We as a race spend a lot of time on what is loosely called ‘sport’. From the ad hoc beach cricket and ‘touch’, through the more organised school age sports, through the grade sports all the way up through the local and national representative sports, both individual and team.
The individual and team sports pull in a huge number of supporters, officials, organisers and so on, so it is rare individual who has not been in some trivial or profound way involved in sports at one time or another.
Sport is obviously of great importance to the human race. I don’t know of any animal that indulges in activities that could be called sports. Of course, males of many species battle other males for dominance and control over females or territory, and their young do seem to practise for these battles, but there is no sense in which these battles are fought for pleasure. They are too serious for that!
The roots of sport can be found in interpersonal contests of course, like arm wrestling to see who is the strongest, or quizzes to see who has the best memory and so on, but human contests don’t usually have the serious implication of battles between animals of other species. Very often they can be cooperative contests as training exercises so that the group as a whole can perform better.
This would be very useful indeed to hunters, who as a group would be benefit from the increased accuracy with the spear or the bolos, or even the simple thrown stone.
The technology would also have benefitted from such practice contests. Each contestant would have seen how his fellow contestants had improved the technology. That’s no doubt how the woomera or atlatl came to be invented, in a contest before the hunt.
Sport can also serve as a way of defusing or sublimating a dispute between rival groups. The tests of skill replaced an actual contest, and rules of procedure were imposed on the contest, so that, mostly, no one actually got killed.
The smallest group of humans is probably the family, which has a flexible definition. It could be as few as two people or as many as twenty. The concept of the nuclear family, mum, dad, kids is fairly new, inspired by cheap or affordable housing, and the ubiquity of affordable transport.
Anyway, whatever the size the family team ‘competes’ usually in a more or less friendly fashion with neighbours. However neighbourhood families ally themselves in competition with other neighbourhoods to form villages, suburbs, cities and so on up to countries. Only at the highest level is there no global group, though the United Nations aspires to that title.
Sports give humans the chance to compete, and they seem to enjoy it. How else can one explain the rise of sports like snooker, card games, and contests which don’t rate the name of sport, such as beauty contests? Is car racing a sport? Obviously some people are better at these marginal sports, so is the contest the key? It seems so.
When there is no one else around humans will compete against themselves or against chance. Solitaire, a card or peg game for a single person is popular and automatically installed on most computers. It is used in cartoons to characterise a lazy or disinterested employee.
Often a person may not be particularly proficient at a sport but may still enjoy it. They may enjoy it particularly at one or two removes, as spectators. Spectators may identify strongly with the sports person or team in which they are interested. If they come across supporters of some other person or team, they may interact adversely with them, even to the point of fighting with them.
Parents are notoriously partisan supporters, yelling support from the sideline to their offspring, often I suspect to the embarrassment of their children. Parents also tend to overestimate the abilities of their kids and tend to push them more than they should. Sport for kids should be fun, but pushing them too hard can spoil their enjoyment of sport, which is a shame.
Those who continue to enjoy their sport and become good at it can become heroes to a large number of fans. The All Blacks are almost revered in New Zealand and the national team who play the national sport can not only receive adulation but can also be paid a lot of money.
Of course if the national team fails that can lead to a sense of devastation for their followers. Failure can be losing to another team or simply not winning. Recently the New Zealand All Blacks drew with the Australian team and it was almost as if they had lost! Fortunately the All Blacks won well the next weekend, otherwise the country might have sunk into depression.
Sports stars in the most part realise that they are representatives, but the stresses on top sports people is tremendous. The All Blacks are a good example of this. One or two of the top echelon of the rugby players in New Zealand have not succeeded in withstanding that pressure and have had issues with alcohol and violence. In a lot of ways it is unfair to expect exemplary behaviour and expertise at the top level of the sport.
Nevertheless, a surprising number of top sports people do appear to be genuinely nice people. These days, the team captain, winner and loser, has a microphone stuffed under his or her nose and is expected to give an instant analysis of the game, and to their credit most appear to come up with something intelligent about the game, congratulating their opponents, win or lose.
Interestingly, after the drawn game I mentioned above, both teams were disappointed, but for slightly different reasons. The All Blacks were expected to win, and were expecting to achieve a record number of wins, and their disappointment at not winning was obvious. There was a sense of let down. The Australians, however, obviously believed that they had missed a great chance to beat the All Blacks.