Of myths, heroes and sports

Posted on May 28, 2010


Borges and Soriano showed confronted stances towards soccer

Note: This translated version of the originally published in Spanish by the “Rio Negro” daily of Argentina was slightly adapted for non Argentinean readers. The last paragraph became edited for “space needs” and added here.

The Media turned the athletes into the mythical heroes of our time, displacing the Great Men with which the secular education had replaced, in due time, the saints of the Church in the patriotic narrative.

The generation who stabilized the country in the late nineteenth century was aware that the national organization of a young republic, open to immigration, needed to create myths and rituals for the school.  Then, the children of those immigrants would “teach their parents” the acquired national consciousness, as a religion of the fatherland, replacing the anarchist and socialist ideas brought by them from Europe.

Scholars such as Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade have highlighted the role that the ritual repetition of the mythical history of the founding heroes have in strengthening community ties.  The cyclical recall of the acts of these heroes is to give meaning to the acts in the present time and reaffirm the validity of the common law. It is also an imaginary haven of stability against the blows of history for the masses who often suffer from it without understanding.

In the Middle East the founding heroes would be called Moses, Jesus or Muhammad; in Greece, Oedipus, Antigone and others would be tragic heroes.

These mythical heroes must have certain characteristics and meet certain steps to serve as models:

1) They have to overcome the dangers of a disadvantageous birth.

2) Then, the same with the tests and enemies found along a journey through foreign lands.

3) Return to us transfigured in universal archetype.

4) His death should also include an ingredient of exile or sacrifice as the predilection for Moreno, Belgrano and San Martin in the Argentinian pantheon, exemplify.

In the twentieth century, fulfilled the tasks of the independence movement and pushed religion to the private sphere, the Media found in the sport figures an inexhaustible source of new heroes to propose to their audience.

The first, undoubtedly, was the boxer Luis Angel Firpo, who’s bout with Dempsey was attended through the still precarious telegraphic information of the journal “Crítica”. The last of this dimension probably have been Monzón and Bonavena.

Since the World Cup of 1978, however, soccer replaced boxing as a popular choice for several reasons: it is safer and more accessible to many practitioners. And above all, has a universal organization whose quadrennial ritual calls for the collective representation of all countries, democratic or not, to renew the hopes invested in tehir team of modern Argonauts.

Popular adherence to sports heroes generates understandable suspicions in many intellectuals, culturally better equipped to withstand the onslaught of history. They may be conservative, like Borges, or communist, as Bertolt Brecht, who said by the mouth of his character Galileo Galilei: “Unhappy the land who need heroes”. There is in this attitude, as noted by Alain Badiou, an aristocratic detachment, a “stalinized Platonism”.

The risks of collective alienation, and political and commercial instrumentation, are clearly present in the plebeian manifestations of patriotic sport-fervor.  But, as Borges himself wrote, “Courage is always better, hope is never vain.”

And there is also a secret thread, intuitively preserved by the masses to guide them in the labyrinth of history. This is what Rodolfo Walsh recognized from his own tragic militant position, before being killed by the Military Junta in 1977:

“Our ruling classes have always sought workers do not have a history, have no doctrine, have no heroes and martyrs. Each fight must start again, separated from the earlier struggles : collective experience is lost, the lessons are forgotten. History seems well as private property, whose owners are the owners of all the other things”.