The path to enlightenment: sport v art

Ian Potter Museum of Art Debate


The path to enlightenment: sport or art?

When first presented with this topic, I was surprised to be asked to argue the case for sport. Because I am a writer. Shouldn’t I be arguing the case for art? But I am a writer who writes about sport. I can’t remember life without sport and I now realise I was attracted to it because because its spiritual dimension.

Sport affected my soul.

Sport continues to help me believe that I have a soul.

The first thing I thought about when tackling this important question was my arse. I have been to recitals by Albanian string players, I’ve been at poetry readings which have sent Peter Corris to sleep, and I’ve been to plays and films and exhibition openings which have made me uncomfortable in my seat. But never once at the footy have I thought, “Geez my arse hurts.”

Not once.

And that makes this question very clear to me.

As a writer I should be arguing the case for those artists. And the very fact that I cannot, as I will demonstrate to you this evening, is significant. If an artist, however limited, is going to argue against his own, then sport must really, really, really have something.

Which it does. People have been attracted to sport across all of human history.

Take the ancient Greeks. Their civilisation was sustained by an education system based on sport. Go to Olympia and walk among the ruins which lay buried under the silt of the Kladeos River for centuries until it was uncovered by European archaeologists desperate to learn more of this Greek philosophy in which children were not educated in a school but in a gymnasium. Where  sport and games and physical exertion were seen as the way for children to develop, because of their profound spiritual influence. That Kalokagithia, or excellence of character, could be attained through the mystery of the sporting contest and of sporting endeavour. That the gymnasium produced the purest individuals. Of course the Romans flogged the concept, pursued and developed the ethos and gave us the expression – Mens sana in corpore sano.

A sound mind in a sound body.

This philosophical tradition was central to the British public schools and made it all the way to the Carlton Football Club.

They take enlightenment very seriously at Princes Park. I’m not sure how much the Pratts paid for it but they’ve got heaps of it there.

Is there more enlightened human organisation than Carlton, a more enlightened leader than Mick Malthouse who having spent a lot of time with Travis Cloke is familiar with the concept of genius. But as Mick once said himself: “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a bloke like Norman Einstein.”

At Carlton, can you think of a more enlightened leader than John Elliot.

Look at the players who have sought enlightenment at Carlton.

Look at Fev, the great Fevola. Enlightened. And once he had the gift of enlightenment, he knew to go away and sit on the banks of the river at Yarrawonga and think, and in his thinking, he now comes out to play for the Yarrawonga Pigeons just once a week. Once a week. That’s all it takes.

Fev got it – not through reading about it, or observing it, but by playing it. By being at the heart of it.

Really, I ask you, what has Michelangelo got that Fev hasn’t.

Michelangelo would have given anything to play on the wing for Yarrawonga, especially if he knew that he’d be streaming along the river side with Fev leading at him screaming, “Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey.”

Consider Michelangelo for a moment. He was handy. But imagine if Australian football had been around in the time of the Renaissance. Imagine what he would have done. We’d hardly have any Pieta’s, very few St Sebastian’s, no one would be bothering with the ceilings of obscure chapels. Half the sculptures would be entitled The High Mark and the other half would be called Baulk.

Hart over Walker – The High Mark

Hawkins on the wing  – The Baulk

Ablett over the whole Melbourne backline – The High Mark

Reynolds – The Baulk

Because these movements mean somthing.

The high mark is enlightenment personified. Bruce Dawe wrote about it in his poem called ‘The High Mark’.


begins with the nod of a head
or flicker-signal of fingers
and a run that gathers in
the green day and the
grey crowd that rolls on its
great humble tides
and the run is a thinking
to the ball’s end-over-end parabola
that has sinews tough
– tensioning for the upward
hands now
eagle claws,
god’s hooks, hungering
for the leather dove, the run
among mere mortal men
in time, in place, become
the leap into heaven,
into fame, into legend
– then the fall back to earth
(guernseyed lcarus)
to the whistle’s shrill tweet.


It’s a great poem Bruce.

But it does not exist – unless the high mark exists. And who needs a poet to mediate the significance of the high mark when you can play footy or go to the footy. It is the high mark which matters.

As a card carrying member of the great beer-swilling unwashed of the outer, I know I am taken somewhere special by the high mark. I sense it. It is the reach for something else. It is the search. It’s the yearning.

Standing in the outer I’m not going to overhear the punters next to me talking about its spiritual significance. Or its meaning. We won’t be contemplating its significance.We’re  just going to experience it.

Why try and write about Roger Federer’s backhand? Why try to capture Cathy Freeman’s stride, in whatever form. Just go and have a look at it. Feel it.

This is the path to enlightenment. To see people at play, the aesthetic of their movement conjuring up notions of what can be. Their physical grace making you believe everything has meaning.

To see a team in form – that elusive indefinable thing which I’ve only experienced for a week or two in 1980 when I got the better of the Centaur pinball machine at the Uni Rec Club at St Lucia – to see a side in concert with the universe, is to see enlightenment.

It is about the subjugation of ego for the sake of the collective. It is about the purest fraternity.

And all in the interest of seeking something greater. Of striving towards a common goal which is outside the edification and elevation of self.

