Help is Not Coming!
Go Long, Go Fast, Go Hard
My May 2021 essay “On the Hierarchy of Sports” has been the second most viewed essay published by The Redneck Intellectual to date (almost 13,000 views). (Thanks to the BAP Boys, my essay on “Bronze Age Pervert and the Fascist New Frontier” is the Number 1 most viewed essay.) The sports essay generated a lot of discussion, some positive and some negative. I responded to some of the sillier criticisms in my essay on “The Haters are Gonna Hate,” which of course generated even more hate mail. I will save the golfers the humiliation and won’t respond—any more than I have already—to their criticisms and claims for golf.
Just so we’re clear, I think golf is a wonderful recreational activity, especially for senior citizens. I actually live on the seventeenth fairway of a golf course, and so I see dozens of golfers every single day as they buzz around the course in their little electric carts. I can confirm that to play golf at the highest level requires much practice and great skill. I got chills this year watching 51-year-old Phil Mickelson triumphantly walk up the fairway on the eighteenth at this year’s PGA Championship. That was a great moment to see and experience:
I should also add that I love all sports and recreational activities. I love to play or watch badminton, croquet, horse racing, curling, kayaking, rowing, indoor bouldering, skateboarding, roller skating, synchronized swimming, Kabaddi, rodeo, competitive walking, etc., and I’m sure that I’d love to take a lap in a Formula 1 race car.
But that’s not the point.
There is a hierarchy of sports based on certain attributes or virtues, and that hierarchy is determined by certain objective criteria that can be summed up in one word: athleticism.
The original “On The Hierarchy of Sports” essay was dashed off rather quickly one evening, and I knew at the time that it was not a full account of the subject. Undoubtedly, I could have said a lot more and fleshed out the arguments at much greater length. In the few months since the essay was published, some of The Redneck Intellectual’s best readers and commenters have sent me emails offering thoughtful responses, which of course allows me to fill in some gaps in my original argument. Some of the more rational critics challenged the logical consistency of my claims and offered thoughtful counterarguments.
Some wondered why, for instance, I didn’t put rugby in the same category as American football. This is a perfectly reasonable question. Football and rugby are, to be sure, comparable sports. Both involve running, tackling, passing, kicking, punting, and moving a similarly shaped ball up and down a grassy field. The same kind of comparison can be drawn between cricket and baseball. Both involve throwing, pitching, hitting, catching, and running.
In my defense, I did not rank rugby and cricket as highly as football and baseball simply because American football and baseball players are superior athletes to those of rugby and cricket. It’s not likely than many or any world-class rugby players could play NFL football with a year’s full-time training, whereas I strongly suspect that many NFL players (particularly running backs and linebackers) could play rugby at the highest levels with adequate training. The same is true with cricket. On the whole, NFL and MLB players are, on the whole, stronger, faster, more agile, and can jump higher than professional ruby and cricket players.
Others made a strong case that swimming should have been ranked higher. I enjoy watching swimming at the Olympics. Like the running events in track and field, we like to watch races because we value speed and because races are inherently compelling and exciting. I also have great respect for the amount of training put in by swimmers and the physical rigors of that training. And obviously within the world of swimmers there are better and worse, and even more athletic vs. less athletic. In the end, though, I don’t rank swimming or any of the other aquatic sports highly because I don’t rate buoyancy as a major athletic ability.
I’m sorry, but outside of water sports buoyancy is not a metaphysically or existentially important athletic quality. Humans are land and not water beings. We are neither dolphins nor ducks. Most importantly, swimmers suffer from the transferability problem. Buoyancy and the particular athletic qualities of swimmers (which are real) do not really transfer to other sports. It’s hard to image Michael Phelps having the necessary athletic ability to play wide receiver in the NFL or point guard in the NBA, never mind sprinting or long jumping.
I also didn’t give enough credit in the “On the Hierarchy of Sports” essay to endurance as a core quality of athleticism. Endurance is undoubtedly an important athletic quality that is necessary in most top-level sports. It counts in wrestling, boxing, football, basketball, hockey, and many other sports and even in some recreational activities. And of course there are particular sports—the so-called “Going Long” sports, such as ultra-marathons, triathlons, and Iron Man competitions—that push their athletes to the out limits of human endurance.
This omission was brought to my attention by my friend, Jonathan Fortier, who is himself a “Going Long” athlete. Jonathan made a powerful case to me for endurance as an important athletic quality. Rather than sum up his argument, I have his permission to reprint it in full. You should read it. It’s really quite smart and thoughtful:
There is a strong debate, as you no doubt know, in the endurance community about some of these distinctions in the field of athletics. It irks the ultra marathoners, long-distance triathletes, multi-day alpinists, open water swimmers, cyclists and many go-long athletes that sports are so focused on the fast, strong and skillful. The Cross Fit Games crown their champions the “Fittest Man/Woman on Earth!” but no one of their events takes more than 60 minutes to complete! Same with decathletes, not one of the events takes more than 5 minutes to complete! If you were to add up the sum total of the time that a decathlete performs in any given competition, it would amount to about 6 minutes on day one, and about 11 minutes on day two (which includes the 1500-meter race). What kind of athlete is that? They have no adaptation for sustained oxygen uptake, no ability to burn fat, no knowledge about how to hydrate, fuel, monitor and maintain critical homeostatic functioning over time, no grit, no necessity for sustained mental or physical toughness.
