Like many people, I have spent as much of the past two weeks as I could get away with watching the tennis at Wimbledon. Wimbledon hasn’t been the only area of London hosting a major sporting event, however. The para-athletics world championships are currently taking place at London Stadium. A bit further afield, there is golf, cricket and the Tour de France. Sport of one kind or another, it seems, is everywhere.
Technology has become an important part of sport. The equipment that sportsmen and women use, even the clothing that they wear, has all been designed to help them maximise their performance. And it’s not just the engineering and materials science that goes into the equipment that’s important. Nutritional science, human anatomy and physiology, and sports psychology all contribute to helping athletes prepare for and engage in competition. The dark side of this, of course, is the use of banned substances to enhance performance and give athletes an unfair advantage over others.
Elite sport, or sport at any level, is about more than just the technology that can give an athlete the edge. It’s also about the human spirit. People who are involved with sport tend to be passionate about it. They aren’t just passionate about winning, although that is an important goal in competitive sport, but about honing their own skill and technique, performing at their best and showing their sport to the world in a positive light. Committed athletes strive to give of their best and to face positively the challenges that they meet. Alongside that, they delight in what they do. I would suggest that most, probably all, sportsmen and women are involved in their sport simply because they love it. For many professional athletes, they will have taken up their sport at an early age and discovered that, not only were they good at it, but that it gave them real joy. And that, even more than winning, is why they do it. This is one of the reasons that doping is problematic. Even if the rules were changed to make it permissible, and even if it didn’t carry with it the risk of serious and long-term harm to an athlete’s health, doping negates the role of the person themselves in the sport. If someone has artificially enhanced their performance, then they haven’t really achieved anything; the performance wasn’t really theirs at all. Doping also reveals a confusion of priorities – winning has come to take precedence over competing well, giving of one’s best, and fair play. Love of winning has replaced the love of the sport.
Being able to delight in one’s own gifts and skills and talents, be it in sport or any other area of life, is a real blessing. To be able to incorporate the fruits of someone else’s skills and knowledge to enhance one’s own skill, as in the case of an athlete making use of well-designed equipment, simply adds to that blessing. Those of us who enjoy watching sport as much as we enjoy being involved in it owe a debt of thanks to those who are able to delight in their sporting talents and achievements in such a way as to delight us, as well. During the Wimbledon tournament, I particularly enjoyed watching Henri Kontinen and Heather Watson in the mixed doubles. Not only did they play well, but they were clearly having fun doing so, and because they were having so much fun, they were fun to watch. At its best, sport is a source of joy for all involved, be they athletes or spectators.
Sport shows us just one way in which science and technology can be combined with the best characteristics of the human spirit to produce something that is of delight, not just to those at its heart – the athletes themselves – but to those on the periphery – we who watch. The world of sport isn’t perfect, but it’s still worth cheering for.