Ok, having bored you to death with too much information about the culture, etc. of the USA (#1) all of last week I will finally move towards a more detailed look at sports in the USA in more specifics. Some of it will be more sociological rambling, all of it is background that I feel is relevant to this series. And since it’s already out of control, I might as well go all the way and make it totally out of control. I am an American and we have to do everything to the extreme.
Today I’m going to look at some general ideas about sports (both in universal terms and in America) along with some more great American sports hypocrisy. Then I’ll finally look at the US and its sports dominance (such as it is) to lead into tomorrow and Wednesday’s discussions. Before I can do that, however, I need to make a quick return trip to the Land down Unda’ because this is funny as hell.
Then He Gave Me a Vegemite Sandwich
Back in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 7 of this series, I talked about Australian swimming and, as part of my American genetic imperative to believe in dumb stereotypes about other countries, I wrote this “Having to outrun crocs swimming in open water is great sprint work (ok, that’s me being silly).” Because Americans know that Australia is mostly crocodiles, kangaroos, koalas, the band Men at Work and little else. And the soap operas are confusing because hot Asian chicks have Aussie accents and our brains can’t process this. Well, mine can’t.
In any case, someone sent me the following link, about an Australian swimming coach who puts a crocodile in the pool with his swimmers to make them go faster. Here’s the video. I’m honestly not sure if I should be amused, terrified or just smug in knowing that all of my stereotypes about other countries are true or that my jokes can create reality. I think I’ll be all three but perhaps some creative OL’ing coaches can figure out an application of this to their sport. Maybe involving a gorilla or monster truck; that’d be very American.
Ok, back to sports. And let’s go back to the beginning and look at how sports even started…more or less.
The Beginning of Human Civilization Brought to You by Kelloggs Corn Flakes
As paleo cultists enjoy pointing out, for the grand majority of our existence on this planet, humans existed in small bands of hunter-gatherers who spent their lives hunting and gathering (more accurately: the men hunted and the women gathered) and then moving around when the food supply dried up. It was not an easy life for anyone involved and pretty much the only job descriptions available were ‘obtaining food and shelter to avoid dying’ and ‘making babies’. Nothing else was really relevant and nobody had time to do much else. Maybe kill someone in another tribe.
And about 10,000 years ago, due to a massive number of different circumstances, humans did something nifty: they domesticated grains. And while the paleo-cultists whine and gnash their teeth (some of which are perfect for eating grains, mind you) about this the fact is that this singular event is what led to the development of modern society and everything with it (including the Internet, Facebook and the Ipads that Paleocultists blog endless about their superior lifestyle on). This fact is easily proven by looking at the extant hunter-gatherer tribes. No modern civilization means No Internet, no Facebook, no self-indulgent blogs. And no Crossfit.
It all started with agriculture which, simplifying things massively allowed humans to stop wandering and gathering and to form cities. Because it allowed more people to be fed with less effort; and since it was renewable they didn’t have to wander around anymore, they could just grow more food. Make NO mistake, way more than that happened and not all of it was positive. Read The 10,000 Year Explosion by Gregory Cochran for a detailed look at all of this and why the start of civilization is more likely to have accelerated human evolution than anything else.
But the development of agriculture was the key factor in all of this. Without it, we’d still be living like the !Kung (look it up) and not having so much fun doing Crossfit in our Vibrams while eating grass fed beef from Wholefoods like paleoman obviously did. Obviously.
The development of cities ultimately led to the development of a distinct class system and greater specialization among people; before that everyone had the two above job descriptions which were ‘get food and shelter’ and ‘not die’. Or they were kids in which case their job description was ‘try not to die’.
In the developing society, some people were in charge and owned most of the stuff, most people were workers in the field and had a lot less stuff, some people would become bookkeepers for the rich, others would do other things like educate, or write books and plays. Or whatever. But this can only develop if society develops and you have rich folks who can pay other folks to do things that they want them to do.
Because society also allowed power and resources to start to become unevenly distributed: some had more than others which is why they were in power and the others worked for them. And they had things they needed done that they didn’t want to do themselves so they just paid someone else to do it (just like you pay someone to change your oil). Ultimately this led to the development of a leisure class since the entirety of one’s existence was no longer dedicated to mere survival. Except for the very poor who still worried primarily about survival. Some things never change.
And folks in that leisure class could now worry about other things. Like what was on TV or whatever the equivalent was at the time (you watched puppet shows or something). They had enough money that that had a lot of time to fart around. And since they could only oppress the underclass so many hours per day, they got bored. They needed entertainment of some sort. And puppet shows will only get you so far.
