, final act that was tragic (the sport learnt a few lessons) and made a legend of the hero-victim and his death.
‘And what does the crowd see in the great racing driver? The conqueror of a far more subtle enemy: time. Here all of man’s courage and knowledge is brought to bear on one thing: the machine. Through the machine man will conquer—perhaps also through this same machine, he will die.’ Barthes was uttering another truism, known to all but expressed by few. Death is part of motor-racing. Yet, applied to Senna, Barthes’ words were almost a premonition of this particular death, which came to frame the horror threatening to break free of the spectacle. So share my glory, so share my coffin.
I see, when alone at times,/ coffins under sail —Pablo Neruda
Death is a lonely matter, not least when you lie dead among the dead, without burial or cremation. Facing their worst crisis since World War II, Italians have been re-familiarised with this reality. Living can be lonely too. Being alone is not the same as being lonely. But the absence of weekend football, the breaking of the promise of a summer continental gala second only to the World Cup—the greatest show on the planet—is Coleridgian Life-in-Death. All the more so because in the street, there’s death. If you step out, death may follow you back home. Denied the shared arena, you may watch old games. But since sport never repeats itself, the old spectacle cannot be relieved, its original emotion can’t be felt again in degree and expanse, just as it cannot be re-enacted.
Sport and death share a close bond, and that has nothing to do with the rituals of bloodsport, or with death in the arena. It is because sport is about the living, about reaffirming their faith in their own state of being alive, about winning the struggle for survival and then beginning all over again, the next time. There is nobility in defeat and in death. But there is no grace in the death of sport. It is, as Lorca saw after the fall of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías: ‘Lo demás era muerte y sólo muerte’ (‘The rest was death and death alone’, translated by JM Gili). Thus sport, in the time of plague.