Why watch sports? There are those who will tell you that athletic competition is meaningless, that the running and jumping and shooting don’t really hold any weight beyond base pleasure—the timeless it’s-just-a-stupid-game argument.
In the end, human beings are just kicking around a soccer ball and catching a leather object for the fun of it. We love games and we love the tournaments, seemingly simplistic spectacles designed for the showcase of physical prowess. We embrace the coaches, players, team apparel. We cling to our seats, we scream at the television, we embrace after victory. And, yet, it’s just an adult kicking a speckled ball through two metallic goal posts.
It’s simple on the surface, yes, but can some deeper meaning be extracted from play on the field? I believe so, and I’ve found athletic competition to be very relevant in my experiences as a representation of something broader, the more general trials and tribulations applicable to all walks of human life. Sports can be used as a teaching point, a way of applying one very specific situation to the greater daily struggles known to all, in some form or another. The simplicity of sports becomes much less so if one casts a gaze at the greater picture, rather than a tidbit here or there.
In the end, that one beautiful shot doesn’t really matter—no matter the arc and the situation and the degree of difficulty. The hockey assist is relatively trivial, since there were so many before it and there will be hundreds of others following. The inspirational performance against all odds, in itself, doesn’t mean much because it’s one very brief snapshot along the continuum of time.
But, there is more to the story. Take the inspirational performance as our shining light—Michael Jordan’s bout with illness in the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Phelps’ record medal run in the Olympics, the emotion of our most recent Boston Marathon. They offer a sound compass for human achievement in difficult circumstances, a measuring stick applicable to myself or anyone else—and to all kinds of situations, removed from sport. The meaning of such marvelous physical accomplishment as a singular event runs on fumes, but it’s relatability to common life can ignite the most heated of flames.
En route to even more silverware in 1997, Michael Jordan was forced to fight the painful effects of food poisoning in front of millions of adoring eyes. He scored as was always the case, secured a vital team victory, and inspired countless spectators with a gutsy performance. His struggle with adversity on that fateful summer night in Utah remains the standard for grit and grind—overcoming unexpected adversity to achieve a team goal in a hostile environment.
With the appropriate dose of mental fortitude and competitive drive, we can scale the steepest of mountains. Jordan persevered, despite growing weaker and more fatigued than his competitors. It doesn’t matter how many points were scored or what the final score even was at the end, but the toughness one individual can muster up when faced with a daunting challenge remains with us. We can turn to Jordan’s performance in awe, but also with the recognition of human potential.
Michael Phelps is the proud owner of 18 Olympic gold medals, but that final medal count doesn’t really matter beyond mere bookkeeping. He will be remembered most for his relentless approach to training, which set him up for success in Athens and Beijing and London, less than two short years ago. By safeguarding the body and bolstering the mind, Phelps paved the way for his own accomplishments—and that commitment to preparation, long day in and long day out, will remain admirable long after his retirement and escape from the public eye.
A restless swimmer from Maryland teaches us that repetition breeds success, that nothing can be accomplished without putting forth an inordinate amount of time and energy. We learn to clear no hurdle unprepared, because of the elite standard established by him. Practice really does matter, and he’s the proof.
The 2014 Boston Marathon, held on April 21, serves as one shining beacon for those afflicted by tragedy and immobilized by suffering—a glowing light at the end of a very dark, very ominous tunnel. Only one year earlier, Bostonians and people from all over played witness to musty smoke and flying limbs and endless tears streaming down the face. We were all exposed to the very worst of mankind, and forced to grieve in our own unique manners. Bombs were set off, but so too was communal grievance rarely seen on such an emotional level.
One year removed from the horrors, the city of Boston raced again. More people showed up, more people lent a helping hand, more people came together as one proud conglomerate on Boylston Street. What do we learn, just from an array of runners crossing a blue and yellow finish line etched on gray asphalt? We are shown to keep racing. We are shown to keep moving forward. We are shown to never look back, but to stare forward and nowhere else. What a glorious image it was, thousands of runners undeterred by the past and jogging onward and onward.
Michael Jordan looked not at his limitations, but leaned on grittiness en route to victory. Michael Phelps looked not at the dues paid in practice, but the laurels of success—the gold of that Olympic medal. The city of Boston, with all of its enthusiastic runners, looked not to the bombs of the past, but the glorious fireworks to come.
So, how exactly are we unable to draw some deeper meaning from the realm of athletic competition? Perhaps, we’re just unwilling.
Sports can stand for so much, as a representation—rather, as a guiding hand outstretched for an individual’s personal enrichment. That’s how I see it, at least. The adults are still just kicking a ball around, but maybe there’s a lesson to be learned on that pitch. Just maybe, that ball and net will show us something very valuable.
It’s just a stupid game if we’re stupid enough to focus solely on the surface, when there’s much, much more beneath it all.