Friday, October 3, 2008

Singular Joy for the Lonely Athlete

Tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, October 4th), a section of York Road in Towson, Maryland will be blocked off for a parade featuring local Olympic participants, primarily Michael Phelps. Phelps grew up in the neighborhood where I currently reside, so I guess it makes sense that the locals would want to have a parade in his honor running alongside the streets and schools where he spent his youth. I was momentarily tempted to wander down to the end of my street and take a gander at the proceedings, but I quickly lost interest.

I'm not sure what it is, but I can't get all that worked up about athletes who participate in individual sports. I enjoy watching them compete during the Olympics simply to see the competition, but I have no burning interest in the individuals themselves, even one who once lived so near to where I live now. I've never fallen prey to the cult of personality that surrounds a Bruce Jenner or a Mary Lou Retton or a Michael Phelps. I've flogged my brain about this and the only answer I can come up with is that their achievement has no connection with me whatsoever. These athletes found a sport that they excelled in, pursued that sport passionately, and were able to achieve recognition in that sport. Bully for them! But what does that have to do with me? Why should I be excited because they've achieved fame and fortune? It's not changing my life one wit. I just don't feel the buzz.

On the other hand, I do somehow get wildly excited about football, for example. I live and die with the ups and downs of the Ravens, nervously squirming in my seat during the entire game, cussing them out when they make a bad play, and screaming with joy when they score a touchdown (a truly remarkable event for the Ravens, believe you me!). Two years ago, when we were on a roll that culminated in a 13-3 season, I was chugging that purple Kool-Aid like water and walking on air (that is, until the playoffs). So why can I be so caught up in football and not so much with individual sports? I guess there truly is no "I" in "team."

For some reason, because a group of individuals come together to struggle for a common victory, I feel as those I am also a part of that team. I am the proverbial "12th man." Sure, I'm not out on that field or providing any input into the outcome of the game, but I'm still there. I follow every injury of every player, I choke up at every human interest story the local media can drag out (forget the national media saying anything about the Ravens), and I praise or curse the coaching staff depending on their actions. In my mind, I am a Raven, and I'm sure all fans of all team sports have that same feeling.

With individual sports, it's just that one person out there, doing his or her best with no outside help. I know, I did no more to help the Ravens have a 13-3 season in 2006 than I did to help Michael Phelps win 8 gold medals this summer, but the fact that there are 11 guys on the field, and 41 others on the sidelines, gives me the sense that I am a team mate as well. Watching the lonely runner or swimmer or skier reinforces the sense that the athlete's thrill of victory or agony of defeat is truly a singular experience. Therefore, any parade for such athletes is not a shared experience of joy, but simply a large number of people supplying additional joy for one person. I'm afraid I have so little joy for myself, I can't afford to give it away to those who already have more than enough.

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