Note: The above is extremely simplified. I’m ok with it, just read the book I referenced for all the details that you could want. This isn’t an article series about human evolution or societal development anymore than it was about economics or religion in past part so don’t get hung up on the lack of details. This is just background
Because thankfully there was another factor that would come into play and that is that humans are just insanely competitive with one another.
During that same 99% of time we were hunter-gatherers, competition was part and parcel of human survival. Because just as winning the capitalist game means making profit, winning the evolutionary game means surviving and passing on your genes. If you pass on your genes, you win; if you don’t, you lose. More or less.
And who got to pass on their genes or not came down to competition of varying sorts. Competition for food, resources, women, men, all of the important stuff that went into who made babies (and kept them alive) and who didn’t. To put it in terms that the Internet generation can understand, basically human evolution was about who could OWN the best. Those survived and people with less ownage did not. And usually it’s the folks with the more competitive drive who OWN. Their genes survive in us today.
Which is a big part of why we still compete at such an absurd level: it’s one of our fundamental genetic drives (there are others of course) left over from our evolutionary past. People will literally compete in just about anything you care to look at although men and women tend to compete in different ways and for different things that I’m not going to talk about today. I mainly want to make that point that competition, a need to know who’s best is part of who we are. We compete for or in just about everything and it’s just a leftover of our evolutionary past where competition meant winning the evolutionary game.
Note: if the above section where I talk about evolution offends you, simply replace it with “God/The Intelligent Creator/The Flying Spaghetti Monster gave me a drive for competition as part of his/its/whatever’s divine plan.” and let’s move right the hell on.
Because all of this background is just to show what happens when you mix the two above factors together: the development of civilization and a bored leisure class with a huge drive for competition.
You Got Your Modern Civilization in my OWNAGE
And when you add those two things together: time to kill and an inherent need for competition, you end up with the development of sports. Basically. Because when you are inherently competitive (and violent) and you have a lot of free time on your hands to try to keep yourself entertained, and you don’t have to compete merely for survival anymore, eventually someone has the bright idea of competing for ‘fun’.
Sports at a fundamental level is just an outlet for a very deeply seated internal drive for humans to compete against one anther. Only made possible in a society where people have time to kill and need entertainment. Because once you get past seeing who can get the most food, kill the most lions or make the most babies (which is how you win the evolutionary competition), you start wondering who can run the fastest, throw the furthest, jump the highest, that sort of thing. Same drive, different outlet. Individual competition is born.
Some people probably thought that it’s more fun to work in teams (a leftover from our tribal nature) and team sports are born. Usually as a metaphor for war which humans really, really like. Soccer supposedly started out of warriors kicking the heads of their enemies around the battlefield as a game after the battle was over; if it went back to that Americans might watch it.
Eventually someone has the idea of watching two guys beat the shit out of each other in a ring while everybody cheers and combat sports are developed. That’s right folks, I’m saying that agriculture is what led to the creation of Mixed Martial Arts and the assholes that buy the clothing. Kind of.
Of course, at some point you take it further, rather than just compete within your own little town or country you rumble up some competition with the hamlet down the road or the country up the river or whatever. It’s all just to prove who’s the best through competition and it usually kills less people than going to war. That depends on the sport.
But, moving backwards in the timeline, you get a situation like the Greeks inventing the original Olympics as a way of seeing who had the best country; presumably they were bored with all the man-boy love so they invented the first major sports competition. Something like that anyhow.
It’s a big part of why you don’t see a lot of undeveloped countries fielding sports teams: they are too busy trying to get food and water and not dying from the elements to worry about racketball. Even if they cared about sports you need resources and support to send your athletes anywhere to compete. That said, even Ethiopia has some great runners, maybe Sally Struthers has been helping. The point I’m trying to make is that interest in sports can only develop when you have enough resources to not have to worry about more important stuff in life and you have this leftover competitive drive with nowhere to go. Go, go Abraham Maslow.
And Americans have a lot of free time, just like in most modernized capitalist countries. So we do a lot of things to keep ourselves entertained. Watch TV, take drugs, argue on the Internet (just another form of competition and trying to OWN) and play and/or watch sports. Well, mostly men play and/or watch a lot of sports and that was a really rough segue. Because before moving on I need to make a brief comment to 51% of the world’s population.
This One’s For the Ladies
Women reading this series, both of them, may be a bit annoyed that I have, at most touched on the issues of women in sport. At most they get a sentence or two, maybe a few paragraphs when I talked about the GDR and their ‘women’ athletes who were really just men with vaginas hormonally. There are a number of reasons for this and originally this was much longer but I took most of it out for the time being. I’ll come back to it though, promise.
