“Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy?”
Just think of a world without sport. Almost unimaginable, isn’t it? No sports to provide us with those ritualistic actions that bring us together, or the traditions that transfer customs and beliefs from one generation to the next. Where would we look for the dramatic spectacles that set the adrenaline pulsing through our system, the savage, gladiatorial conflicts that have no counterpart in any other area of entertainment? Our pantheon of heroes would be seriously diminished without figures like Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth or Stanley Matthews. How we’d miss savoring the delicate skill, the unconquerable combativeness, and the occasional moment when art intrudes into the realm of competition and elevates a contest into an expression of sublime creativity. Sport can be overrated. But not by enthusiasts.
If we had to reconstruct history without sport, it would leave unbridgeable gaps. Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 would be missing. The “Rumble in the Jungle” of 1974, when Muhammad Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight title (above) wouldn’t have happened. Tiger Woods’ historic Masters win in 1997 just wouldn’t exist. Numberless people would have been destined to live in poverty if denied their only opportunity for advancement. There would be no camaraderie, or the filial relationships, the ritual bonding, the common causes that unite people. The peaks of triumph, the troughs of failure, the ecstasy and despair: we would never have experienced how sport can elicit all these. The color would be erased from otherwise monochrome lives. The commerce, industries, media of communications, and employment sectors that have organized around sport just wouldn’t have materialized.
These are the kinds of reminders that should us make scratch our heads and wonder: is this madness? Should lives be lost or ruined because of something that’s meant to bring joy? The answer is, of course, no. So have we lost the ability to make rational choices? Let’s consider one sports events that seems to offer an answer. Since its inaugural race in 1903, the Tour de France has been responsible for at least 30 deaths, of cyclists (including Britain’s Tom Simpson in 1967, below) as well as spectators. And riding a cycle over 2,130-miles along a track that takes in Champagne country, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast has no obvious utility. Yet, every year, 15 million spectators crowd along the cyclists’ path. All they see is a brief blur of 198 cyclists hurtling past en route for Paris.
The Tour de France is an exceptional event, of course: it remains one those competitions that excite people from around the world, turning rationality on its head. They forget the purpose of the epic ride – which was actually to promote a magazine – and flock to whatever vantage point they can just to catch sight of the competitors whizzing past. Spectators are familiar with the brutal side of this sport, but there is a momentary frisson at the sight of fit and doughty young men submitting their bodies to what is an almost inhuman ordeal, not for 90-minutes, or three hours, or even for the five days test cricket sometimes takes, but for three weeks, with only a couple of rest days.
This is an edited version of the Introduction to Making Sense of Sports, 5th edition.