Why do we do this?

The wind whips spray off the rolling sea, and I know I’ll soon be soaked to the bone. Myself, five crew members, a cox, and nearly 150 other boats are sat off the Scilly isles, mentally and physically preparing to wrench wooden boats through 1.6 nautical miles. As we nose towards the starting line, far out on the right of the course, fully exposed to the elements, I ask myself:

“why am I doing this?”

this is in fact  Falmouth mens A, World Champions for 2015
a gig crew powering through the waves

I am not asking that 2 minutes later. After a terrible start our boat is up and running, crashing through waves mere feet from rival boats. I snatch occasional glimpses of rival rowers in between desperately trying to get the blade of the oar fully into the writhing sea; and I think:

“you, I must beat you, I will beat you, I have to crush you”

and re-double my efforts. I imagine they are doing the same. My lungs burn, my insides hammer against the walls of my trunk every time I haul on the oar, I fight with the sea and my internal pace to stay in time with the rest of my crew and I grit my teeth and haul again. As our prow rises and crashes through a wave the water soaks our bowman and wets me, further down in the boat. A grin appears and my heart sings

“Yes, I was born to do this, I am viking, I am mighty, I am so alive”.

This is how the striker feels after they slam home a goal in front of screaming fans, how the javelin thrower feels as the spear arcs away on a winning throw, how the jockey feels as man and horse cruise over jumps as one.

And for what? We do not win, we never were contenders, pleased with our mid-place finish. We get back to the beach, swap with the women’s crew, and they head out for their race. No great adulation save weary pats on the back. No prize save cramping forearms, no glory save what we can glean from regaling these tales when back inside, far away though it seems now, in the warmth and with a drink in hand.

I am often struck at times like these by how pointless it all seems. Yet I am clearly not alone. The rest of the more than 1000 strong field clearly agrees enough with me enough to be out there too, in the wind and the rain. Round the world the story is the same: office workers running marathons, retirees playing golf, street kids kicking a ball or hitting one with a stick day and night. We, Homo sapiens, do seem pre-disposed to push ourselves against others, making measuring sticks out of javelins or horses or rectangular pitches with rectangular goals. This sport pervades our thinking, shapes our outlook and moulds our brains. Brains that seem well adapted to receive it.

the human brain: adapted to like sport?

There must be something in that. Why every culture places some men and women above others, based on some physical endeavour, which others will watch and appreciate and perhaps critique. There is a similar idea surrounding religion; why the human mind is susceptible to believing in beings that control or dictate the events in the world. There are a number of excellent books written on this, stemming from the observation that all human cultures appear to reach a similar yet irrational conclusion (apart from aspects of the modern Western world) that there are beings greater than us controlling things unseen. Art to is prevalent across the globe, flowing out of caves and across desert floors and over walls and into homes of peoples of every culture, despite not to helping to feed or clothe us.

For both of these phenomena it has been suggested that the forces of Darwinian evolution are at work (e.g. religion, art). Could it be that evolution shaped us, perhaps through a quirk or perhaps entirely predictably, to like sport? To more than like it, to love it, to look forward to it all week and to miss is terribly when it is taken away. This thing which causes us physical discomfort for no direct personal gain; why do we do it?

Right now I don’t know, but I want to try and find out.

sport; a vexing presence

This has been written about (here and here), but I don’t have space to discuss the ideas fully here. Instead I hope I’ve introduced the topic and set some people thinking.

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