By Christopher Cudworth
As an active participant in sports all my life, I have never fully fallen into the realm of an armchair participant in sports. I’d much rather play than watch. But there are exceptions.
Most recently it was a vicarious thrill to watch our town’s high school football team from Batavia, Illinois win a state championship. Having been friends with the coach for many years, the association was real. My girlfriend’s son is also rostered on the team and has seen playing time all season. So to sit in the stands where the red jerseys were so striking on the sideline, and to watch a young man named Anthony Scaccia carry that team on his 5’7” back for most of the season, that has been a vicarious thrill in many respects.
Team vs. Individual
Being fans of a team vicariously is one thing. Being fans of individual athletes is another. Certainly in individual sports like running and cycling there is potential for all sorts of vicarious pleasure in seeing your favorite athlete succeed. Millions tune into the Tour de France to watch cyclists shoot for personal glory by winning a stage or leading a climb. The overall winner is always celebrated, but truly they get to the General Category victory through guidance of their teammates.
That guidance is anything but easy, because every member of the team is asked to sacrifice for the GC rider. That means their victory is both personal and vicarious. Those who give themselves up to draft for the lead rider and carry bottles and food must satisfy their hunger for victory through the accomplishments of another rider. You swallow your pride and gain pride through a shared sense of accomplishment. Sure, it’s vicarious in some respects, but in a really integrated way.
Giving it up for the team
Sometimes giving it up for the team is a tough assignment. Chris Froome, winner of the 2013 Tour de France was quite obviously stronger than his GC leader the year before, Bradley Wiggins. Yet Froome gave himself over to the Team Sky effort to win the Tour. For the moment, he lived vicariously. When given his own chance, he came through. That’s perhaps the best of both worlds.
Early in my running career my admiration for runners like Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Craig Virgin, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar was so strong I definitely lived vicariously through their triumphs. When Salazar won his New York City Marathons I stood screaming in front of the television, happy tears streaming down my cheeks.
Then Salazar began to struggle as a runner. His performances dropped and his love for racing seemed to go away. I also lived vicariously through Salazar in that way. At the age of 27 life demanded that I turn attention to more pressing matters of family and children. My racing ceased and my local mantle of lead runner quickly passed to other regional types.
Hip to hip with a hero
I recall standing next to Salazar at the start of an event called Race For the Americas in 1984 during my racing peak. It was the summer leading up the Olympics and Alberto was still strong, but struggling. He jumped up and down in place and his lean figure was inspiring. I’d seen him run to victory in the NCAA Division I cross country nationals in 1978, the same year our team finished second in Division III. To cross paths with the man who’d since risen to the rank of America’s top distance runner was definitely a thrill. But this was not vicarious.
The gun went off and I went out with the lead runners at 4:45 mile pace. Then two miles at 9:30. By three miles I was starting to struggle and came through at 4:50, dropping behind the leaders who had actually begun to surge. I saw Alberto one more time as we rounded a wide bend in the Lincoln Park course. “Go Alberto!” I whispered.
But I don’t think he won that day, and I faded to 25:30 for 5 miles. Not a bad time but far from world class. I had my chance and I wasn’t good enough. But it’s better to have tried and fallen short than to never have tried at all.
We admire those who are better than us for many reasons. We wish we could do what they do. That’s the entire foundation of vicarious sports worship in America and beyond. Billions of people wish they could be the best, and live through the exploits of those who are.
Years after my competitive running career was essentially over and I raced just for fun, I took up the sport of soccer, playing primarily indoors. One day while cutting through the schoolyard on an afternoon jog, I happened upon a group of people playing a pickup game of soccer on a shortened field. I asked to join them and was welcomed. We played for an hour in one of the most difficult workouts I’d had in quite a while.
Both men and women were involved in the game. They were mostly from Russia and worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Il.
What struck me about their game was the pure love of soccer. I asked them if they liked to watch soccer on TV and one of the best players stared at me for a moment. “There is no good soccer on TV here. We’d rather play than watch anyway.”
That was love of sport devoid of vicariousness. What a great example of a healthy attitude toward sport and exercise, especially in America where 80 percent of the population does not get a recommended level of daily exercise.
Get out there and do it
That’s the point of this essay, roundabout. Because love of sport devoid of vicariousness is precisely what those who run and ride engage in when they head out the door.
So you can worship heroes in some ways, but when it comes down to running or riding, it’s all up to you. And that’s a good thing. The less people depend upon others to feel good about themselves the better. That’s a principle liberals and conservatives can support in the political realm. So it’s nice to know that next time you head out the door to run or ride, you’re actually doing something for your own good, and the good of the country.
There are still millions of people who need to stop living so vicariously and start participating in life rather than sitting on the sidelines letting someone else be their glory.