To many sport is another word for television or packed stands and six packs. To others it is a reminder of tanned muscles and small brains. Sport is quite simply thought of as entertainment and athletes tend to assume the properties of race horses or even motor cars. Just look at any sports booklet; a player is such a height, has so much speed, has a decimal point scoring average and has won such and such honors. Can you remember which ‘Grand Prix’ your car won? No? But you almost certainly know its 0-50 acceleration.
In the light of this it is hardly surprising that so many intelligent people reject sport, and sadly enough this often implies a rejection of exercise too. But sport, at all levels, has an increasing importance in life today. Not only does it have many meditative qualities, not only is it central in ensuring physical well-being, but it is also vital in widening our understanding of life, and, need I say it, death also.
There is a Heart Fund advertisement that goes, “Perform a death-defying act — exercise regularly.” Its intentional message is obvious, but it also contains a more elaborate idea. It unconsciously spreads the truth that there are few sports that do not in one way or another involve a confrontation with death — some death-defying act which is a necessary, indeed vital part of the particular game. We can divide sport into two brackets: risk sports and non-risk. In the first group we find anything from rock climbing to helicopter skiing; anything that involves putting one’s life on the table. What, we may ask, are the advantages and reasons for these particular sports? It is chiefly to put some exhilaration into a life that is becoming increasingly safe and predictable.
Western society is rapidly uniforming its lifestyles; it is continuously making our lives more easy and it is continuously striving to make our lives more ‘risk free.’ To begin with laws were made to protect the rights of the individual in his society; now we have reached a stage where society has started to protect the individual from himself. We no longer have the right to bare our heads to the wind when we race up Highway 54 on a Honda 350, and we have to put up with aggravating red buzzers in our cars that only go off if we strap ourselves to the seats. And so the ultimate risk is taken away from us and in its place we are offered television blood-baths and processed package tours — some of which even include “happiness insurance.” This is one reason why risk sports are so important for they allow people to take calculated risks without breaking the law.
As children we loved, and still love, to be frightened. Nothing enthralls us more than a candlelit ghost story, and I suspect that Evel Knievel would have attracted my attention too if he’d fired off a bit earlier. The presence of death invoked by these occasions can be seen in cathartic terms; it is a purging and preparation for the final day. Death is what George Leonard in The Game of Games calls “the ultimate boundary.” In coming close to death we are being instructed in a subject that is beyond human language. There are few people who can have faced death and not come away wiser and more aware of life. It is this that leaves the skier exhilarated after a long day’s exercise for he has been close to the boundary and returned alive.