The short answer might seem obvious: sports is entertaining and provides a distraction from "real life". Additionally, we know that competitive athletics somehow stirs us at gut level, either as participant or as spectator. I endeavored to dig a little deeper in hopes of finding some clues to our fascination with the world of sport. Come with me as I discover some vital links between who we are as humans and our love of the game.
Sport inspires us. In spite of the corruption, cheating and scandal so prevalent in today's headlines, world-class athletes continue to demonstrate the fundamental nature of competition by giving us the strongest, the quickest, the smartest and most inspired performances on the planet. Their world is populated with people who strive for excellence. Being in the presence of such people - directly, as fellow athletes, or indirectly as observers makes us lift our sights a little higher...encourages us to loftier standards in our everyday lives.
Sport touches the depths of our emotion. Remember the old ABC theme "...the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat"? As a Portland Trailblazer fan, I carry a permanent scar on my heart from 'The Meltdown' loss to the Lakers in game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. That atrocity ranks close to 'the loss of a close friend' on my emotional scale. As deep and dark as that horrible event was, so too was the height and brilliance of the 1977 championship win over the Sixers. What is it about our soul that seems to yearn for the extreme? I suspect that apart from birth, love and death, sport uniquely spans the spectrum of our emotion.
Sport lets us believe in the impossible. "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" It doesn't happen often enough but every now and then, just about the time we are ready to succumb to the predictable, to the inevitable...Whump! Young David rises up to smite the giant - whether that behemoth is the perennial powerhouse or the untouchable world record. It's this aspect of sport that can, at any time, any place, stir the little kid in us to ask "why not?"
Sport engages our mind. No more "dumb jock' jokes, please. Obviously sport is a physical discipline, but even the casual fan will tell you that mind and body work together. But when one gets to the top of his game, the mental aspect is huge - not only in the sense of getting "psyched up' but in devising strategy, studying video, researching and developing training technique, etc. More than any other time in history, sport has now become a science. For the participant and spectator alike, there is plenty of mental stimulus in today's sporting world - and we can swim as deep as we like in those waters.
Sport provides the element of danger. There is something in many of us, especially the young, that likes to tease disaster. We can stand at the edge of the cliff. We are aware of gravity, inertia and momentum, yet we disregard the unexpected gust of wind. Being a world-class athlete can be risky business. Think of it. One's whole focus has been to go faster, higher, stronger. Sometimes, as in motor sports, downhill skiing, boxing (to name some obviously dangerous sports) in order to get an edge, one must go over the edge. Too many times we've watched in sadness and horror as the athlete crossed the line from order to chaos, control to helplessness. The spectator, who joins the competitor in this tease, peers over the precipice with him, disregarding the wind...and though sometimes the athlete pays the ultimate price, we who only watch are continually drawn back to the edge.
Sport can give us a place in history. Most of us have been lucky enough to have witnessed in person an historic sporting event. Even if we were witness only via live TV, we may lay claim to being a part of that history. We were there, receiving and contributing to the collective energy at the precise moment history was made. It's something that stays with us and even carries a certain weight to those who will only hear about it later.
Sport validates our competitive nature. Some would argue that the competitive urges in us are merely primal, animalistic aggression which should be stifled. I'm convinced our competitive nature is God-given. The apostle Paul, in scripture* equates the spiritual journey to a vigorous race: "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize." And again** Paul reminds us: "But one thing I do. Forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize..." What should, and does separate us from the animals, in our competitive nature, are the kindred virtues of respect and honor. Any person, gifted with athletic (or any other) talent, who does not pursue his maximum potential misses the mark.
As I review the points above, I realize that sport impacts us at every level of our being: body, mind, soul and spirit. Is it any wonder we're so fascinated by it? For me, the world of sport is right up there beneath God, family and country. Perhaps this piece was simply an attempt to justify my own obsession - as if I needed to list reasons for feelings that come naturally. But then I think of thousands standing in line for hours to get tickets for a game that lasts 48 minutes. Or bleachers collapsing under foot-stomping fans enraged over a bad call. Or a guy jumping over a 15 foot wall to touch the star player...
Then...I know I'm not alone.
*1 Corinthians 9:24
** Philippians 3:13
(photo by Lee Jin-man AP)