It’s about spiritual development.

No doubt you are familiar with the great writer Albert Camus who was an outstanding goalkeeper as a young man.

He once wrote:  ‘Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.’


However, I imagine not everyone here in this fine auditorium of this august university would be familiar with the work of the philosopher Carl Spackler. Spackler is the greenkeeper in Caddyshack. He tells the story of caddying for the Dalai Lama.

 “So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice. 

So I leave you with this question: why is the Dalai Lama playing golf?

Sport, my friends, is the superior path to enlightenment.


Read Vin Maskell’s report of the evening



About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Magnificently constructed argument, especially the Carlton Football Club bit.

    Another point to make is that many great artists painted scenes of war, and raging battles, and mighty warriors. All of which was really the sport of the times.

    Surely the mere existence of the Colosseum confirms your argument.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I think Mick was trying to refer to Norman Gunstein.

  3. Excellent John.

    Is there a more instructive text than Caddyshack?

    I hear you about art. A few months ago I went to an evening performance of The Merchant of Venice at Fort Canning Park. The natural amphitheatre and the sets were great. The audience sat on the grass. About an hour in, my bum was killing me, and I wasn’t engaged by the performance, so I skipped out, grabbed a pizza, and went home.

    And I’ve happily sat on the Adelaide Oval hill all day during the summer with no problems!

  4. Peter Fuller says

    Geoffrey Green, long ago football writer for the Times, relates a story. He was in either Lisbon or Madrid (I can’t remember which) for a European Cup Final. The night prior to the match, he was a guest at a reception at the British Embassy. He fell into conversation with a prima ballerina.
    She was dismissive when he explained his profession and the reason for his visit to the city. Green replied, “Madam, football is just like the ballet except we don’t know the final step.”

  5. This is a bigger stitch up than a Pakistan Test match in the UAE.
    Was John the Bookmaker in the crowd? Did he pay Ange Pippos to run dead?
    It should be held as part of the Almanac Book Launch next year so we get a home game.
    Shouldn’t there be a ‘highest/lowest’ vote exclusion system so that the Peoples Republic of Prahran and associated basket weavers don’t control the vote?

  6. Jim Johnson says

    Re Art and Sport.
    I played open age first eleven cricket from age 13 in season 1946/47 and first eighteen (open age) Australian Rules football from age 15 when playing for Mt Evelyn in The Yarra Valley Football League. I invented my Stab Punt in 1949. At age 16; I was playing in my 4th year of 1st Eleven Cricket, winning the Ringwood 1st Eleven Bowling Average in a team, which lost to Kilsyth in the final by 34 Runs. I was 34 not out in the second innings of this match. I was with my brother invited to practice at Melbourne and Richmond Cricket Clubs. Another story. The same year 1950 I was first rover for Ringwood first eighteen that was Captained and Coached by Brownlow Medalist Herby Mathews who played in the centre for Ringwood. I was invited to train at Box Hill in 1950 . I did not attend, as I was quite happy playing for Ringwood. This year 1950 in my one and only year at Melbourne High I was a member of the Melbourne High 1st Eleven Cricket Team and won School Colours playing for The School 1st Eighteen Australian Rules Football team. In 1956 I trained with Prahran in mid season and was invited to sign by them but decided to stay loyal to my club South Belgrave Football Team. I played eleven seasons of football missing only one game through injury.
    Re Art.
    After running an Antique shop (I was a second hand dealer as was Ron Barrassi who was in Office Furniture). my wife and I commenced running Antique Auctions, which led me Into Running Antique/Art Fairs. In the area of Antique/Art Fairs my wife and I ran the “Great Antique Fairs” which included Fairs looked upon as being the best Fairs Australia has seen. Yes we ran the Fairest & Best Fairs in Australia, two a year in Sydney, for 20 years and one a year for five years at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. With other Fairs in Melbourne that included The Emerald Hill Antique Fairs, The Stonington Antique Fairs, one Fair at the Hotel Windsor, some at Melbourne University and one at The Heidelberg Town Hall. In all we ran around 100 Antique/Art Fairs. We had prominent people, to officially open our fairs on around 40 occasions, some of whom was June Bronhill, Lou Richards of Collingwood, Senator Richard Alston Minister for The Arts, The Hon Bronwyn Bishop and Roy Higgins.
    Roy was driven up to The Hotel Windsor in a fine horse drawn carriage to Officially open our Fair. The picture of him arriving at our event was featured on the Front Page of the SUN NEWSPAPER on the Saturday Morning of the fair. One of our Melbourne Fairs at the Exhibition Building included a Special Exhibition of some of The Lindsey Fox Collection of vintage cars. Ian Redpath is the most important sportsman that participated as a dealer in fairs that we ran. Well John Harms that is a quick history of my 50 years in the Antiques and Art Industry. A short history of 160 cricket matches and 200 football matches .
    John I would find it even more difficult to argue one against the other. Fifty years in the Antique/art industry against 25 years on the sports field. I leave you with the question? Are there more “good sports” in the Arts Industry or on the football or cricket fields.
    Stab Punt Jim

Leave a Comment