Mainstream sports have been relegated to the back page. Sure, baseball recently released its All-Star rosters and the NBA is ready to kick off the always-exciting free-agency period.
But as far as actual game play is concerned, there’s never been a better time to be a fan of the more alternative American sports. Wimbledon, the soon-to-begin Summer Olympics and the recently concluded X-Games and 2012 UEFA European Championship have dominated headlines.
This is all good news, especially if you are not a regular follower. Why? Because for the real “sport” junkies—you know, the kinds of people who have to momentarily pause when they channel surf by pingpong or hear the angelic voice of Sal Masekela—there is one thing that draws us in. It’s not some non compos mentos delusion that there exists a bond between players and fans. The attachment to teams doesn’t matter too much either.
We are drawn to sports because of the competition, particularly competition at its highest level.
Just because winning the European Championship or X-Games was never my dream, it is no less exciting to see someone else's dream fulfilled. Their excitement is contagious. And with excitement comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes even greater excitement. After watching every match of Euro 2012, I can write things like this:
This year’s European Championship was captivating. For those of you who dismissed watching because soccer is boring, well…I’m sorry, but you are so horribly wrong. Open your eyes and appreciate greatness.
Some were critical of Spain during the course of this year’s games because of their tiki-taka style of play. “Just shoot it!” bemoaned fans. I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical about the entire Spanish situation too.
Most of my questioning was not, however, directed at the Spaniards.
What I struggled to understand was why the opposition didn’t even try to be aggressive. It’s like they enter having already decided that they don’t stand a chance. Spain has to earn it first. Anybody can win! Wrong. Not against this team. Not in a final.
We were blessed with a championship for the ages—an absolute thumping delivered by possibly the greatest dynasty in the history of international soccer, according to ESPN soccer personnel.
It was clear from the beginning of the game that Italy were going to be aggressive. And why not? In a matter of days, Italian striker Mario Balotelli went from a player known by soccer aficionados to one recognized by anyone who watches more than 15 minutes of ESPN.
They were going to try to get Balotelli the ball. Italy were riding a high with their upset win over Germany. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen?
Yet, it took only 14 minutes to realize there was good reason Spanish opposition parked the bus all tournament long; It’s the only way to even stand a chance. Spain shredded Italy. Putting nine guys behind the ball and hoping for the counterattack isn’t exactly the recipe for success, but at least you can lose with your dignity.
The game was finished by the end of the first half, and it was only out of pity that the final score didn’t balloon past 4-0.
And when the three weeks of soccer ended, Spain stood proudly on the stage, receiving their medals in a moment that needed no translation. The truth was plastered across their faces: We are the world’s most untouchable group of badasses.
Staying with the badass theme, I turn now toward the X-Games, an event whose appeal seems to escalate exponentially each year. I got a skateboard for my 10th birthday, which was great because it kept dust off of a 300-square-inch spot in the garage. The only times I dream about flying 60 feet through the air on a motorcycle are in my nightmares.
Yet how can one not watch these events? Who cares if I’ve never heard of any of the athletes or if I don’t know what qualifies as a well-formed Indian Air or Superman Seat Grab? The guys doing the stunts certainly do, and their competitive juices are on full display. That’s all I need.
While most sports root themselves deep in tradition, what makes the X-Games so great is that the competition continues to be reinvented. Take, for example, the newly introduced Endurocross, which is the equivalent of an obstacle course on a bike. After watching the event over the weekend, I determined it is not about who doesn’t fall, but rather about who falls the least.
We witnessed Tom Schaar, a 12-year-old, compete against guys three times his age. Schaar dropped 900s like you or I would drop our change.
Then there was the remarkable Hot Wheels Double Loop. There was no medal for this, no traditional man vs. man competition. This spectacle was done just so the drivers, Tanner Foust and Greg Tracy, could say, “Yeah, we did that. What’s up?” What better way to represent why these sporting events are so remarkable?
It’s exciting to watch people try to reach their goals; throw everything else that we love about sports aside.
On the absolute other end of the spectrum, there is Wimbledon. The male winner of this year’s Wimbledon is going to have one of the most important championships of his career.
Novak Djokovic would cement himself as the best player right now. He is the world’s No. 1, but a title would eliminate the suggestion of that designation going to someone else.
Roger Federer would have a 17th major and his seventh at Wimbledon, which would tie him with a handful of other tennis greats for the most titles at a single major. His last major championship came at the Australian Open in 2010. Another win would represent not only dominance, but also rare tennis longevity.
As for Andy Murray, ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly recently set out to pity him for having to deal with three all-time great players. Try to look past the outrageously dramatic cover photo (I know it’s difficult), but Reilly makes a good point.
Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic have 32 major titles combined. For reference, the No. 2 through No. 4 all-time leaders in majors have won a combined 37.
Some in the tennis world have been critical of Murray for his inconsistency and underachievement, but there seems to be something wrong with comparing him to the Big Three. Only in this era would the Brit’s championship case still be empty.
Maybe it’s because he has the hometown support, or maybe it’s because Nadal has gone down and Federer nearly joined him. Something just makes me feel like this is Andy Murray’s time. There’s no real reason for this hunch, but let’s see what happens.
The Summer Olympics begin July 27. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have started the excitement a few weeks early. Usain Bolt may no longer be the world’s fastest man. The US men's basketball team, despite losing a starter every week, is still ready to defend gold.
Fringe sports, your time is now. Bring on the competition.