Why Bother? Is Amateurism a Disability?

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?

Usain_Bolt_Olympics_cropped

Usain Bolt aka “The World’s Fastest Man” (photo courtesy of wikipedia)

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.

French native Florent Manaudou, 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the Men's 50m Freestyle swimming event (photo courtesy of flickr.com)

French native Florent Manaudou, 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the Men’s 50m Freestyle swimming event
(photo courtesy of flickr.com)

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.

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3 comments

  1. sgoldberg18 · October 21, 2014

    You raise interesting points about the role of an amateur in sports. Amateurism, is not, however, a disability. Everyone starts as an amateur; Michael Phelps started out as a kid learning freestyle, and Michelle Kwan started out as a child wiggling around on skates, falling every five minutes. Those with disabilities, though, do not have the luxury of suddenly becoming someone without a disability. No matter how much effort they put into a sport, they will always be “held back” (as one could argue a wheelchair or other disability is not something that can hold you back), by their disability. Amateurs will not be held back by amateurism if they figure out the best way to work and train their abilities in a sport. Your question, “Why bother?” in relation to all sports and all participants is very interesting. I think the best way to answer that question is the quote, “First you become a part of it, then it becomes a part of you.” Though you may first start a sport to make friends, stay in shape, or because your parents tell you to, it eventually becomes a defining factor of your being. You are not the same person if you are not an athlete. You love your sport and competing in it so much that you NEED to continue it, or you lose part of your identity.

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  2. mcpatton2014 · October 21, 2014

    You raise an interesting argument that people compete because they understand that the competitor who is currently the best some day will no longer be the best and they may have a chance to move into that vacancy. It semi-relates to an interesting idea in regards to amateurism and professionalism. There are many amateur athletes who excel at individual sports, such as tennis or swimming, at a young age, and weigh the idea of forgoing their amateur eligibility at an early age in order to capitalize on their athletic talent while they still have it. Elite athletes in these sports understand that their talent will start to diminish as they grow older, and so they have to decide whether skipping out on competing at the collegiate level is worth the potential money and titles that they could earn on at the professional level. This idea relates to the point you raised because these athletes are also aware that their competitors some day will no longer be the best, and amateurs who forgo their eligibility early understand their chance to replace those who were formerly the best.

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  3. abklee · October 21, 2014

    Your post was very interesting and posed questions I had not previously thought about. I agree with the previous comments that amateurism is not a disability, but a building block towards professionalism and excellence. Another possible answer to your “why bother” question, and one that often seems to get ignored in this class as a whole, is that people compete at the most elite levels for the love of the sport. If you are so passionate about something that you want to devote your entire life to it, why not strive to compete against the best of the best, even if you know you cannot beat them. They say that the best way to improve is to practice among people who are better than you, and this would obviously be the best route to do so. So that one day, you are the best.

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