When sitting down to write this blog, there are two things that I did this past weekend that come to mind; First, yesterday I signed up for an IM flag football team. Second, I read a chapter from Professor LaVaque-Manty’s The Playing Fields of Eton, entitled “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities.” Reading this chapter got me thinking about my decision to join an intramural, amateur level sport. Why bother? The chapter discusses how those with disabilities desire “meaningful participation.” They desire respect and the right to compete for something, rather than just competing in something. However, the purpose of competition is to determine the who among us is the brightest and the best; and someone with a disability that confines them to a wheelchair has no expectation of being the fastest runner. In the same way, someone with mediocre catching and passing skills (myself), can have no expectation of winning the Heisman trophy. Is amateurism, then, in a way, a disability?
The chapter of Professor LaVaque-Manty’s book talks about when it comes to disabilities and equal participation in sports, sometimes a difference makes a difference. In order to partake in meaningful participation, one must have some plausible hope of winning. Since someone confined to a wheelchair race cannot win a marathon on foot, in order to have meaningful participation, a special wheelchair division must be created, giving those with this disability an arena in which they can better compete to be the best. However, the New York City Marathon discussed in the chapter is, itself, a special division created so that a specific subset could have a reasonable hope of winning a race. Those who run in the New York City Marathon are not the same people who run long distance events on the U.S. Olympic team. Winning the New York City Marathon, while an accomplishment that I could never dream of, is not held in the same esteem as winning a gold medal in an Olympic event. In this way, amateurs are much like those with disabilities. In order to feel like they have a reasonable chance of success and of proving superior ability, amateurs need the competition to be limited to a smaller subset. Otherwise, why bother? Why would I want to waste my time and expend my energy trying to outrun Usain Bolt? I know that with my inferior abilities, I have no chance of winning. On the other hand, pit me against another scrawny college freshman and I’m much more willing to place a bet on myself. While I may win this race, it in no way makes me any better of a runner. I am still just as slow as usual, but when compared to someone slower, I seem fast. Amateur sports allow us to compare ourselves to other amateurs, giving participants the possibility of winning and feeling superior in their skills. While we can aspire to be the best of the best, most all of us never will be, and will have to be satisfied with knowing that we are slightly better than another amateur.
Even beyond the amateur level and into the professional realm, the question still exists: why bother? Every four years, almost a billion people around the world huddle in front of the television to watch the Olympic Games. But why do these games even exist? Why do we hold a competition for the Men’s 50m Freestyle swim when France’s Florent Manaudou finishes the race in 21:34 and the Ethiopian team can barely muster up a competitor to swim 28:99. Why does the Ethiopian team bother competing in this race when they know they can only be blown away by the competition? Because some day, a few years from now, Florent Manaudou will be old, wrinkled, and spending his pool time doing aerobic exercise. He won’t always be the best. Even if one knows that they are not the best, they also know that he who is won’t always be. And we think that if not this time, maybe the next time we will come out on top. Amateurism, likewise, allows everyone the opportunity to try to be the best, on whatever scope that may be.