Well, the soccer (aka football) World Cup is over. And what a thrilling tournament it was! The eyes of the world, all focused on those sprightly, victorious lads from (Dear Ed., please insert winning soccer country here, thx)! Weren’t they terrific? Watching the matches at home on TV was so exciting, it left a pool of adrenalin on my sofa. My three cats won’t go anywhere near it.
Actually, I’m not much of a sports spectator. It’s difficult for me to spend two to three hours focusing on uniformed runners/jumpers/throwers thrashing wildly about inside massive, floodlit, human corrals. Seeing the players battling over their artificial objectives, following their contrived rules, I get self-conscious, particularly when a “significant” occurrence happens and everyone in the stands starts cheering over what seems to me—in the larger scheme of things—an ultimately pointless achievement. I start to wonder: If we are so easily caught up in the ecstasy of these elaborately invented games, what are the chances that all of us are in fact merely taking part in a giant, life-spanning team sport, maneuvering around in our more-or-less hedged off spaces of the spaces of the world? What if we are engaging in what seem to us like meaningful actions with—and against—hundreds of other players—actions that might or might not be adding points to a metaphysical scoreboard somewhere? If so, is my team winning? Is the game an important one, or is it just a friendly with no consequences for the season? Is it halftime yet? Should I be wearing my mouthguard?
I realize I’m hugely overthinking what is really nothing more than a bit of fun among disturbingly rule-driven and competitive people. Still, I find that if I’m going to enjoy a “sport” of some kind, it has to be more simply designed, more rooted in reality. As a child, one of the few sports I remember going crazy over—apart from our neighborhood cream soda snorting contests—was Olympic skiing. It’s hard to imagine a more straightforward contest than athletes sliding down an icy hill as fast as they can. No role divisions, no tag teams, no “offsides” or “zone defense.” Skiing is one person in a primal struggle against two forces far greater than her or himself: a mountain and gravity. (Maybe I should add a third force: subzero temperatures.)
Of course, if you wanted to, you could tear down my “skiing is simple” argument by pointing out the technically advanced equipment (boots, skis) on the athletes’ feet, or the artificial obstacles (slalom markers, moguls) strategically placed on the run. But it still seems like a purer endeavor to me. It’s purer for the spectators as well. Skiing events don’t provide air-conditioned, roof-of-the-stadium suites with complimentary binoculars and open bars serving people dressed like they’re at the opera, who pay only scant attention to what’s happening on the field and instead talk about how much they are going to ask in trade next year for their all-star striker. Skiing spectators have to stand out in the cold getting runny noses and frostbite just like the athletes do. They experience the essence of skiing even if they themselves are not racing down the slope. And if they’re lucky, they can be recipients of the “victory wave,” when a skier makes a well-sliced final turn and shoots an arc of snow into the crowd.
Skiing is an egalitarian sport. Everyone doing it basically does the same thing. Soccer, on the other hand, is so large and complex that players have to specialize; two players on the same team may have roles almost completely alien to each other. A midfielder back passing to his own goalie might even have to make an appointment first! Imagine, though, if in the name of “teamwork,” other sports decided to create team versions of themselves: synchronized weightlifting! (Would they choreograph their pre-lift hand chalking ritual?) Golfball! (“What position do you play on the golfball team?” “Second string left sand trapper.”) Team sumo! (“OK, Taro, you go deep and cover Hakubo in the west dohyō. And watch for the fake!”)
These are just a few observations I have made about sports from my aforementioned spot on the sofa. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play some three-on-one fuzzball with the cats.