In brief, as I’ve mentioned in past parts of this series when you are talking about sports in a capitalist country you are talking about the majority because it’s that majority that spends the money. And the simple fact is that men overwhelmingly make up the majority of both sports competitors and spectators. Certainly women watch but not to nearly the same degree; nor do they compete to the same degree. And while this is changing gradually, the history of sports does not include women’s involvement for the majority of time. Again, I’ll talk about this in some detail next week because it’s very relevant to US Olympic lifting.
Simply, when you are talking about sports in general and especially the history of sport in a country like America, women’s sports plays a much smaller role. So for all practical purposes going forwards I am going to be focusing exclusively on men’s sports and the men who play them with one or two exceptions (one of which is an activity where the women’s version is actually more terrifying than the men’s).
But don’t get too pissed. Women’s issues are so critical to this, especailly as it pertains to Olympic lifting that I’ll be spending an entire day talking about nothing but women and gender issues next week. So I haven’t forgotten you ladies. Trust me I haven’t.
So as I talk about the generalities of US sports, please don’t get offended that I’m focusing predominantly on the men (or simply dismiss me as a member of the oppressive white male hegemony or whatever the current rhetoric is). It’s just the consequences of the facts that not only are men overwhelmingly more involved in sport but also that sports is big money. More specifically, men’s sports and the money involved in them.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money, Mo’ Money
As much as it is about anything in the US, sports is about making money; this is true in other countries as well but it’s that much more true in a capitalist country where the explicit goal is getting as much cash as you can. This is compounded by the extreme class differences in the US. It also leads to another weird psychological dilemma that US sports fans have and athletes are impaired by.
Specifically, we have a small upper class who control most of the money and who tend to play a few select sports that you have to be rich to be involved in; they don’t play sport for money because they already have money. We also have a large middle class that also has its own traditional sports (baseball is one of them) due to local tradition or availability (i.e. it’s easier to put a baseball field in the open suburbs than in the urban ghetto). They often live comfortably enough that money per se isn’t their explicit goal for sport. They won’t mind it but they often lack the extreme drive that you see in the third group for this reason.
And that is the enormously large underclass who often struggle to get by. Who suffer for lack of educational and other opportunities (even in a capitalist society where, in premise anyone can succeed, you still need certain things like investment capital to start a new business) and for whom sport is often a way out of the only other life that they might have. When the options are drug dealer, burger flipper, jail or athlete, that’s pretty major incentive to play sport. They’ve got drive and that’s often why they’ve got game.
And the above contributes massively in this country to the sports which have been traditionally emphasized and pursued as you’ll see shortly. This is further compounded by two final factors that will finally let me turn my attention to US sporting dominance.
For the Love of the Game
I mentioned American hypocrisy last Friday, how Americans apply a completely different (and often impossible) set of standards to athletes than they do to everyone else. And the issue of making money to play sports is one of them. Because athletes are often criticized, and often quite heavily, over the money issue. Either for wanting more money (as happened to baseball in the 90’s when a bunch of millionaires wanted more millions to play a kids game) or for wanting to be paid at all.
Now, nobody in this country outside of a small minority do what they do in this country for free. Even if they don’t get paid money, they usually get something out of their efforts (trust me, I get paid in something far better than cash for the time I spend at the Austin Humane Shelter; I can’t put a price on my own sanity) and they would expect nothing less. Nobody works for free, nobody is expected to work for free.
Yet somehow athletes, individuals who dedicate the majority of their lives to their chosen activity (and do so to entertain a bunch of bored folks with too much time on their hands) are often criticized for not playing for what we consider the ‘right’ reasons. To whit, athletes are expected to play a sport, to wreck their health, waste their lives, spend 20 years in pursuit of this singular goal but to do so simply for the love of the game.
Sure, we accept that they should probably be paid for their actions but when the money gets silly or the athletes start complaining, fans get antsy. The player is accused of having lost their ‘love of the game’ or for being in it ‘only for money’. Mind you that’s the only reason these fans go to their job, for the money. But athletes are held to that different standard; they are expected to do their job because they just want to be there/for fun/to entertain the rest of us.
And this more or less comes out of a historical oddity about international sports and the Olympics which has to do with amateurism in sport. And trust me, this is all relevant or I wouldn’t be wasting time with it.
Amateurism in Sport
The modern Olympic games was started right at the turn of the 20th century and it was started by the upper class (read: rich white guys) who had enough money that they didn’t have to work and too much free time. So they dredged up an old Greek idea and reinvented the Olympic games; I guess we should be happy they didn’t pick man-boy love instead.
