Greek mythology tells a story about Atalanta, a young woman who is a devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis and doesn't want a husband. Her father wants her to marry, so she makes a deal. She'll run in a race and, should she lose, marry anyone who wins. A young man named Hippomenes -- Hippo means horse -- asks Aphrodite to help him. She gives him three golden apples that he is to toss near Atalanta whenever he gets close to her. The apples slow the young woman. She loses and agrees to marry.
Now, of course, there are many interesting angles to this story, but I'm interested in the fact that the race has meaning and involves a goddess. I think this story could give us some insight into the role of sports in our society and our lives.
Several years ago I wrote a piece on the color green and along the way investigated the color of billiard tables. I discovered an 18th century reference to the green of the tables as the "field" on which our lives play out and the pockets as "hazards" to our success. In other words, billiards is a game-metaphor for life. Well then, why not all sports?
Five years ago I had some blockage in my heart and took up golf in an amateur's way to get me walking more. As I walked the rustic courses near my New Hampshire home, short stories began to come to me. When I had 18, I decided to make a book of them. It's my last publication: The Guru of Golf.
Many human themes came up in them and the language of golf turned out to be rich: hazards, greens (remember the billiard table), clubs, bogey (bogeyman), clubhouse. I tried some punning epigraphs, all rejected. One was from Lewis Carroll: "It's always tea time." Another from the Tao Te Ching: "He who is filled with virtue ... his bones are soft but his grip is firm." In that vein.
Back to Atalanta's race. The story suggests that sport has a deep purpose. It plays out the issues that define a human life and account for crucial turning points. It shows a deep spirit behind the game -- Aphrodite, in this case.
I conclude that sports are serious, in some ways more serious than work and government and finance. They are a fun dream of what life is all about. In them, whether as participants or spectators, we feel the emotions of failure and success, gain and loss, advantage and handicap (there's another golf word).
In sports we play at the most serious issues we face in our ordinary lives. They are drama, agon, contest and aesthetics. The word "athlete" refers to striving for an award, and the word "sport" has to do with getting away from our heavy workload. Sports are a relief and a joy, because in them we can escape from the drudgery of the work ethic and yet still engage in the things that matter: surviving, winning, having skills and occasionally being aided in miracle plays and Hail Mary passes.
Of course, like everything else, sports get corrupted, deep values replaced by financial concerns. Fans, like all devotees, become literal-minded. Unlike the Greeks, we don't connect sports in our minds to the deep matters of life and certainly not to civic religion. But those connections still lie hidden beneath the surface, ready to work more effectively at deepening our lives.
Sports are a lot like religion. They exist in a special time and space (temenos) with rules (rubrics) and rituals. Most of our actions go toward building a secular life and culture, but sports, like the arts, speak to something deep inside us that is important but not so literal. I use the old language of the soul for this dimension.
Sports don't speak to the soul well unless they are done with care, where team and style and skill are esteemed for their own sakes and where money and ego stay in the background. A reconsideration of sports could help us find our way in an increasingly soulless world.