Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Sport: the individual and the team

I have little interest in sport other than casually kicking a ball round a field with friends or family, using coats on the grass as goal posts, and am fully aware that I’m in a minority.  Sport is so important to so many people in so many countries that it can’t be ignored by anyone purporting to want a peaceful world.

Here are some interesting facts from the world of sport which I recently came across (Prospect, Dec 2011). They set the scene for the thoughts I express after listing these facts, and which you will no doubt find less interesting.

  • In the 18th century gentlemen thought that training was not in the spirit of sport.
  • Since 1997 the world record for the 10,000 metres has been broken five times, dropping from 26 min 31.32  sec to 26 min 17.53 sec, each time by a Kenyan or an Ethiopian.
  • The National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey (30 miles west of London) has a large room that can simulate high altitude conditions, so that athletes can raise their red blood cell count. The World Anti Doping Agency deems this legal while banning the use of drugs to get the same effect.
  •  The major Olympic teams are assisted by physiologists, nutritionists, massage therapists, coaches, biomechanicists, lifestyle instructors and performance analysts.
  •  105 world swimming records were broken in 2008, mostly by swimmers wearing the Speedo LZR Racer suit made of a high tech drag reducing fabric tested in NASA wind tunnels. Successors to these suits were banned in 2009 because of their enhancement of performance.
  •  International athletes typically have running shoes made to measure and costing $10,000.
  •  Football boots today (as opposed to a few decades ago) make it significantly easier to control and shoot the ball, and as players get fitter the pitch seems to get smaller.

Why do people compete?  To assert themselves, perhaps; or to test their abilities against each other and grow spiritually by accepting the limitations that competition reveals. Why is being a spectator so popular? I don’t know but people like to watch sport and talk or argue about it. Watching and following sport is evidently a pleasure, bonding strangers together in a way no other pass-time can do. It gives spectators the chance to hone their analytical skills, to feel excitement and to admire human skill and endurance. International occasions like the 2012 London Olympics help to raise awareness that we all live on the same planet.

As an outsider I am becoming aware of two complementary trends.

  1. Individuals are playing a growing role in team sports.
  2.  Teams are playing a growing role in individual sports.

Team sports like soccer, American football, baseball and rugby are enormously popular and it seems to me they have the potential to help weld society together and drive it forward as the power of cooperation and competition are demonstrated in front of millions. It also helps break down racial, cultural and national barriers, if only by bringing them into the open as fans misbehave. Unfortunately, in recent years there has been a tendency for individual stars to be paid enormous fees and to bask in the media limelight, which counteracts these beneficial affects of group competition. And as the pressure to win intensifies for financial reasons competition not infrequently escalates into on-pitch conflict or verbal abuse between individual players.

So individual behaviour is becoming a problem in team sports.

In events where one individual is pitted against another, as in athletics or motor racing, there is an increasing necessity to have a whole panoply of expertise, technology and support behind each competitor. This is inevitable. The runners have to run and the drivers have to drive ever faster, the high jumpers have to jump ever higher, to the limits of human ability – concentration, will power, endurance, self control, strategy, reaction time and skill are tested to the limit, with speed records being broken by tiny fractions of a second and high jump records  by millimetres.

Thus the runner has a host of helpers. Experts are needed to design, develop or advise on shoes and clothes to maximise traction and aerodynamic efficiency, to personalise altitude tents to boost haemoglobin levels in the blood and recommend regimes to improve aerobic efficiency and cardio-respiratory function.  Legal advice is needed to ensure that he or she does not become disqualified by inadvertently breaking some rule or eating a substance which, after metabolisation, could lead to a false drug test result. (See also above list.)  

In fact a modern athlete is becoming akin to a Formula 1 racing car driver. In Formula 1 racing there are large teams involving expert mechanics, R&D engineers, materials scientists, financial managers, PR officers and probably others I can’t think of.

Are teams a problem in individual sports?

 For the competitor perhaps, in that he or she has to go through an increasingly stressful and complex regime of preparation as well as face the gruelling test of the event itself. The competition is indeed becoming a team event, with the individual sportsman becoming the front person of a team, albeit the one who has to work the hardest and take the greatest risk.

So in conclusion one could say that individuals are becoming a problem in team events while in events between individuals the co-opted teams are altering the nature of the competition. One more way in which the world is changing.

Author, 2077 AD