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In Praise of Athletic Beauty

In Praise of Athletic Beauty

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

ISBN 9780674021723

Publication date: 04/10/2006

By the hundreds of millions we show up, stand in line, turn on, and tune in to watch, mesmerized, as athletes perform. And yet this experience, so widely craved and intensely felt, we commonly dismiss as “only a game.&rduqo; A book that looks beyond the usual explanations of why sports fascinates, In Praise of Athletic Beauty also strives for a language that can frame—even enhance—the pleasure we take in watching athletic events.

The vicarious thrill, anxiety release, competitive spirit: in place of these traditional answers to the mystery of sports’ allure, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht proposes a more powerful and provocative alternative. The fascination with watching sports, he argues, is probably the most popular and potent contemporary form of aesthetic experience—in the classic, very literal sense of this concept. In exploring this idea, Gumbrecht develops a lucid reflection on the pleasures of sports spectatorship and the nature of athletic beauty. Where we might readily pronounce certain athletic moves and plays “beautiful,” this book gives us the means to explore, understand, and enjoy even more acutely the aesthetic experience that our words-in-passing barely suggest.

With a new perspective on the appreciation of—and, indeed, a new tone of praising—sports, Gumbrecht also offers a new way of narrating the history of athletics and a fresh vocabulary for analyzing various sports. Exploring athletic beauty, this book makes us understand the widespread passion sport inspires as an untamed form of aesthetic fascination.


  • As our efforts to explain and predict are baffled, we retreat into pure pleasure. Then the question becomes: Enjoy what, how? Fortunately, a new book helps lead us back to becoming the armchair aesthetes we were all along. In Praise of Athletic Beauty, by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht…is the book, and football the central game… Gumbrecht really is a fan, and he is trying to make sense of a fan’s experience. Instead of focusing on the easy cases—everybody can admire divers and gymnasts and the lacier kind of ice skaters—he takes for his subject the aesthetic of ballgames, which, he points out, began to become central to Western life as spectator sports only a century ago. His central thesis, to round it out a little crudely, is that we watch sports not out of identification with the players but out of a kind of happy absorption in someone else’s ability.

    —Adam Gopnik, New Yorker


  • Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University.

Book Details

  • 272 pages
  • 4-3/8 x 7-1/8 inches
  • Belknap Press

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