And one of the things that they installed as part of the rules was that the only athletes who could play were amateurs. Defined as being an athlete who received no compensation for playing their sport. Because any athlete who got paid for doing their sport was now a professional; sports were their profession. Hence they lost amateur status.
Now, it’s real easy to say “Athletes can’t or shouldn’t get paid for their sport” when you already have a lot of money. You might note that, in general, the only people who say that “money isn’t necessary for happiness” are the ones that aren’t worrying about making rent next month or being able to afford food. It’s real easy to be picky when you’re rich.
Tangential tidbit: Sport was such a light activity for these folks that anybody who ‘trained’ for the competition was considered to be cheating or gaining an unfair advantage. Rich white folks were just expected to show up and compete and then go back to cigars and brandy and oppressing the underclass. This is no joke. Well, not the first half of that sentence. But training was initially seen as ‘cheating’ in sport. Or at least obtaining an unfair advantage. For a shockingly tedious look at this topic, I’d refer you to Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport by John Hoberman which gives the history of sport and how lines regarding cheating and doping have shifted in the last century. It’s boring by my standards and you can guess what that means.
But that was the history of the Olympic games and was latched onto in a big way in the US. To be eligible to compete in the Olympics meant maintaining your amateur status. This was even applied to the collegiate level (college scholarships being another incentive for athletes to pursue certain sports), you could only turn pro if you left college which meant choosing education or being an athlete and making a lot of money. It was one or the other.
It probably wasn’t such a big deal back in the day when pro athletes didn’t get payed stupid amounts of money. In the modern era, a professional athlete gets paid millions of dollars per year to put a ball in a hoop/goal/whatever. It’s that or go to Statistics 10 at 8am. Tough call.
Amateurism in America
And for literally decades this hamstrung athletes, especially American athletes. Because they were forced to make a very, very hard choice for most of the time that sports were played in this country: they could play the sport that they loved…or make a living (or get an education). They couldn’t use the first to accomplish the second, it was a purely either/or situation. And that meant that they couldn’t make a living off of their sport if they wanted to represent their country in the biggest sporting event on Earth, the Olympic games.
And this is not trivial. Once when asked if a given pill would guarantee an Olympic gold medal but kill you in 5 years, something like 50% of athletes said they would take it. Winning an Olympic gold medal is THE pinnacle of sport for an athlete in any sport that doesn’t have a professional level (i.e. most of them). And the amateur rules put them in a horrible position in the US: to have the chance of medalling meant maintaining amateur status, which given the nature of the athletes (most of whom were not rich white men) meant living in poverty.
Steve Prefontaine is a perfect example, as arguably America’s top distance runner of the era, he lived in abject poverty his entire life, scraping to make ends meet and afford the basics (as Sir Chris Hoy and the other UK Track cyclists would do decades later). Pre came from a poor town and a poor family and running was literally and metaphorically a way out. As he gained status, he was offered a tremendous amount of money to run professionally (American runners had gotten fed up with the sham amateur status of the sport and started demanding prize purses right about that time). Just absurd level money for the time to show up and run a race.
But taking it, finally being compensated for his life of dedication to his sport, would have meant not being eligible for the Olympic games, the pinnacle of his sport. He made his choice, he turned the money down and went to the Olympics where he took 4th to the European ‘chickenshits’ who had his talent but were willing to race strategically. He died soon thereafter without a gold medal to his name and he may be one of the few American stars whose legend was sealed despite little to no international success.
Amateurs Should Only Exist in Porn
But that was the situation that American athletes struggled under for most of the 20th century. It was a real problem when the Eastern Europeans came to power because they skirted the silly-ass amateur rules by giving their athletes ‘jobs’ in the military or what not and then letting them train full time. They had a non-sports ‘job’ on paper but their only job was to be an athlete.
So they trained, rested, slept, took drugs and trained some more. A lot of changes that occurred in the 70’s and 80’s with training, the massive training volumes, higher frequencies, training loads that nobody had thought possible came out of this time period. Because it’s a whole lot easier to train 3 times/day for 8 hours when you don’t have or have to have a job and the doping program is state sponsored.
American athletes who weren’t rich had to work to make a living, often long hours in menial jobs. And then try to train on top of that. Which meant that not only could they not put in the volumes and frequencies that their Eastern European brethren put in, they couldn’t get the rest, recovery, etc. needed to allow it. All because they were locked into maintaining amateur status. And this would be the case until the 1990’s where sports finally rid itself of this silly hold out from a time when sport was played only by the rich, with only two sports boxing and wrestling maintaining an amateur requirement. This had some interesting implications for a couple of our sports I’m going to talk about later this week as it turns out.
