Messi is not sublime (nor is Ronaldo)

My book on the egalitarian sublime has almost no sport in it. I avoid it for political and philosophical reasons. Politically, as entertainment, sports are the bread and circuses of our age, culminating in the sportswashing beloved of kleptocrats, monopolies and repressive governments.

The problem with sport runs deeper than its support for the society of the spectacle. Sport encourages values of victory, competition, ranking and effort deployed within well-defined rules for limited outcomes. We require exactly the opposite, to overcome the desire to vanquish. Competition must give way to cooperation beyond teams and clubs. Rankings always distort and stifle life. Our efforts should be critical of established law, values and money.

‘Sublime’ is overused in sports. It accompanies all outstanding achievements, from gymnastics to tennis. Great goals by Lionel Messi are labelled ‘sublime’. The same is true for his talent, his record and the discussion of whether Ronaldo or Messi is the most sublime.

One of the main lessons for an egalitarian sublime is that exceptional achievements in sports should not be called sublime. The first step to understand why is to shift from simple meaning (sublime as highest) to charting what the word does (sublime as effect).

To call something sublime is to shape the values we take to be superior. It is to change the lives of those living by them; for instance, by introducing divisions. One of the unwelcome discoveries of my research was how few animals figured in the sublime. Landseer’s lonely stag notwithstanding, sublime vistas are shorn of animals, leaving humans alone amid different forms of troubling grandeur – the sportsperson highlighted against holy mountain or void. As expressed by the sublime, our highest values divide us from animals and contribute to their mistreatment.

They also divide humans, like Kant’s ‘good and otherwise sensible Savoyard peasant who did not hesitate to call anyone a fool who fancies glaciered mountains’ but inferior to the more cultured Horace Bénédict de Saussure with his sense of the sublime.

Sublime sports depend on legions of helpers. Sublime moments rely on Sherpas, lift operators, drivers, farmers, helicopter pilots, camera operators, groundskeepers, health professionals, cleaners, mechanics, geographers, road builders, security, insurance and spectators. They aren’t in the sublime pictures, nor are ordinary players and enthusiasts, except as props.

The use of ‘sublime’ in sport is therefore no harmless imprecision, loosely meaning ‘exceptionally good’. We reach for the sublime when an event is abnormal in a shocking manner. When it captures the attention of onlookers and indicates a new standard to buy into: ‘Sometimes you really do have to stand and watch – and maybe gawp a little too. The best athletes in every sport give us a glimpse of something else, a remix of the usual physical laws.’

This sublime spectacle conveys impossibility in a ‘remix’ of natural law – a Federer half volley service return. It is also something we dream to emulate after initial astonishment. Though thrillingly out of the ordinary, a sublime move in sport is repeatable, like a Cruyff turn or an ‘impossible’ triple axel. Repetition of this kind diminishes shock, but sublime effects on values endure in unexpected ways, such as the imitation of celebrities, or the value we give to their wider opinions and endorsements.

The sublimity of sports is a distortion of Kant’s sublime, yet with many resemblances to it. First, the sublime is aesthetic (to do with taste and form) but beyond the merely beautiful. Second, it exceeds our comprehension – sublime moves are learnt in slow motion. Third, the sublime event combines astonishment and attraction: painful awareness of current impossibility allied to a desire to copy. Fourth, the sublime is political in presenting us with the possibility of new values.

In all of these, the sublime in sport falls short of Kant’s progressive aims. For him, the sublime cannot have a purpose; otherwise it would be partly understood. In sport, the sublime is a contribution to a purpose, to victory – the sublime goal. The Kantian sublime should lead to superior values, but necessarily elsewhere than the sublime field and experience. With spectator sports, the sublime serves superior values within sport, where sublimity is picked apart, exploited, copied and negated. The sporting sublime is a distraction from seeking superior values – that’s how it cleans dirty regimes.

Instead of leading to understanding, or to pure emotion, the Kantian sublime prompts a turn to reason. We are free to choose universal laws for the whole of humanity because we can overcome the sublime. The scandal of the sublime in sport as spectacle is that it focuses part of humanity on a few extraordinary individuals, themselves actors in a well-regulated and exploited spectacle – the opposite of universal values.

For an egalitarian politics, neither Kant nor elite sport indicates the right way to think of the sublime. The Kantian sublime imposes falsely universal values – they only include Savoyard peasants, or Sherpas, if they bend to a particular version of the sublime and to its consequent morality. But the sublime feeling is not universal. It varies from group to group and from individual to individual. Why should the grandeur of mountains or the austerity of Kant’s protestant morality be gateways to the universal?

The multiplicity of experiences of the sublime suggests a different role for sport. The sublime can be egalitarian but it must lose its scale, timelessness, universality, grandeur and elitism. Historically, the sublime has been constructed and used in ways that prejudge what will turn out to be sublime – confirming the power of rulers, of some landscapes, of overwhelming technology, of superior individuals and types, of universal moral laws and of omnipotent gods. There has always been this sense of exclusivity and superiority in the sublime.

When practised rather than watched, sport is different. We each find ways to enjoy it and share it with others, inventing new sports and subverting old ones, playing in dusty back yards or surfing railings under bridges. It’s hard to grasp spin in table tennis, or to tumble turn, or to pull a rope in unison. But we get there and we change for the better as we do. Sport is only sublime when it is multiple, anarchist and egalitarian, when we overcome difficulties on any scale and in many different and incomparable ways, with a combination of pain, delight and learning that must then be destroyed, not deified.