United World Project


Sports and happiness

17 March 2020   |   Internazionale, ,
By Paolo Crepaz

Every more or less competitive motor activity is a metaphor for life, a discovery of oneself, one’s limits and talents.

Observing the miseries and contradictions of high performance sports (victory at all costs, the culture of no limits, doping, cheating, exasperated and precocious competitive approach, fanaticism, violence, and so on), one has to doubt about their educational and social value. Sports have become, according to some, opium of the people, bread and circus, or circus without bread.

The philosopher Robert Redeker states: “Sports are completely alien to the values they flaunt, they are their most absolute negation. Illusion of civilization, sports are illusion of humanity.” Nonetheless, “you can become addicted to good things… And one of these is certainly sports,” says racing cars pilot Alessandro Zanardi. To challenge oneself, others, and the environment. To discover and improve one’s own qualities. To measure oneself against one’s own limits in order to overcome or accept them. To seek an absolute performance or a personal record. To have fun – to the extent of being possessed by your sporting activity – in a free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, regulated, and fictitious experience. To savour the dynamics of the team… All this and much more is the sense of games and sports. Moreover, all this has an unexpected and surprising side effect: happiness.

“Do you want young people to come?” asked Don Bosco to his educators. “Throw a ball in the air and before it touches the ground you’ll see how many will have come closer!”. The most natural and instinctive activity – running, jumping, throwing, that is, playful motor and sporting activity, not only makes us stronger and healthier, it makes us happy. It lights up something mysterious in us and gratifies our deepest nature. It gives us a sense of freedom. Freedom to express the madness that turns an adult into a child for a moment. And the child, for a moment, becomes similar to the champion in the poster on her or his wall. The path of those who want to improve their self-knowledge, their talent, and their limits, but also the one of those who want to deal with nature and others has a special flavor. This applies both to those who go so far as to earn money for their fun doing sports, and to those who take their first steps in the discipline they just began to love.

The adventure begins with cultivating your desire. Then, it is fatigue, sweat, hours and hours of training, obsessive improvement of technical movements, failures, injuries, unforeseen events, and maniacal care of your lifestyle – starting from nutrition and sleep. Eduardo Galeano, a great writer from Uruguay, described it very well: “Utopia is down there, on the horizon. If I come two steps closer, it goes two steps away. I walk ten steps and the horizon moves ten steps further. No matter how far you walk, you will never reach it. What is the point of utopia? That’s what it is for: walking.” In games, just as in motor and sporting activities, we pursue a utopia that has this very purpose: to make us walk, to make us go forward, to grasp the beauty and usefulness of the useless, and the inestimable value of immaterial and relational goods that we insatiably need for once we have satisfied material needs.

For the ancient Greeks, happiness was always a consequence of virtuous practice, wisdom, and love for truth. It coincides with the capacity that humans have to lead to fulfillment and fullness of their existence. It is not something that “happens,” occasional and fleeting, but the fruit of art, skill, and expertise in facing and circumventing difficulties. “If you want to be happy” – writes the Italian philosopher Salvatore Natoli – “you must in some way become virtuous of existence. This is the way a great pianist, an acrobat, and in general all those who, after a long exercise, know how to make the difficult easy – or at least manage to make it appear so. Those who know how to transform hardship into a drive, how to transform fatigue into beauty, into a work of art.”

Sports, as we know, can be defined as a school of life, they are a game that educates to life: “Life is much more than a game and playing is a nice, fun, and exciting way to learn to live it seriously,” wrote rugby players Mirco and Mauro Bergamasco. Sports done well, managed well, are a school of life because you have the chance to be in the game what you want to be out of the game. It is not about choosing between humility and courage, because these virtues represent the two sides of the same coin: courageously challenging our weaknesses, while humbly accepting our frailties. In fact, if it is true that by putting ourselves to the test we may find out that we are better than we imagined, it is equally true that we will never be exactly as we would like to be.  This making peace with ourselves is perhaps the most difficult, but most exciting challenge.

Faced with obvious exasperations, are we sure that the competitive approach – that today’s sports seems to exalt beyond measure – is indeed productive in educational and social terms? There are two interpretations of the concept of competition: one based only on the logic of victory at all costs, where whoever comes second is the first of the losers, the other that considers competition starting from the concept of sharing and mutual encounter. Cum-petere is precisely the desire of anyone who, approaching a sports field, asks, “May I play with you?” The value of competition develops from the process, from the desire to share. Competition is neither good nor bad in itself: what counts is the intentionality of the experience, that is, the meaning that you give to the competition. How to manage it in order to make it an educational experience?

The presupposition of competition is the mutual willingness to participate (De Coubertin’s quote: “the important thing is to participate” has its truest meaning here): the value of cum-petere lies in the willingness to share, to get involved, and to be ready to win or lose. Pope Francis recalled this in his meeting with young soccer players, addressing adults and in particular the coaches: “Someone said that he was tiptoeing on the field so as not to trample on the sacred dreams of young soccer players. I ask you not to turn your children’s dreams into easy illusions destined to soon clash with the limits of reality; not to oppress their lives with forms of blackmail that block their freedom and imagination; not to teach shortcuts that only lead to getting lost in the maze of life. May instead you always be accomplices of the smile of your athletes!”

Source: Città Nuova no. 12/2019