The Sin of Idle Sport


Today another September starts. As evidenced by my complete neglect of the Golden Assay I had a very enjoyable good summer. I wasted it all in games, sports, outdoor pursuits; all the things one ought to do with good weather. But one can indulge too much in leisure and become ashamed of his idleness. I am reminded here of John Bunyan’s “conversion” on the Elstow village green. As roads to Damascus go, his was wonderfully banal. Bunyan, of course, was an obedient Christian his entire life, but he enjoyed sport and bell-ringing on Sabbath days and apparently considered himself a spiritual delinquent for doing so. I think he was hard on himself. The wretch worked six days a week as an itinerant tinker, and understandably, needed a day off from time to time and a little diversion to go with it. But the Creator won’t even give us that, sadly, for one Sunday, while he was playing Tip-Cat with the other sinners, a numinous voice from the heavens admonished him to find shame in fun-having and quit sports. The line at the time was that Christ disapproved of sport because it was wasted effort and an idler’s refuge. A pious Christian works six days and spends the seventh in prayer. Any deviation from a rigid schedule of industry and devotion is depravity. I think this had to do with the Calvinist position of determinism and their equating sin with rejection of God’s plan. If you spend your life in work and worship, you are carrying out the destiny God intends for you and are therefore a righteous being, a saint even. Idle pastimes, observance of leisure, general amusement, are not evils in and of themselves; it’s simply that they divert people from more meaningful activity. Bunyan’s sin was not that he was playing Tip-Cat; it was what he was not doing while playing with his friends.

This animosity towards sport has almost completely vanished in the minds of modern people. Today sport is considered a noble pursuit. The exercise one gets from sports is understood to be essential to physiological health. The signs of regular exercise on the body are considered attractive. In a complete reversal of previous opinion, the practice of sport is now thought to be an indication of personal discipline and integrity. We even use athletics as a method of instilling discipline among young people in school. It is hard to imagine how totally different our conception of sports is in the protestant Christian world from the view of past generations. It feels like it has been with us forever, but it’s actually only recently that people began having even a positive view of exercise. Before the Industrial Revolution, physical activity was associated with manual labor and low social status. Sport encompassed hunting and riding and had nothing to do with physical exertion. Beginning in the late 19th century, the inchoate science of modern medicine demonstrated physiological benefits from vigorous exercise and proper diet. This led to the growth of a spa culture among the new leisure classes and a practice of new sports like aquatics, gymnastics, tennis, etc., the performance of which was done not just for diversion but for health.


Of course, there had always been a custom of physical conditioning and training in martial life. Within the context of military service a young man was encouraged to develop his physique through exercise and perfect his combat technique with regular drills so that he might become a more effective soldier. This tradition of militarism, of cultivating virility and strength, of meeting the adversary and besting him in an honorable contest, informs the formation of modern athletics as much, if not more, than the institution and normalization of exercise and the desire for good-health.

It is surprising how many of our sports today are abstracted pantomimes of warfare; not modern war but antiquated, non-mechanized warfare. One of my favorite sports from this past summer’s Olympics was the pentathlon, a multi-event competition comprising five extremely varied disciplines: swimming, running, fencing, riding, and shooting. It only narrowly made it into the games. Though held continually in every Olympiad since 1912, many have questioned its relevance in modern athletics. First devised by Baron Peirre de Cobertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, the pentathlon was intended to model the skill-set of a 19th century cavalry soldier caught behind enemy lines: he must ride an unfamiliar horse, face the enemy with sword and pistol, swim in lake or river, and run great distances to return to his encampment. What I appreciate most about de Cobertin’s introduction of the pentathlon into the 1912 games is that these skills would have already been obsolete by the onset of the 20th century, and any doubt of this would have been completely erased with the Great War just a few years later. And yet the sport is still practiced. 72 men and women representing nations around the globe competed in the pentathlon last month, executing antiquated maneuvers of warriors from centuries ago. And lest we think our other sports are free of such influence, remember that our modern pentathlon itself is an updating of the classic contest from the ancient Olympiad. In the pentathlon of 500 BC the events were running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. What sport does not include at least one of these most basic movements of the human body? What is athletics if not the practice of an old ritual of physical urgency? A solemn and determined preparation for the unforeseen contest to come.

