I enjoy physical exercise – walking, cycling, swimming – and I value staying active and fit, but like a lot of people I have no interest in organized sports. ʼTwas not always thus. As a good Canadian youngster many years ago I avidly followed NHL hockey and spent many a cold winter afternoon practicing slap shots at the local rink or on a snowy street; somewhere I still have my old baseball glove, worn down by innumerable sessions of catch with my father and my friends; I enthusiastically participated in my schoolʼs annual track meets, serving on the relay squad; at age ten I joined a citywide soccer league and faithfully showed up for drills and games (I think my team scored a total of two goals all year). But today a return to such pastimes has all the appeal of being trapped inside an endless Olympic opening ceremony for the rest of eternity.
The reasons will not surprise. There is the spectacle of multi-millionaire NHL, NBA, and MLB athletes cancelling entire seasons by striking for “better“ contracts. There are the now-routine doping scandals that have tainted running (e.g. Ben Johnson), bicycling (e.g. Lance Armstrong), and baseball (e.g. Mark McGwire). There are the swimming, skiing, and track victories won by fractions of a microsecond, and the figure skating and gymnastics medals awarded on the basis of suspect judgesʼ two decimal points. There was Canadaʼs graceless “Own the Podium“ motto for its 2010 winter Olympic team. Thereʼs the hype, the cheating, and the rampant commercialization. But there is something else that has put me and millions more off of sports.
It used to be that success in the game – in any game – was ultimately a product of the playersʼ competitive spirit. Some athletes were certainly more skilled than others, but there was a sense that their prowess on the field (or on the court, or in the ring, or on the ice, or on the slopes) was determined by their will to succeed, or to be the best – the winners and the stars were the ones who pushed themselves a little more, who wanted the prize a little more, who loved to play a little more. They were sometimes unimpressive physical specimens: high scorers who smoked and drank, home run kings who gorged on rich diets, world champions who celebrated with wild parties. Except for their metaphorical “heart,“ they were quite average human beings.
Today, though, the organization and expense surrounding nearly all high-level sports is such that those with the wrong body types, or without access to the most intensive training regimens, are weeded out of activity. Competition is no longer a test of talent or drive but of fundamental genetics. The various ascending ranks of Pee Wee, Midget, Junior, College, and so on effectively serve to pare away probable non-winners, leaving behind not the most eager sportsmen and women but merely those whose physiques are best suited to the particular extremes of their sport. Certainly, we want tall basketball players, sturdy wrestlers, and big-lunged swimmers, but do we want them so badly that anyone outside a biological ideal learns not to bother?
In Canada there is currently a reported crisis in amateur hockey, as parents find that keeping their kids involved in the game has become less and less affordable, in both financial and personal terms. The lowliest Little Leagues are now viewed as feeders to the pros; if you arenʼt committed to the goal of NHL superstardom, you may as well quit at age six. Many children have. Sport, in other words, just isnʼt as fun as it used to be and should be still. The intangible desire to excel has been replaced by a dry calculus of optimizing performance, and the real quality of play has been taken out of playing. So this is why the beauty and excitement of athletics no longer appeals to me as a spectator. Not because there is no beauty and excitement to be seen, but because theyʼve been obscured by the drab and boring imperatives of science.