LONGMONT, COLO — Sports typically are self-conscious about what they are, which is to admit that a case can be made that they are something to do when there is nothing to do.
After all, does this country really need professional football in order to go forward? Does the world absolutely require synchronized swimming in the Olympics? Is luge competition a necessity?
So what sports often try to do is link themselves to the culture in an attempt to legitimize themselves. That's why at the recent Olympics there was enormous focus on the Sydney Opera House; indeed that's a major reason the Opera House was built in the first place. A bit embarrassed by their full bore love of sport, Australians wanted a commanding symbol that they are about culture, too. They want the world to know they not only know all about swimming and tennis, but that they also know which fork to use.
In fact, sports wrapping themselves in the culture does give them dignity and standing. Earlier this week, a University of Colorado-Denver history professor, James Whiteside, spoke here at Front Range Community College. "Sports resonate with people," says Whiteside. "They are sources of great community and personal identification and pride."
He notes that when the Colorado Avalanche won hockey's Stanley Cup, an estimated 400,000 people showed up for a parade in Denver honoring the players and the triumph; 600,000 came for a similar event after a Bronco Super Bowl win.
But football, at its core, is a made-by-man competition. Originally, as it got going in the colleges at the end of the 1800s, it was thought of as a diversion for hard-studying college boys who needed a physical break. Now we have this 800-pound gorilla of questionable behavior.
Very appealing to traditionalists are sports that grew from skills in life and in the workplace.
A wonderful late 1880s sport was rock drilling. Whiteside, also an expert on gold and silver mining in Leadville, Colo., and elsewhere, says it was a miner's basic skill and that it quickly developed into a sport with a huge following. The Leadville newspaper noted it was "difficult to conceive of a more inspiring spectacle," and went on to rhapsodize that it was "Olympic-like."
That's not hyperbole. Many of the most intriguing Olympic sports were born from everyday life. Early on, of course, people got about by walking, or when speed was important, running. That the marathon has its roots in necessity is one of the major reasons it remains so popular centuries later. Does anyone think trampoline will have similar staying power?
Other Olympic sports also were born of necessity - archery, biathlon (skiing and shooting), shooting, pentathlon (horseback riding, shooting, fencing, swimming, and running), and cycling.
Naturally, human nature being what it is, cheating started almost immediately when competition reared its head. Whiteside says rock-drilling teams, for example, would use ringers to improve chances.
Also widely followed in early days was competition among firemen pulling their fire wagons. "Games," says Whiteside, "were products of work and life." And that's the point. When things have a genuineness, they are more interesting. A real Picasso is spectacular; a fake is nothing but dot-to-dot.
Skiing falls smack in the middle of real sport. Whiteside says skiing became popular in Leadville - it's a classic mountain boom town that flourished for a brief time in the mid- and late-1800s, and since has struggled as the mines played out - because mailmen used skis on their appointed rounds. Others, like clergymen, traveled the same way. They had to contend with storms, avalanches, bears, snow blindness, and sunburn back then. Still do.
Skiing has exploded and it now surpasses agriculture in Colorado as a cash crop. It's a good vehicle, suggests Whiteside, to pick "all those Texans and Californians clean."
Aspen was nothing but a mountain mining town before it discovered there was money on top of "them thar hills." But for all of its glitz today, it has roots in the past. Conversely, Vail was built in the mid-1900s as a ski village. It has no roots.
Boxing - legendary Jack Dempsey is from Colorado - was born of survival. Horse racing grew from being a basic mode of transportation. Rodeo developed from routine cowboy life. And roller derby developed from ... well, you see the difference.
Oh, and Leadville (altitude: 10,200 feet; pop.: about 3,000; past home of journalist Charles Dow, who went on to hook up with Jones) also once had the largest opera house west of the Mississippi.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society