Die Geschichte vom Volkspark Friedrichshain

The history of Volkspark Friedrichshain is worth recounting. Like everything else in Berlin, its story is astonishingly varied and extraordinary. Neither the largest park in Berlin nor the most famous (that would be the Tiergarten), Volkspark Friedrichshain was the first free land to be opened for use to the general public, and it continues to be central to the city’s civic life. The park was inaugurated in 1848 at a time when Berlin was boiling with unrest. Citizens demanding a democratically elected parliament and rights of free speech had clashed with Prussian soldiers in Alexander Platz earlier that spring. All of Europe was experiencing a spontaneous popular revolution. For the first since antiquity, common people began identifying themselves as citizens of nations rather than simply vassals of a lord or subjects to some far away king. People thrust themselves into civic life and began demanding to have a say in their countries’ destinies.

The creation of Volkspark Friedrichshain was one of the first major projects undertaken by the elected city council of Berlin. Unlike the Tiergarten, which had originally been the hunting grounds of the Hollenzohlern monarchs and was only gradually being made available to the bürger, Volkspark Friedrichshain was a completely open and public space manifested from the will of the people. It is perhaps the first place in all of Germany to be thought of as a possession of the commonwealth, belonging to the people taken together as a nation. For two generations the park was used by the newly emerging working class of Berlin for the enjoyment of their increasing leisure hours. And the, like almost every national expression of the German Volk, Friedrichshain would be seized by the National Socialists almost a century later and perverted for the new state’s senseless, militaristic purposes. Apropos of nothing the Nazis built enormous concrete bunkers in to the park’s carefully tended grounds and erected flak towers to repel air raids from Allied forces. Converted into a military installation, Volkspark Friedrichshain became a target of the war and was utterly obliterated in successive bombing campaigns.

During the occupation and the subsequent rebuilding of the Berlin, Friedrichshain was used as a dump for the prodigious quantity of rubble and debris left behind from the city’s destruction. The two well-known climbing hills in the park, Mont Klamott and Kleine Bunkerberg, are actually enormous heaps of wreckage covered over in earth. I remember climbing the larger one, Mont Klamott, without any notion at all that I was walking over the interred ruins of the old Berlin, a separate and forgotten city that existed before the war was fought. I do not recall there being a historical marker to tell the story of the hill’s identity. Maybe it is a fact that Berliners would prefer to forget. Then again, maybe it is so commonly known that it need not be mentioned. Almost every German city has a similar rubble pile, covered over and planted with trees and grass. They are so frequent in the landscape of Central Europe that the Germans have a term for them: “Schuttberg.”

Volkspark Friedrichshain was rebuilt by the Deutsche Demokratische Republik once again for the enrichment and well-being of the people. The communist government was redeveloping a new East Berlin. Architects educated in the Soviet Union designed the central city so that it would be egalitarian and functional, with none of the bourgeois conventions that had come to characterize what Berlin had been. They built wide avenues and high-rise housing blocks inspired by Le Corbusier. Individual residents were given much less personal space. To compensate, the volksparks were expanded and improved. These became the city’s backyard. Where children once played make-believe with their siblings in the courtyards that existed in the center of every Berlin block, during the time of the DDR they went to the park after school and played large, organized games with all of their classmates. I remember spotting an old neglected and vandalized ping-pong table in Friedrichshain that dated from the communist era. It attracted my attention because I had never seen a cement ping-pong table before, nor had I ever seen table tennis played in a park. In the United States, ping-pong is decidedly a rec room game. We play it in our houses when entertaining guests. In a socialist country one only owns his paddle. He goes to the park to find a table and people to play with.