top of page
  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

Athletic Aesthetics

Soccer is known as “The beautiful game”.

But other sports are just as beautiful. The rules or the shape of the ball is not what interests us, it is, rather, the people who play it. We love to watch human energy spin out into incredible plays, blocked shots and breathtaking grabs. We love to see the ball (shuttlecock, volleyball,etc.) gracefully arc through the air and see the humans launch and catch them (except for javelins).

The lowest common denominators for most sports are 1. humans and 2. ’objects flying through space’. Whether soccer, baseball, football, hockey, basketball, curling, javelin throw, discus, shotput, field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, riflery, archery, badminton, table tennis, skeet shooting, the projection of an object through space universally catches the attention of humans.

It has become such a bedrock of many cultures that one has to wonder - “what it is about objects flying through space that so mesmerizes us (us in general, men in particular).”

It could be that humans’ unique ability to do the flinging has made it an evolutionary advantage and we still pay homage to those skills that brought us our success.

An article by Patterson Clark, published in June of 2013, posited that our perch atop the food chain and evolutionary ladder is the result of our brains - but our arms, and particularly the configuration of our shoulders, made the brain development possible. The improved hunting prospects enabled by our throwing improved the diet which supported a larger brain.

Clark found that chimpanzees, pound for pound, are vastly stronger than humans, but their throwing ability is minimal, maybe a 30 mph fastball. Humans, the weaker of the two, can fling an object long and hard compared to our nearest relative and with impressive accuracy. It’s not too hard to recognize the evolutionary advantage that might confer. Defending a kill from scavengers and prowess in hunting ability use this evolutionary advantage to successfully move us into the Anthropocene Era. This throwing ability is, in sum, “objects flying through space.”

It’s also not too difficult to see the link between hunting and sports. Just as play in young animals is practice for the hunt later in life, so, too, I imagine, that the first games played by humans was a practice for the hunt or warfare.

Risk-taking was also an evolutionary development that made it’s was into sports with the more daring feats ending up on the highlight reels. identified this link between risky behavior/evolutionary advancement and the role of sports.

Still, there’s no question that among contemporary adolescents, the costs of risky endeavors may be more evident than the benefits. Society has an interest and a moral obligation to reduce the incidence of behavior that either has no redeeming value for the individual or that exerts a negative impact on others (wealthy drug dealers and their clients). The evolutionary model can make a contribution to this effort. We might first to consider organized sports. Most sports place the player in some degree of risk, if only of physical injury, allow the player to demonstrate his derring-do before an audience, including young women and strive for higher standing among peers/teammates. Most early sports grew out of violent martial conflicts. Xhosa (South Africa) informants suggested that, while cudgel games are now “just a sport,” earlier they were considered central to a warrior’s training—true for the Zulu as well. In West Africa, wrestling seems to have transitioned smoothly from its role in warrior training to become a popular sport . In East Asia the “martial arts” have also evolved from warrior training into competitive sports. The great advantage of modern competitive sports over their historical antecedents, is that steps can be taken to reduce the downside of risk-taking. rules, referees, safety equipment and rapid medical attention all serve this end.

The advantages that a sportsman can get from sports is directly related to the advantages and risks that appear in hunting.

The beauty of sports, however, is reserved for humans. There is a meaningful link that is shared between those who play sports and those who watch them. Were humans taken out of the playing of sports, it would not have any meaning to the viewer.

Engineers have created a robot that can shoot baskets. They hit 100% of the time. Who would pay money to see them? What if defensive robots were also developed to try to stop the offensive robots? Would that make attendance at the events any higher? What if a robot were developed that could leap like Nijinsky, but higher and farther? Who would line up for the robotic version of the Nutcracker?

Years ago, I saw a show by Mannheim Steamroller, an instrumental group that seemed to have one foot planted in classical music and the other in SteamPunk (before SteamPunk was popular) During the concert the musicians were playing a frenetic piece when, in a instant, they all pulled their hands up from their instruments and the music kept on going - it was a recording. The crowd cheered and laughed at their clever misdirection (this was before Milli-Vanilli). I was pissed. Had I paid to see an instumental lip-sync? Was I just listening to a recording with a bunch of actors aping on the stage? To me, it was a breach of trust, as it is now in musical spheres. What I wanted to see was humans playing music, not computers, ‘actors’ and recordings creating an exact, but virtual spectacle. I can listen to recordings at home.

Sports seems to be a blissful echo of hunting and warmaking prowess from eons ago. The result for the hunter or warrior is passed to society in terms of a safer, better fed community. The hunter/warrior also benefit with laurels from the tribe and wider mating possibilities. These events provide meaning to the community writ large and between individuals.

27 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page