Sport is something that can make life taste good, and that involves doing it, which is not well understood by your average couch potato, or his cousin the exercise-machine freak who wants a hardsexy body. Sport in a normal life is pickup games of touch football and softball, single hoop three-on- three basketball, or 10K fun-runs.
Justin Bieber didn’t mean anything in particular to me until I saw him play basketball, and the bell rang. His confidence is rooted in something as old as humankind – pleasure in sport and mastery of the body. The doing of it, not the viewing. What works on the playground often works in life generally, and it’s startling how many people successful in business and politics were into sports, and not as wannabes.
Don’t care about Master Bieber? How about the ancient Greeks: great theater, origins of western thought, invented classic geometry, great sculptors, architects – you name it, they were there. And whom did they most venerate and respect above all these distinguished others? Olympic winners. Partly no doubt because they were incessantly at war and needed strong, active men, but also out of respect and love. And their Olympics were brutal. If you think boxing and cage fighting are some kind of ultimate thing, consider that to die in Olympic combat was not unusual; the ref didn’t stop the fight. Win an Olympic event and you had no further obligations. The state took care of you, you were a living national monument. If you quit or looked like quitting, your status in society was damaged very severely because your honor was questionable. That’s what it was like in the cradle of western thought. Homer, Socrates, Aristotle, Euripides . . . . great guys but not as great as an Olympic victor. I never learned this in any of the schools or colleges I attended, because real history is too much for most teachers.
I’ve spent a lot of my life at typewriters and word-processors, and in rooms full of learned nerds, and I earned a living for a while as a sports writer. Not bad, but the satisfaction and sheer pleasure I took in bike racing was unspeakable. Educational, too. Not that I was very good at it, but road racing is much more complex than it appears. It’s a team sport, and wherever your limited talent lies, if you do it well at the right time, you can affect the outcome of the race. I was never going to get up a long climb with the leaders, but I loved to jump out in rolling country and see if I could stay away. Very disruptive, and your more serious mates could jump into the draft of the chasers. At the end of the day you might end up dizzy and puking, but quite happy if it worked.
That thrill is pretty deep, right up there with the other primal excitements, which is why kids love to play hard while learning about life on the playgrounds of the world. It teaches quickness, alertness, aggression, defense, and other things that separate the quick and the dead. (It’s also the great war-substitute, and taps off that madness better than anything; but only if you participate). And something else: it involves the spirit of play, without which life lacks mustard and Jack is a Dull Boy. My family did not believe in mustard but in Marx, and books rather than boxing. They had these ideas, but I had a life to live, which I was pretty excited, and about which I might never learn something very essential, because they just didn’t get it. Like most people I needed that primal ping to feel fully alive, and the bicycle saved me. Trained as a couch potato, I finally got myself hard enough to make seriously painful efforts, which was educational and a very exciting thing to discover in myself.
To which I might add, contrary to the sainted Mr. Lombardi, winning isn’t everything. Giving everything and ending up in euphoric exhaustion is just fine. Not to mention which, if you can find time to keep it up, and don’t bang your head on something hard, your life can continue to taste pretty good, and you’re less likely to get in trouble in bars because you have no other way of letting off steam.
I raced, I left it behind, and years later I came back, worked with teams, wrote about the sport, and I got to see marvelous things. Fifteen-year-old Greg LeMond in Princeton, NJ in a Trials Series, too young to race internationally but allowed to compete by special dispensation. He was an experience not to be forgotten. First a barely visible spot down the road, then getting larger and larger. The kid was bringing it, all of it, and I knew I was seeing history to come.
He finished alone, far ahead of the field of 16-18 year old young men. Amazingly, he was not blown out – he was totally composed, back for an interview after he changed his jersey. By then the field was coming in, glassy eyed, discombobulated, most lying on the grass, some vomiting from the effort to chase him down. It was worth writing about, because it was so clear he could go all the way. The first of his kind for us, and eventually he did it all. He also raced clean, hated dopers, and never ever lied to me, which jocks do routinely. Sport at that level does something very good for the soul.