Why is it that sport is common among so many cultures and all over the world? As we head towards the Olympics, everyone is going to be talking about how sports bring the world together. They do bring us all together, and they are something that we all share more freely than we perhaps share other things.
We will see our fencers take the center stage during this time. Our sport will be highlighted in ways that it is not usually, giving us a bigger platform than we usually have. People will be connected to and inspired by fencers at the Olympics in a way that they are not at any other time. That’s pretty amazing of course, but why is it?
There are the standard explanations, but from the years that we’ve been watching athletes move through this process and from our time with many individuals from all over the world, we think that there might be something else to it all.
Athletes become heroes. We learn patriotism from them, with our countries uniting around them. Everyone can identify with these athletes, they become part of our shared experience. It’s almost like these athletes are lifting us all up with them, helping us to come along on their journey even though we are all so spread out.
Part of the reason that it’s easy to identify with them is that they put a spotlight on the human experience, which is something that we all share. It’s easy to see their sacrifices, to see their hard work, to see their determination. In our regular, everyday life, there are hundreds of such people all around us doing regular jobs that are no less daunting and no less difficult. From doctors to nurses, teachers to engineers, law enforcement to even businesspeople, and so many more. It’s not so easy to draw inspiration from them. Their grit is invisible, their determination is undetectable.
With these athletes on these big international stages, you can see their grit and determination in their every move and in every breath that they take. You can see it in their failure and in their injury, their loss as much as in their wins. You count these seconds with them. Every turn of the scoreboard is a turn that you feel, every mistake is one that you identify with.
Those of us watching know how hard it is to do this, to start skiing or biking or skating. Whatever level you are at yourself with sport, you’ve definitely tried a few things at least in your school days. You know the effort. That makes it easy to realize what an achievement it is, in part because it feels so far out of your reach and also very much close to you.
All of this gives the athletes a close connection to you. That’s why it feels so important for your country to win, because these heroes are as much you as they are anything. They represent us, but they are us as well!
Learning without talking
People often discuss how sports is something that we can share even when we don’t speak the same language, and that this is a big reason that it is so instructional to participate in spot. We can learn from one another without talking.
What we usually point to learning are things that are related to sport. Athletes are learning form or technique from people who they do not share verbal communication with. This is very much something that we see, because athletes do learn a great deal from simply watching and definitely from competing against athletes who do not speak their language.
We even see language barriers between coaches and students. Many coaches immigrate from one country to another. The same thing goes for athletes, who will often leave their home country to train with coaches who are very good but are from another country. While they may learn enough of a common language to communicate, there is a great deal of learning that goes on non-verbally because the nuance of things gets so seriously lost in translation.
What we don’t so often talk about is all of the non-sport things that we learn from each other across languages and cultures. What is happening on the strip in fencing does not just apply to fencing, and also the learning doesn’t stop at the strip. During these international competitions, there are many points of interaction outside of the simple competition.
Whether it is with families and fans who are watching or coaches and athletes who are getting together around the event, there is a great deal of connection that comes from these events. We even see some connection coming online later, where we at home watch and rewatch the events online! With the advent of translation online, there are even people on social media talking about what’s going on, even when they don’t speak the same language.
If we think about it, sport in a way becomes the vehicle for this learning. You might even say it becomes a language in its own right! That’s been an eye opening realization, to think that fencing itself constitutes a method of communication in and of itself. People who do could otherwise not talk to one another are able to do so through the shared method of our sport. That’s remarkable.
The importance of intangibles
What are they learning though? That’s a totally different question. The answer is that they are learning things like compassion, endurance, commitment, and joy. These are intangible life lessons that we cannot measure with a medal chart, but which very much transform the lives and life trajectories of individuals who learn them.
Sport is so important to us because of all of these things that you can’t put your finger on. When we talk about sports, we sometimes grasp for what exactly it is that makes it so compelling. It’s in some ways kind of like the way that we can’t put a finger on why art brings us together or music brings us together. It’s beyond the norm and beyond the measurable.
These are things that can be missing in our modern society. We live in a world where things are measured in “likes” or “followers”, and many young people are falling into measuring their lives like this. That’s not unreasonable, because each of those notifications on their phone makes you feel like you’ve won, just a little bit. Sport is an antidote to that, not because of points and wins, but because of the intangibles that it gives us.
We are learning to measure our life in ways that can’t be written on a page or recorded for posterity. The real moments, the real time. So much of life today is captured and quantified. That’s good on many levels, but balance has to be made. Sport teaches us to connect with other people on a level that is different than anything else, something that has very much been lost. As we move to a world that is more and more connected, thanks to faster travel, open borders, cultural exchange, and increased interaction, we have the opportunity to break down even more barriers through sport.
That pure and wholesome thing you can’t quite put your finger on that gives you goosebumps when you hear the Olympic theme? That’s the exact same pure and wholesome feeling that billions of people all over the world feel when they hear it too. It doesn’t just happen at the Olympics though. Walk into a fencing club and talk to competitive fencers, and they’ll tell you that we get those same goosebumps all the time – from participating in our sport. You can’t put your finger on it, but that’s what makes sport important.