The Olympic Games supply an appropriate occasion to think about the cultural importance of sport. You didn’t get to see much sport in NBC‘s coverage, but that too is relevant to our discussion.

Epic narrative, the account of glorious founding deeds, is the oldest literary form. Yet although the Renaissance reinvented tragedy, it could not ressuscitate the epic. In Schiller‘s terms, epic was a naive form irreproducible in our sentimental, subjective age. Neoclassical tragedy internalizes the protagonist’s relationship to the stage; it is always about playing roles, a play within a play. The epic could not lose its public focus without self-parody. Narrative was henceforth condemned to prose in both form and content, to the novel of everyday life. In the early nineteenth century, the personal narrative voice of Balzac or Dickens did its best to describe the complexities of market society in quasi-heroic terms, but in the great culminating masterpieces of the genre, from Flaubert to Proust and Joyce, this voice becomes the locus of an ironically “failed” totalizing operation that both reflects and transcends the limits of individual life in the market system.

In contrast, sport is not ironic but heroic; it renews the epic relation between narrative and critical action. In its origin, sport was a ritual procedure for designating sacrificial victims, as in those Aztec basketball games where the losers had their hearts cut out. Athletic contests, like games of chance, add an element of unpredictability that entertains the community of sacrificers by removing their collective guilt. But entertainment is just another word for narrative. All entertainment tells a story. We are entranced by the skill of an athlete, a juggler, a tightrope walker, because we experience over time the constantly renewed fragility of his mastery. Miss the shot, drop the ball, fall off the rope, and, as they used to say in Tenochtitlányou’re dead meat. By motivating the sacrificial mechanism, narrative renders it more effective in deferring mimetic conflict; the other secular arts emerge from ritual in essentially the same manner. Before becoming, as the cliché goes, a metaphor for war, sport is in the first place a metaphor for the mimetic conflict that cultures come into being to avert.

An athletic contest is structured like a narrative, but unlike a story with a known ending, the very unpredictability that makes it entertaining makes it incapable of “telling itself” as an esthetic totality. The sportscaster who comments on the events cannot know their significance in advance (“that missed extra point in the second quarter is starting to loom very large”). Whence the supplementary pleasure of a narrative constructed after the event. Sports, like battles, arouse in their witnesses a powerful hunger for narrative. Not only do many fans bring along radios and portable TVs, they devour the evening news highlights and the story in next day’s newspaper. The heroic world of sport, like that of the conquerors of Troy, must have its bards; the witnesses of its feats must experience their significance through narrative.

But increasingly in recent Olympic coverage, and strikingly this year, each victory and defeat is surrounded by so many backgrounders and interviews that the athletic event itself is reduced to a moment in the athlete’s own narrative, his–or more often, her–biography. The rationalization of the sports market has turned most of these biographies into single-minded quests for medals. The hothouse training of young athletes that used to be exclusive to the “People’s Democracies” is now the free-market choice of the children and their families; the fame and cash that go with a gold medal justify sacrificing all else. This provides a narrative framework so strong that the story of obtaining the medal, or failing to obtain it, comes to dominate the athletic event that provides its dénouement.

It is not coincidental that this biographical tendency is strongest in judged rather than directly competitive sports, particularly in gymnastics and figure skating, the primary summer and winter sports féminins. The contestants’ youth exploits female biology to good narrative effect: sports suited to preadolescents become metaphors for initiation rites. (How many people care about the 30-year-old runners of the women’s marathon?) Because the child training long hours for a shot at the gold has not yet entered either adulthood or the marketplace, hers is the most inspiring–and market-share-attracting–story.

In the competitions themselves, the subjective evaluation procedure sets the lone performer against the impersonal judges, like a fairy-tale heroine performing feats to win the prince’s hand. We watch her (and her quasi-parental coach) nervously awaiting the verdict, then reacting with predictable emotions that more dignified societies would keep off camera. One suspects that the judges themselves, aware of the narratives swirling around them, act now and then to improve them.

 This feminization of sport did not originate as a ratings ploy by NBC, although the network has shrewdly exploited and encouraged it. The sports market exemplifies the corrosive effect of rationalization in the cultural domain.  Culture and the market are opposed not by ideology but by structure: culture has a center, the market does not. Selling culture always desacralizes it, and sport is no exception. Until little more than a decade ago, professional athletes reaped only modest rewards from their role in creating cultural narrative, making salaries comparable, considering their necessarily early retirement, to those of other highly skilled professionals. But a new breed of lawyer-agents convinced them that they deserve to be, and can be made to be, paid not just for their skills but for their cultural role, the way Hollywood stars are paid. The general disillusionment inspired by million-dollar salaries is based on more than simple resentment. It reflects the intuition that to discount by salary their sacrificial role in the cultural narrative devalues the narrative itself. We used to be able to experience vicariously the athletes’ desire to win the Series or the Super Bowl; now that they are compensated for the drama they create, we have difficulty finding more in this desire than the quest to add another few million to next year’s contract.

And so, disaffected from masculine sport narrative, we contribute to NBC‘s record ratings by turning to the feminine version, where athletic performance is endowed with personal meaning as a rite de passage into the marketplace. The feminization of sport narrative is just one more illustration of the principle that, in a rationalized exchange system, cultural significance is generated only at the margins.