Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sport - the great allrounder

The are some out there at least those who remain unenlightened, that appear to regard sport as some sort of second class activity that threatens their more cerebral pursuits in some way through its popularity. The idea that governments are so willing to spend money on sporting events, people or codes is a waste, and is apparently somewhat offensive. After all, this is money that could go on more intellectual pursuits and the arts.

While nobody can deny that a healthy and enquiring mind is one of the most important parts of being an effective functioning human being, that on its own will only deliver a portion of a person’s potential. The physical body within which the mind is carried is also a vital part of a person.

Athletes are merely using the human body in a way that it was designed for. The human has not evolved to its current state to be sedentary. Sitting at a desk all day is not what the body is intended for. We need to move. We have bones which need to carry the weight otherwise they will become brittle through inactivity. We have muscles which will weaken and not support our body properly if we let them atrophy. Getting the blood pumping around oxygenates the brain and can help us to think more clearly. It also improves, in the long term, our blood pressure. Exercise also has beneficial impacts on cholesterol levels. This is by no means a comprehensive list but it demonstrates that there are physical benefits from playing sports, however it is true that you do not have to play sports to get these benefits, which you might also get from a daily walk or other form of exercise. This has the potential to save a great deal in terms of the cost of society’s health care. The cost of not funding sport might outweigh the costs of funding as it is today. However, the physical benefits to muscles, bones, and the circulatory system are only part of the benefits of sporting activity.

In addition to physical benefits, there are intellectual benefits that come from sporting activity as well as experiences that can benefit the human spirit. When running or swimming, I certainly find myself entering a calm, and almost meditative, state which helps in dealing with the day-to-day stresses of modern life. It is a haven of peace where the space is mine, and mine alone. Participants in team sports find camaraderie and the sense of belonging, which might not be something easy to achieve, and learn a great deal of interpersonal skills and the opportunity to apply strategic thinking to a problem. It also allows a creative outlet and puts into action that side of the brain related to coordination and lateral thinking, thereby assisting our ability to solve complex problems.

Spectators of sports find much joy, and sometimes angst, in watching their favourite teams or individuals in their preferred sporting event. As with the arts, there are also aesthetic rewards to sport. The aesthetic pleasure of watching an effortless cover-drive at a cricket match is as pleasing to the cricket-lover as an exquisite painting is to an art connoisseur, or a classic poem to a lover of literature. The can be said for the high mark in football, or the perfect cross in a game of soccer. Sport, as with the arts, can provide a huge emotional uplift where a day is otherwise proving to be mundane or disappointing.

But there is still more. Sport provides an outlet for competitive spirit, and most of us are competitive in some form or another, albeit sometimes reluctant to admit it. The more physically inclined look to sport to provide an outlet for this urge to compete, while intellectuals and academics may compete in the area of publications, and artists may compete for prestigious prizes or awards. No matter who we are, we all get a bit competitive, only some choose not to see the parallels with activities outside their own pursuits (and this applies to sporting people too), or are in denial that they are competitive at all. Competition also teaches the young about dealing with failure and overcoming adverse situations, something that they will need to do in their adult life. Some out there will have a philosophical outlook that this sort of competition is not healthy for one reason or another, but they are being competitive themselves by trying to convince others of their arguments.

There is no excuse for looking down in sport because it’s not your pursuit of choice. It provides many of the same benefits to its devotees as intellectual pursuits do, and is no less worthy. To those who might not have been fortunate enough to have been brought up in an environment conducive to educational excellence or intellectual development, it provides an essential outlet for competitive spirit and a good way to let off steam in what might be a depressing and frustrating environment. Those that think that paying someone to represent the country at sport is a waste of taxpayer’s money obviously have trouble thinking outside their own world view of what is important for our society as a whole.

Just as movie stars get paid millions of dollars to play a role in a film because they will attract huge numbers of people to the cinemas, sporting stars also get paid commensurate with their ability to draw people through the turnstiles. They give pleasure to many and get rewarded accordingly. This is simply a reflection of the number of people willing to see them perform, and the consequent financial spin-offs for those paying performers in the first place. For the same reasons, the money flowing into the arts and intellectual pursuits is not as great.

This does not deny their crucial role in society. The evolution of our philosophical approach to life, government, economics, and social development in general is of paramount importance, but it is the preserve of relatively few; those with the reputation and ability to argue their cases. I have spent many enjoyable hours listening to the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra, strolling around the art galleries and museums of our capital cities, or reading and writing poetry. I enjoy these pursuits, and would not wish them to disappear.

These pursuits, however, do not provide the same package of cognitive, spiritual and physical development as sports do. Sports have developed to fulfill this need and, hopefully, keep us from physical conflict. They are unashamed in their appeal to the masses and this is how it should be. For those unwilling to acknowledge the role sports play, this is perhaps more of a reflection of their competitiveness relating to their own favourite pursuit’s lack of attention and funding. Or maybe it’s pure green-eyed jealousy at its worst, brought on by the equivalent of throwing a tantrum and then going away to sulk. I would be very comfortable if the same amount was spent on Olympic athletes for the London games as was for the Beijing games, the various sporting academies, and on grassroots level sports.

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