Sunday, February 13, 2011

Must There Be only One? The Purpose of Championships I

The B.C.S. spectacles always generate a cacophony of voices demanding a college football playoff, a system that determines the one true best final ultimate champion (for that year at least). The Super Bowl stands as the mirror image of the BCS response to the lust for one final champion. I want to reflect a little on this thirst to have only one champion. What is the real purpose of championships?

In the underrated movie The Highlander, doomed immortals play out a grotesque game over the centuries where they must battle and kill each other until the end. For There Can Be Only One. In the movie the prize for the immortal left standing is to regain their mortality and live and love as a mortal human.

I always wonder about the drive in sports to demand a championship so that there can only be one. The demand for a championship requires that only one person  or team beats all the rest. This lust for a championship demands one who demonstrates dominance or superiority to all others in competition or combat.

The linguistic origins of champion hint at this dynamic. The concept has the same origins as camp and campus or field, specifically a field of combat. The Romans specialized the word to describe gladiators and the medieval French and English deployed champion to describe the victor on fields of combat especially the tests of military skill at tournaments. This approach  interprets athletics as an extension of  military combat where the stakes are death, and one person must kill or be killed, to vanquish is to live. The moral contest to be champion remains, like war,  zero sum,  and athletics prepares for and mimics this world of war.

American sport metaphors reek of sport's military origins. It banters around the word "warrior" to describe sports heroes; of course, athletes are not real warriors. The real warriors are in Iraq and Afghanistan. The metaphor of sport as combat and war, however,  drives the demand for one champion who vanquishes the rest and gains the victory or prize. "Victory" itself grows from the Latin root "to conquer,"  and this derives from deep Indo-European roots - to fight or subdue or to succeed in combat. The whole cluster of conflict and battle language around sport drives the ideal of champions.

And yet I wonder.        

The moral worth of sport and athletic endeavor can grow from another ethical root. In most cultures sport obviously grew from the cultivation of skills needed to survive and these involved hunting and fighting and cooperation, but the Greeks and other cultures also saw sport as a way to expand and perfect their humanity. They experience sport as practice in cooperation and growth where individuals pushed each other to grow through competition. Part II will examine how this opens a way of thinking about sport without an obsessive demand that there be only one champion.

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