I don't love hockey and hockey doesn't love me
When I learned that Latvia would be hosting the Ice Hockey World Championships two years ago, I reacted with a long groan. I knew exactly what that would mean. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what it meant.
The Ice Hockey Championships ultimately provided a platform for an enormous, orgiastic spectacle of self-affirmation. It meant that every single clichï¿½ about Latvia and Latvian identity was brought out and put on prominent display. It meant that the president wore a hockey shirt. It meant that kitsch wooden stalls were put up in a park in a ridiculous attempt to resemble a non-existent historical village, and which sold exactly the same goods as it always does in the name of Latvian culture (wooden spoons, Atena books, honey, etc).
It meant that outdoor stages were erected at the same points around the city as for every other public concert and the same performers performed there. It meant the obligatory firework display on the opening and closing nights. It meant tooting horns. It meant flag waving. It meant a cameo performance by folk dancers. It meant a massive consumption of beer. It supposedly meant Latvia, in a word.
I have noticed that the weather has a habit of being kind to Latvia when it has an important date with the international community. The sun shone for Eurovision. The sun shone for EU accession. The sun shone for ice hockey. How serendipitous. How lovely.
It’s interesting that these disparate events somehow get coated with the same lustrous sheen. Pop music, politics, and sport all receive the same royal treatment from Latvia. I find it slightly disturbing that many people don’t distinguish the varying degrees of significance between them. Latvia has a uniform strategy for staging large public events and the result is that they become a uniform spectacle. We are on show. That’s what matters. Not to whom, or why.
During Eurovision I felt sickened when I saw the residential houses opposite Skonto Arena being given a last-minute lick of paint solely to create a favourable impression for foreign visitors. For the hockey I found it especially revealing that the side of the Black Cat House facing Livu Laukums was given a fresh coat of bright yellow paint, while the front of the building, which isn’t visible from the square, was left untouched with its peeling and faded faï¿½ade. Perhaps there just wasn’t time to finish the job. Or perhaps it was just a strategic piece of renovation to show Riga’s best side.
The fact is, I don’t enjoy ice hockey (I like football as a spectacle of sporting skill). However, living in Latvia, and knowing only too well how Latvians love their hockey, I decided to watch the first game against the Czech Republic to try and get into the spirit of things. I even popped open a bottle of Budvar beer just for the occasion.
But after a mere 20 minutes I turned the television off. I felt queasy from the sight of so many people pouring their precious energy into such a vacuous spectacle. I felt slightly disturbed by the flagrant senselessness of it all. It abstractly reminded me of the title of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1974 film Glissements progressifs du plaisir [The Slow Slidings of Pleasure], although the sliding was of a very different nature and it certainly wasn’t slow.
Just as I had to strain my eyes to see the puck as it slid all around the ice, so I had to strain my brain to see any point behind it.
Of course, I can understand why many Latvians were so excited about hosting the hockey championships. As I have been told on innumerable occasions, ice hockey is the country’s favourite sport. And why shouldn’t Latvians be as passionate about sport as, say, the Brazilians are about football or the Lithuanians are about basketball? Indeed, Latvians take special pride in the fact that they are such passionate supporters, meaning that they loudly sing the name of Latvia out at games in between tooting their horns. Lat-vi-ja, Lat-vi-ja, Lat-vi-ja: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. What passion! What love!
Referring to people’s obsession with sport, the French philosopher Robert Redker said: “It’s a perfect crime: we don’t see the body because the victim gives off the impression of still being alive.”
This is a good way of explaining it. Rather than revealing social unity as it would appear to, sport only reveals mass social alienation. Its primitive allure provides a rare and necessary outlet for people desperate to rally behind a cause other than the national economy and making a living. It provides people with a vicarious experience that is in part religious, metaphysical, and mystical. In other words, it allows people the illusion of being more alive than usual for a little while.
Sport has long been a politicized playing field because it is a useful political tool, whether serving the same spurious ends for the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or the “free” nations of the modern world. Sport is a political rally par excellence in the way it can rally vast numbers of people for the same non-existent national goals.
Yes, it’s stirring to see those gladiators on skates step out onto the ice rink and play their hearts out to fulfil the dreams of a nation. Yes, ice hockey is a manly sport with all those big sticks and narrow little goals they have to penetrate, and all that muscular padding and pushing and shoving at high velocity. And the ice itself nicely ties in with Latvia’s Nordic heritage. The ice rink plays the part of village, the puck the object of wild pillage.
Living across the river in Agenskalns, I was mercifully unaware of the whole spectacle while it lasted. I knew when there was a game on because it was so uncharacteristically quiet outside, although this beautiful and almost surreal silence was inevitably followed by lots of loud tooting horns and beer-fuelled noise.
I don’t know who played whom or who won what. Nor could I care. The fate of a puck is so ridiculously unimportant that I can barely take it seriously. There are so many more things worth thinking about and being impassioned about. I cannot think of anything sadder than someone vicariously living through a puck.
I have nothing against sport in itself. I enjoy playing sport and there are few sights that can touch me more than seeing a group of children kicking a football around in a park on a warm day.
In many respects, though, sport is a theatrical simulacrum of the socio-economic system that imbues it with such undeserved significance. And in this way, the Latvian obsession with ice hockey reflects their obsession with appearances over reality. The team plays their roles as professional competitors. The fans play their roles as active spectators. The puck plays its role as reified value. And who wins in this scheme of things? That question really isn’t worth answering.