Why Do We Commit To Sport?

A friend once asked me why I spend so much time cycling. He could understand spending perhaps forty-five minutes cycling each day, so as to keep fit and keep a good physique. But why would I bother going for such long rides on the weekends, hundreds of kilometres, often solo? What did I achieve by doing that?

I replied by saying, because I enjoy it. Because this time means something to me. Because it helps me in other parts of my life in ways I’ll never understand. Those were the closest I could get to what cycling means to me, but for this friend, these reasons were wholly insufficient. Again, he could understand time spent cycling (or any kind of exercise) up to a point, but unless one was training to be an Olympic athlete (where there are very clear rewards), he simply could not understand what one would get out of devoting so much time to an activity that in the scheme of things doesn’t achieve anything.

This question of what one achieves through running or cycling or any other sport that takes immense commitment is one that seems to sit behind Haruki Murakami’s brief, autobiographical book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On the surface the book traces Murakami’s preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon; it takes us through Hawaii, Japan, Greece and New York City and into Murakami’s early days running and writing in what is written as a personal attempt to understand what running has meant to him.

The obvious summary of the book says that there are certain lessons Murakami took from running that he applied to his writing which allowed him to succeed. Running a marathon is different from running a 10km; the training is different, the body is different, and writing a novel is a marathon, so the lessons Murakami learnt from his training helped him become a successful writer.

“You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of (running) muscles I wrote of a moment ago…” These kinds of lessons are interspersed throughout the book, and make for one kind of reading. But it is, in essence, the point of view of my friend who couldn’t understand the extent of my commitment to cycling. It’s a view of running that says running serves a practical purpose in our lives, which is why we do it. There is little point in doing it beyond the point where it serves that purpose.

Those practical purposes do exist, but I think Murakami is getting at his deeper commitment in this book. Cycling means more to me than for how it teaches me life lessons, but as my response to my friend showed, I was unsure how to describe that meaning.

I think Murakami comes as close as he can to describing it late in the book, when he talks about driving home from a race and wondering what it was all for.

“After our unpretentious race on a fall Sunday, we were all on our way back to our own homes, back to our own mundane lives. And with the next race in mind, each of us, in our place, will most likely go about our usual training. Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole at the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so.”

Murakami captures the intrinsic side of his sport; it is done for its own sake, regardless of how it looks from the outside. It feels right, somewhere inside, and that’s why we do it, even if it takes up too much time, even if it’s inefficient, futile and pointless. It may be all those things if we look for a purpose it serves; but if we stop looking for a purpose and instead do it precisely because we want to, the time spent running or cycling falls away, and these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences in life, perhaps precisely because we cannot explain why they were so.

I think that’s what Murakami really talks about when he talks about running. Not how it served his writing, but just what it is in his life, without the activity needing to achieve something.

“War Minus the Shooting?”: The Olympics, International Sport, and Orwell on the Sporting Spirit

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

The Olympic Games are upon us. Which means, of course, that for a month or so countries will forget their rivalries, jealousies and bitterness and come together to compete in a friendly way to advance world peace and everlasting human health and happiness. Those colourful, shining, interlocking rings are the symbol of the games that will bind humans of all races, faiths, creeds and beliefs closer together through the sporting spirit. Just as in ancient Olympia the Olympics stood for brotherhood and love for one’s opponent, so too next month in Brazil will the world come to be a more peaceful, caring place.

If I came across as sarcastic, that was merely incidental. In 2013 I attended the opening ceremony for the next year’s Winter Olympics at Olympia, and I also visited the Olympics Academy right nearby, a few hundred metres from the ancient track and field. Those at the Academy, as well as those Olympic organisers who spoke before the torch was lit, all used language like I did above. The belief in this vision of the Olympics was real.

But clearly, when I write about what the Olympics is meant to achieve, we sense that something isn’t quite right. George Orwell was someone who saw right through the narrative that sports advance world peace. Following a visit by the USSR’s football team, Orwell was sufficiently frustrated (or perhaps shocked) to pen his thoughts on the ironies of the “sporting spirit”. His brief essay is a damning critique of international sports, presenting almost the opposite to the Olympic narrative, and stemming from belief that nationalism is an unnecessary and dangerous phenomenon.

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”

“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

He ends by speculating on where this “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” comes from, arguing it comes from changes in lifestyle.

“In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause of group hatreds.”

There are times, which Orwell seems not to admit, when a sporting spirit comes through and gives credence to the narrative of sport as in some way advancing a notion of peace. But one reason I like Orwell’s essay, as extreme as it is, is for how it cuts through the rosy gloss we so frequently put on things. It can be all too easy to convince ourselves of a nice-sounding narrative, as we have done about the Olympics and international sport, when even brief thought and reflection could bring us closer to the reality.

That reality is probably somewhere between the Olympics narrative and Orwell’s. There are reasons beyond “group hatred” that explain why we continue to play international sport and contest the Olympics, and I think these reasons have much to do with showing that people are people. Sometimes one country wins, another time another does. In a single Olympics almost all countries will at points feel uplifted and proud, and then disappointed and embarrassed. Countries will swap roles in different events and at different points, and come to see that the range of human emotions are something common—even the bitterness and jealousies. People can come to feel closer even if that closeness comes through seeing their nations pushed apart by rivalry.

It was hard as a spectator, for instance, not to cry as five men of different nationalities crossed the finish line in tears, each for a different reason, in one of the final stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia. Some cried from disappointment, others from happiness, others from injury. They showed that whatever their nationalities, they were human—and they could be injured, overjoyed or dismayed just like anyone else. Cycling reporter Neal Rogers summed it up perfectly, I think, when he said that “Drama isn’t just sport. It’s humanity.”

Two open questions are whether some sports are more prone to being “war minus the shooting” than others, as well as whether these views of sport have changed over the period since Orwell wrote. Clearly some sports, the more physical, seem more inclined to produce violence and negative feelings. But witness the barely-concealed bitterness and open disgust between the American and New Zealand sailing teams following the last America’s Cup—a relatively tame sport if there is such a thing—and even that narrative is complicated.

Let us hope for Orwell to be proven wrong entirely, but it in anticipation of the Olympics it is probably best to escape, to a degree, the fuzzy narrative of world peace that will inevitably be propagated.