But for most of the time sports were competed in America, the situation was completely unfair and American sports, run by the same rich white men who had initially set up these rules, didn’t see the problem: you were supposed to pursue and play sport for the love of the game, as an amateur, like their grandparents (other rich white men) had done. But they didn’t need to make money off of their sport nor need incentives beyond ‘killing time when I’m not oppressing the workers’ and ‘fun and glory’. But for most of the athletes that wasn’t the case, and that meant making a real important choice about sports based on the incentives that were there.
Because as I’ve prattled on about in length, one enormous aspect of folks pursuing sports is incentive and that there has to be one for the athlete to want to pursue the sport in the first place much less murder themselves with the training necessary; most won’t hurt for nothing. Not for the 10 years it takes to maybe reach the top and maybe get a payoff for the effort.
In many countries, it’s an issue of national pride or glory (or being told you have to), or an issue of food and travel, or what not; most of those countries skirted the amateur rules creatively anyhow. Sometimes it’s just about money as for Kenyan runners, or professional cycling in the UK (not so much for track cycling). But the incentives have to be there; it’s a rare athlete indeed who will pursue a sport sheerly out of internal drive. They exist but they aren’t the majority (though a sport I’ll talk about later this week is mostly pursued by middle class whites with a high internal drive).
For most athletes in a capitalist society, who typically come from a certain background, these types of incentives don’t exist. Rather they tend to be of the money/fame/power/chicks type or at least involve getting a free education. Because that’s all they usually can get out of sports. And this is compounded by the final factor I want to talk about today.
The Big Three Again
In the US the big three sports of football, baseball and basketball are all professional sports (in order they are run by the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association). And while football is almost exclusively an American sport, both baseball and basketball are both played internationally and both have been part of the Olympic games at one point or another.
But athletes in those three sports are paid staggering amounts of money when/if they can turn pro. That’s a huge incentive to do so. Even a third or fourth string professional athlete gets paid more than they’d make doing anything else in the world given their frequent initial economic background.
Even athletes who can’t make the professional level in that sport are still incentivized; there are minor leagues or they can play in the lesser overseas leagues and still make a better living. All three are huge at the collegiate level. And college is not cheap in this country. An athlete at the top of their high school team can get a partial or full scholarship and get an education, yet another opportunity not available to our massive underclass or even some members of the middle class. The rich don’t have to worry about it, they’ve got money already.
Get to the Point, Lyle
And this situation existed until the 1990’s when most sports got rid of the amateur rules and started letting our best (read: professionals) go. But even that didn’t happen until the 1990’s and for the majority of the time the US competed at the Olympics (or played sports), we were limited to the athletes who maintained their amateur status.
As I mentioned above, both boxing (with a huge professional circuit) and wrestling (which, despite my comments about Pro Wrestling in America, does not have a professional circuit) have maintained amateur status. So boxers, who almost universally come from poor economic backgrounds, are forced to make the same choice: make a living or go to the Olympics.
And this situation in America had at least two (and probably more) major impacts. First and foremost, it impacted on whether or not athletes turned pro or maintained their amateur status in those sports where the choice had to be made. The choice came down to go pro and make $15 million a year or go to the Olympics and maybe win a gold medal. Not so tough a choice.
It also impacted on what sports most people choose to pursue. Should someone with no other opportunities pursue a sport where they can make good money even if they are only ‘decent’ or a sport where realistically they’ll go to the Olympics and come in last? For the folks who make up the majority of our athletes in this country the underclass and lower or middle class, it’s not a hard choice.
You go where the money is. You go where the fame is. You go where the chicks are. You go where you can get a college education. And that means pursuing sports that either have a professional league or are big at the collegiate level and that does not include all or even most sports. You’d simply have to be nuts to make any other choice and that impacts which sports our best athletes generally choose. And by extension the ones that the majority don’t choose.
And with all of that said, I can finally turn towards US sporting dominance tomorrow. Because despite all of the above, despite all of the weird-assed psychology, hypocrisy, economy and everything else endemic to this crazy assed country I call home, the US still manages to dominate in sports, including at the Olympic level. Well, some sports anyhow. All will make sense tomorrow.
And that’s where I’ll cut it today, believe it or not. Tomorrow I’ll look at America’s No-System Sports ‘System’ and look at the issue of US dominance in sports such as it is. Onward.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 5
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 3
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5