The Nature of Competition: Part I

Of all the curious behaviors we exhibit, sport has to be the greatest non-essential expenditure of resources. After all, what purpose does it serve? It doesn’t feed the hungry, clothe the naked or better mankind. In fact, it only increases our consumption of the Earth’s limited resources and distracts us from the things in life that actually matter. It could be argued that sport helps keep us active, healthy and happy, but the existence of the multi-billion-dollar professional sports industry is doing little to curb growing rates of obesity and depression.

So why is sport so popular? What is it about competition that stirs us to push our bodies to the limit, paint our faces and riot in the street? The answer could lie in our ancestors’ struggle for survival.

In the past, humans, like other creatures, were constantly subjected to the cruelties of nature, always searching for food while evading predators and peril. However, for most who dwell in the first world, survival is assumed. We do not worry about being hunted by beasts or succumbing to starvation. Although there is still a need to provide for ourselves, we no longer do it through strength or cunning. Because of this, the focus of our existence has changed substantially. Success, which has replaced survival as the primary motivation for competing, doesn’t ask us to be strong or fast, vicious or violent (at least in the physical sense). This has created a vacuum – an appetite for the primal, physical conflict we once endured. Sport fills this void by creating a dramatization of survival.

Before addressing the many types of sport, it’s important to distinguish between single participant and team sports. Although both are common throughout history, today’s team sports tend to have more intense fans. This could be caused by the relative lack of war in the developed world. Our ancestors lived under the constant threat of invasion by enemy tribes or nations, something completely foreign to many of us. Without an avenue to focus our instinct to defend the collective, it’s possible that many throw their furor behind a local or national sports team in an attempt to satisfy nationalist inclinations.

Now there are many different kinds of sport, some representing survival more closely than others. Bobsled racing, for example, bears no resemblance to anything seen in nature, while wrestling, which has existed for millennia, is a fairly raw and accurate representation of unarmed human combat. Although more classic sports, such as wrestling, have been present in some form in nearly every civilization throughout history, some of them are losing favor because of their violent nature. Violence is no longer seen as an acceptable avenue to settle a dispute, despite the fact that most every other creature does this. But as we are attempting to suppress our violent nature, the rising popularity of mixed martial arts may suggest that we still harbor an appetite for a more elementary form of competition. After all, of what use is the ability to run while bouncing a ball or hit a puck into a net while skating on frozen water? No one ever lived or died based on these skills; they are completely arbitrary.

Until now we have been discussing the origin of competition and its various forms, but it’s at this point that we make a significant distinction between two different categories of competition: direct and indirect. Direct competition pits two or more participants, or teams, against each other in a head-to-head battle in which each competitor is attempting to achieve victory over their opponent(s). Examples of direct competition would include hockey, tennis and Starcraft. Indirect competition, on the other hand, doesn’t ask competitors to interfere with each other, but merely to strive for the highest level of achievement, often while competing in close proximity, either at the same or a similar time. Examples of indirect competition include golf, memory sport and track and field events. A simple way to distinguish direct from indirect competition is that indirect sports can be played by a single participant, while direct sports require at least two participants.

There are also some sports which lie somewhere between the two, such as baseball, which does require that players compete against each other, but only allows them to interact through a complicated set of rules that makes the game exceedingly slow and uninteresting. The only directly competitive interaction between opposing players comes when the batter swings at a ball thrown by the pitcher.

It’s interesting how indirect competition between athletes can be simultaneously intense, while totally fabricated. Most people are not aware that when they are watching the 100-meter dash, they aren’t actually watching athletes compete against one another. What they are watching is athletes performing in the same place and at the same time, which creates the illusion of competition. Of course, it seems as though they are trying to outrun each other, but they are actually just running as fast as they can. The fact that the runners are side-by-side has nothing to do with their performance, other than the added pressure. It’s very likely that the winner of the race isn’t the fastest runner, but merely the person who is the fastest on that particular day, or perhaps it’s simply the person who performs best under pressure.

There are also some forms of indirect competition, such as high jump and weightlifting, that are not decided by the best single performance, but through a process of elimination, similar to the game of limbo. In such sports, athletes are required to achieve a minimum level of performance in order to remain in the competition. After each round, those who failed to do so are removed, and the required level is increased. A winner is eventually crowned when only one athlete is able to successfully complete the task.

Although this system of indirect competition generates excitement and increases the duration of the competition, it is completely unnecessary in order to determine a winner. We could just use an apparatus that measures jump height or lifting force, but that would merely expose how uninteresting these sports actually are. Also, just imagine how foolish it would be to use elimination system for other events, such as the 100-meter dash. Asking competitors to repeatedly run the same distance and faster each time would be absurd.

Of all of the strange forms of competition, bracket drag racing has to be the most contrived and fictitious. The idea of having two vehicles race to a finish line, although indirect, seems pretty valid, but that’s not what bracket racing is about. In fact, in no way does the sport actually determine who is the fastest. Here’s why:

Before the race, the drivers submit their dial-in, which is their projected time to cross the finish line, a time which the driver may not beat during the actual competition. The car with the faster dial-in is then given a handicap equal to the difference between the two times, which eliminates the advantage. Once the race is over, the driver with the faster time is declared the winner. But how, exactly, does the race determine who is faster? The slower car is given a head start, so it doesn’t matter at all who is faster, only who performed closest to their dial-in. A race between a child on a tricycle and a tough guy in a muscle car would be exactly as legitimate.

In order to be successful, a sport must meet many requirements. Among those, it must be designed around human ability. It can’t be too difficult, lest the casual participant find it unenjoyable. Neither can it be too easy, for it must have a skill cap that allows professionals to continually improve. It also can’t take too long a time to play and risk boring audiences, or too short a time, requiring long pauses and artificial structures to increase its duration. A good sport is also simple, which is another reason why classic sports have endured for so long. Demanding that athletes conform to rules that are exceedingly silly or irrelevant may fail to capture the essence of competition, which is survival.

In part II we will explore the role of competition outside of sport, and how it’s actually pure evil.