Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

In Praise of Athletic Beauty

(German title: Lob des Sports)
ca. 176 pages
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Foto: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
© The University of Sheffield

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht was born in 1948. He has been teaching at Stanford University since 1989, where he is the Albert Guérard Professor in Literature. In addition to numerous visiting professorships, he has received eight honorary doctorates.

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English world rights (Harvard UP), Spanish world rights (Katz), Chinese simplex rights (Horizon), Italy (Sossella), Netherlands (Arbeiderspers), Korea (Dolbegae), Hungary (Kijárat), Ukraine (Dukh i Litera); previously published in the respective language / territory; rights available again: Russia (New Literary Observer), Brazilian Portuguese Rights (Companhia das Letras)


There is no more widespread or intense fascination in present-day culture than Sports (both as an active physical practice, and as spectator sports) but, quite astonishingly, the reaction of contemporary literature and of the scholarly world to this phenomenon have been anemic (to say the least).

There may be a few exceptions here and there – but the overwhelming trend is for literature to present sports as something cute, endearing, funny – something not to be taken seriously. Scholars in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences analyze sports either just as a »symptom« of other social or cultural phenomena, or, straightforwardly and aggressively, as a pathology of modern society.

In Praise of Athletic Beauty
tries to recover and to newly inspire our enthusiasm in speaking, writing, and thinking about sports, but without abandoning the intellectual and analytic edge. There is no way back to Pindar's Ancient Olympic hymns – but we can long for a present-day equivalent in our reaction to sports.

In Praise of Athletic Beauty tries to come closer to that goal of speaking about sports in a new way, on two different levels. The book begins with a brief and comprehensive history of sports whose main motif is that of discontinuity: the ancient Greek »gymnasion,« the Roman »arena,« medieval »tournaments,« 18th-century »professional boxing,« and present-day major league soccer, to name only a few examples, are not part of any linear historical development. Rather, they are discontinuous articulations of a trans-historical disposition and fascination that this book tries to identify. But before it can do so, the introductory chapter will have to identify the specific configurations and conditions that, since the early 19th century, have shaped the tradition of what we may call our »present-day sports.«

After the historical introduction, the second part of the book will focus on the aesthetics of sports. It will ask the question of what it is that makes practicing and watching sports uniquely appealing to so many of us. Once again, In Praise of Athletic Beauty will not provide just one homogeneous answer. There are, quite certainly, multiple fascinations with sports – and the best way to characterize their relationship would be through the concept of »family resemblance« – meaning that they are all interconnected, but do not share one overarching »common denominator.« There is an appeal, for example, in working on one's body (very much in the sense of what we call »body-building«), and in presenting this body to an admiring public; there is another fascination in pushing athletic performance to the limit where, inevitably, the athlete begins to face death; there is the serene and very rare capacity to »let one's body go,« which, in a few exceptional cases, produces the effect of bodily grace; there is the stunning capacity of a few athletes to adapt the substance of their bodies to often complicated pre-defined forms; and there is, finally and above all, in the world of team sports, the sudden epiphany of forms that are bound to vanish before we can fully grasp them.

Sports – this is the conviction that inspires In Praise of Athletic Beauty – is a part of our lives that bares no guarantee of transforming us into »ethically improved« persons. But practicing sports, watching sports, and even thinking about sports, can enrich our individual and collective lives up to a level that borders on joyful and gratefully accepted addiction.

Other publications

»Prosa der Welt«/»The Prose of the World« (2020)

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English world rights (Standford UP), Spanish world rights (Universidad Iberoamericana), Russia (NLO), Brazilian Portuguese rights (UNESP)

Nach 1945/After 1945 (2012)

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English world rights (Stanford UP), Spanish world rights (Universidad Iberoamericana), Russia (NLO), Brazilian Portuguese rights (UNESP), Poland (Krytyka Polityczna)

Unsere breite Gegenwart/Our Broad Present (2010)

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English world rights (Columbia UP), Brazilian Portuguese rights (UNESP), Italy (Bompiani), Turkey (Insan)