Sport is still Greek to me

J. B. KraftContributor IJuly 2, 2008

True or false?

  • ESPN is one of the best things ever to happen to the true sports fan.
  • ESPN is one of the worst things ever to happen to the true sports fan.

Sadly, both are true. ESPN is a knowing, self-serving contributor to the sad confusion in the public mind between sport and diversion. No modern idea changed the nature and accessibility of sporting events to the average fan more than Hunt's envisioning a network showing sports programming ALL of the time. Since then, ESPN has provided incredible access to established sports such as College football, where those of us with Game Plan can see as many as 16 or 18 football games on any weekend in the fall, limited only by the number of TiVos we have in our households. It has contributed to professionalism in minor sports such as track and field, soccer, or beach volleyball, helping them find a critical mass of interest by an American audience and generate revenue to attract sponsors. ESPN has preserved sports journalism at a time when major newspapers have seen their serious sportswriters retire or pass from the scene. But as ESPN's channels have proliferated, it has also passed off as sport what can only with generosity be termed "diversions".

The roots of our interest in "sport" go back to the ancient Greeks who invented it as we know it. Their original sports were mostly individual events of military significance showcasing the Greek obsession in searching for evidence of what they called arete, generally translated as "virtue" or "excellence". Arete is more subtle than its modern translation, embodying prowess, fitness, courage, pride and excellence. Yet, it still resonates to separate sport from more mundane pastimes. Sport wasn't mere entertainment to the Greeks, but it had a symbolic and even a religious importance we find hard to understand today. (There is an exception for Southern College football fans who definitely resonate with religious aspects of their sport.) The Greeks weren't just interested in being good in one or more facet--excellence required the total package. Sport demonstrated a fitness for life.

What then, separates sport from other diversions? Success in sport involves at least four dimensions--a high level of prowess or proficiency enhanced through training or practice, a elevated level of physical and mental fitness or stamina, mental strategy which improves one's chances for success, and finally a "winning attitude".

These philosophical roots still influence us two thousand plus years later, informing our notions why "performance enhancing drugs" devalue a sport, and why poker, billiards and chess, while enjoyable diversions in their own right, are not sport. Neither are watermelon or hot dog eating contests. While eating a lot of watermelon may require training and strategy, it not only does not require fitness, but detracts from it and frustrates any notion of arete. Would you want to play a round of golf after participating in a watermelon-eating contest?

ESPN on one hand uplifts sport by showing more events than any of our fathers or grandfathers could have dreamed of -- whether football, baseball, horse racing, sport fishing or ice skating, and on the other bloats time with a deluge of pseudo-sports -- pool, poker, pie-eating or darts, which obscures the meaning and purpose of sport in the public mind. The ancient Greeks would be ashamed that sport now means so little to us.

While I enjoy watching great pool players or darts matches and envy great demonstrations of skill, it does not change or ennoble. On the other hand I will never forget Tiger Wood's winning of the 2008 U. S. Open despite a bad knee and a stress fracture in his leg, and when things are tough, I may look back on that for inspiration. Such feats are the very essence of arete, because all of us wish we had more in our own lives of what Tiger Wood displayed. That is still the wellspring of the allure sport holds over us.