Why is the endurance athlete not so celebrated? For one, it makes for a really bad spectator experience. Here come the triathletes, there go the triathletes. We’ll see them again in 5 hours….it wasn’t until television was able to follow the athletes in real time that spectators began to take notice. The Ironman saw a huge spike in interest after Julie Moss crawled across the finish line in Hawaii in 1982. And then the Iron War in 1989, between Mark Allen and Dave Scott televised to the world a dramatic Ironman show-down of two men, racing neck and neck for 8 hours, down to a nail-biting fast finish for a 2:40 marathon. It became clear to many that there was a special sort of person that could hammer out sub 6-minute miles after 5 hours of swimming and biking across Hawaiian lava fields baking in the sun.
The other reason that endurance athletes are not as celebrated is that the skill required for going long is often not as technical and not as immediately grasped intellectually. We are amazed at pole vaulters, jumpers and throwers. How did they do that? That is high! Far! Amazing! But almost everyone can swim, bike, run, or hike up a mountain, and so the sport does not offer an immediately amazing display of skill. The finer skill of (for example) jumping a double set of train tracks at 50 mph on a 17 pound carbon bike, or carving through the surf with an efficient front crawl are not as easily grasped by the casual observer (and here, of course, I should point out that endurance alpinists must obviously have high technical skill sets…but they are skills not on display to the rest of us).
Real endurance athletes start showing respect for any event that takes more than 5 hours (so the average street marathon is out…). When you think of the evolution of our species, endurance ranks up there with speed, accuracy, skill, power and strength. Apparently we would more often run down game over hours more than we would out sprint it. . . . animals are simply much faster and stronger than us. BUT, humans have better endurance than any other animal (People win long distance competitions against horses!). As writers like Christopher McDougall (Born to Run) and others have pointed out, our physiology is uniquely designed to lope for hours, with ideal heat dissipation capabilities (we have no fur, and we run upright so less of us is exposed to the sun). Our breathing physiology is also well-adapted for endurance — our lungs bounce up and down, not forward and backward, so the air is not compressed out of us with every lunge forward. Furthermore, we can run with weapons, we can run and throw rocks, spears, and so on. But in terms of physical capabilities (not mental) the running over time is the thing that sets us apart, so in an Aristotelian sense, we most become our excellent selves when we are most able to run well and run long.
The other thing to note is that most of the speed and power athletes rarely have to face something that endurance athletes face: pain. Sure, when you run the 800 you can hurt, but you hurt for 2 minutes. And yes, completing the Filthy 50 or any of the more brutal Cross Fit workouts is no picnic. The strength (and coordination) required is incredible . . . but Cross Fit workouts are circumscribed by an arena of space and time . . . and that time is rarely more than 2 hours (say, for Clovis, which requires a 10-mile run). Endurance athletes know how to hurt over a very, very, long time. And they hurt alone, out on the trail, the unrelenting road, the desert path, the unforgiving ocean. This is why they have more soul than those shiny decathletes, glam basketballers and crowd-pleasing cross-fitters. Those types have thousands clapping in the stands, snapping photos, posting their scores on public boards or tweeting and Pinteresting pics of their abs to their followers. Endurance athletes do it long, do it alone and do it for the personal challenge, the self-discovery, and the glory. There is no money in endurance sports, and little fame. Endurance athletes dig deep, draw on many thousands and thousands of hours of commitment and resolve, and in the end, their reward is the view from the mountaintop, the power bar at the end of the trail, or a quiet joke with a fellow competitor in the recovery tent.
There are lessons to be learned from all sports but going long provides particularly unique lessons for living successful lives. We learn that the daily slog is often not glamorous, but we also learn that daily commitment, consistency, hard work, determination and grit, can lead us through pain to success. This is a necessary lesson to become successful in our careers, to become great parents, trustworthy friends and upstanding members of our community.
The spirit of the endurance athlete is summed up well in a line used to describe the Barkley Ultramarathon: “Help is not coming”. It is this rugged and determined individualism of the endurance athlete, more than anything else, that sets him or her apart from the celebrated athletes dancing before adoring fans, with stretchers, oxygen, and massage therapists waiting in the wings.
Jonathan has made a powerful case for endurance as a core athletic virtue and “Going Long” sports as not only real sports (as opposed to recreational activities) but as sports deserving of great respect. I agree; I’m persuaded.
But now the question is: where do I rank the “Going Long” sports in the hierarchy of sports?
This is hard, but a decision must be made.
I hereby declare that the “Going Long” sports deserve to be ranked as Tier Three sports along with free-style wrestling, boxing, mixed martial arts, and weightlifting.
Let the hate begin . . . again.