A horse has won a horse race.
— Boring Tweeter (@b0ringtweets) 9 avril 2016
This is how I read most sports news: as a set of non-events that hardly merit a daily supplement in the papers. I’ll make allowances, however, for things like the #Rio2016 Olympics; this kind of event feels like an exception, perhaps because we love a multi-billion-pound TV spectacle, or because it’s a chance for our latent nationalistic pride to worm itself out of the woodwork in a way that hasn’t been seen since Brexit.
There is something enjoyable about witnessing so many different countries collaborate towards a common goal. Even JK Rowling’s Triwizard Tournament wasn’t about beating Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, but about ‘international magical cooperation’. Similarly, an Olympic gold is pleasing not just as a win for our country but also, as an achievement gained through strife, something that we find personally admirable and exemplary.
What’s so admirable about beating another person to gold, or a world record, by a fraction of a millisecond? Why is the endeavour of sport so compelling to us?
The minute the whistle blows, something interesting happens. The players are propelled into a different world, subject to new aims (‘goals’) and rules that do not apply in the real world, like not being able to walk with the ball (netball) or step over a line, and subject to punishments (‘sin bin’) if they break them. The route to excellence lies partly in abiding by these rules; however arbitrary they may seem to a novice, they turn out to be necessary for the correct functioning of the game and achievement of its aims, and within the framework of the game we cannot achieve without adhering to them. In a team game, there is an additional layer; the players are assigned roles and are also judged on the basis of how well they fulfil those: the goalie would win no applause for leaving his post and attempting to score, for example.
There’s mental effort involved in resisting the urge to tackle someone’s hockey stick instead of the ball, and in controlling your speed and momentum enough that you can stop or turn when your mind intends it, and in controlling your strength such that the ball is passed to your teammate and not the opposition. However, the rules are all essentially physical ones: stay within the lines, do not touch this, move in a specific way. So the route to excellence also lies in ensuring we are physically fit, or befitted for the task ahead, giving us enough control over the physical environment that we not only stay within the rules, but actually get the ball to hit the net.
In many ways, the parallel world of the game once the whistle has blown is a microcosm of the traditional conception of moral life. Like the rugby field, our universe has certain conditions – the laws of physics and human nature, for example – which make rules or lack of complete licence necessary. We can’t be good without following ‘the rules’, whatever they are, and without them and the discipline they impose on us we’re unable to excel within the parameters we’re given.
More tangibly there is also an interesting ‘taming of the flesh’ angle: as embodied persons, we are, in many cases, better able to reach our aims if we are also physically optimised, if we are able to control those features of our physical being which encumber and distract us. Sportsplayers can’t be lazy or gluttonous, or even over-indulge in sex, apparently; similarly, in some conceptions of morality, ‘sins of the flesh’ are said to inhibit righteousness and damage our ability to grow.
Equally, a hockey game is not a world in which the ends justify the means. Scoring is the goal, but you can’t achieve that any old how; there’s no sense of achievement (and no fun) in thwacking the opposing goalie with your stick before chucking the ball into the net with your hands. Apart from the obvious damage to the goalie’s head, this kind of cheating is seen as ‘unfair’ and ‘against the spirit of the game’. I can’t quite explain why adherence to an intangible ‘sporting spirit’ should matter so much to sports fans, but it really does; it’s the same instinct that rebels against legal tax avoidance, or perhaps using algorithms to trade stocks, and I wonder whether it shows up a moral instinct towards valuing some property of actions themselves, in addition to their consequences.
For many sportspeople, the means are just as important as the ends; it isn’t really all about winning. At #Rio2016, Abbey D’Agostino gave up whatever chance she had of winning the 5,000m heat after a fellow competitor tripped her up, by stopping to help the person who tripped her. This was hailed as the ultimate example of ‘Olympic spirit’ or ‘sporting spirit’. For the most part, Olympians and other sports champions seem to respect and like their rivals. Perhaps this fits our analogy too: the game (of life!) is set up such that we assume that the other players are our enemies, to be beaten down and trampled, whereas they are in fact simply worthy co-runners that should inspire us to imitate their excellence, without letting envy or quickness to anger drive that competition down to violence.
It’s not a perfect analogy, of course (never!). We invented the rules of sport, and we choose to play it, whereas we don’t have much of a choice about life. And the discipline that can help propel us to sporting excellence doesn’t necessarily make for moral excellence; Ryan Lochte and Brock Turner will testify to that. As players ourselves, we struggle along, chafing against the rules we did not choose, which we really think make our lives difficult, and only in hindsight do we appreciate how discipline and hardship can help us grow. The players don’t have the benefit of the spectator’s wide view, and I wonder whether this is why watching sport is so popular. It’s ‘just a game’, of course, but I wonder whether, when we sit down to cheer on the prowess of our preferred team, we’re no different to the Shakespeare audience at the Globe, or the North and South reader: happy to suspend real life and sub in artificial rules to contemplate an imitated performance of real life in which, subconsciously, we see a reflection of our own struggles and something to aspire to when we’re down in the trenches ourselves: we delight in our loved ones emerging victorious and transcendent when ‘the strife is o’er and battle done’, and sometimes, Job-like, we get angry with the ref.