Why we compete

What is it about sports that brings out the best and worst in us?

Everyone, it seems, keeps trying to find meaning in everything. Albert Einstein was early to the exploration seeking the meaning of relativity. Viktor Frankl wrote "Man's Search for Meaning."

Then there are books about "French Ways and Their Meaning," "The Meaning of Star Trek," "The Meaning of Mind," "The Meaning of Art," "The Search for Meaning," "The Dawn of Meaning," "The Meaning of Persons," "The Meaning of Anxiety," and "The Meaning of Shakespeare."

One book is titled simply "Meaning."

But what does it all mean?

The short answer is we are a world always trying to figure out everything. This is definitely true with sports, which are enormously mystifying.

Editors of the book "Sport Inside Out" write that "studying sport has become not only legitimate but even respectable. Of course, many outside the academy regard these developments with a sense of alarm, hostility, and woe."

Regardless, parallels between life and sports routinely are advanced. Sports in many ways are us and have been a cornerstone of the world's fabric, probably dating to when Adam said to Eve, "I'll race you to that pile of forbidden fruit over yonder."

Whatever. In his book "Sports in the Western World," William J. Baker writes, "From deep within, and from millennia past, comes the impulse for athletic competition."

But what good are sports anyway? That they are fun is a suitable place to start. However, one philosopher sneers, "Sport is a pointless partisan struggle."

Some of the best and the brightest writers have validated sport by writing thoughtfully on it, including David Halberstam, who happened to write a nonsports book called "The Best and the Brightest" (1973) before turning to Michael Jordan (1999). So did James Michener, who after writing epics on the likes of Spain, Texas, Colorado, Hawaii, and on and on, wrote "Sports in America." Ernest Hemingway loved writing about boxing.

Other brilliant writers who have turned their pencil, typewriter, or computer to sports include Ring Lardner, Dan Jenkins, Frank Deford, Roger Kahn, John Updike, George Will, and Jim Murray.

"Sport Inside Out" suggests: "The message is clear: Sport is better than life." Agreed, writes Peter Heinegg in the Southern Humanities Review, who contends that sports "is a flight from the pain of existence."

A basic appeal of sports is that it normally produces a definite and quantifiable result. Anything from the Olympics to an afternoon game of canasta quickly tells who won and who lost. Life is not nearly so definitive. In fact, life tends to meander, while sport gets right to the scoreboard.

Up here in the spectacular openness of Wyoming, where winds sweep, cattle rule, and there's lots of room for thinking, Marty Bourgeois, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, ponders the pull of sport: "It's one of the lowest common denominators."

Peter Heinegg observes that, historically, "the athlete and the philosopher have never had much to say to each other."

But Mr. Bourgeois is eager to avoid the typical academic disdain for athletics. He rejects the notion there is somehow something inherently better about enjoying ballet, the opera, or classical music rather than, say, professional basketball. "That's an elitist argument," he says.

Because sports events have gotten so huge, they likely will become even more important in the next millennium. Sport figures no longer are cameo players but stars on life's stage. The late New York Times sports columnist Red Smith wrote that "sports will continue to grow as America grows - in travail and turmoil and contentiousness and inexhaustible vigor."

Sports have prospered in the millennium past, and almost certainly will in the coming millennium, because they are the stuff of dreams - real and philosophical. Notes Terry Orlick, "Belief gives birth to reality."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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