Lover AND Competitor

Leah Libresco Sargeant:

There’s a kind of treadmill, where the athletes who are gifted enough to excel are invited to push further and further, until their bodies are destroyed and they’ve hypertrained and hypertrained themselves until the sport is a long way from the play it started as.

I’d be curious to hear how you find ways to pursue strength and exult in the gift of a body while remaining an amateur in the most basic sense: a lover of your discipline, not a competitor.

An enthusiastic endorsement of this post in behalf of true amateurism! But I wonder if a finer distinction is in order. LLS’s seems to imply that any and all forms of competition are incompatible with remaining an amateur in the most basic sense. That as soon as competition begins, real amateurism, real love of sport, disappears. Or is she thinking rather of a difference in emphasis or degree? Competition does not necessarily destroy love, but as soon as the desire to excel others outweighs one’s love of the sport itself, then true amateurism ceases. One becomes a mere competitor instead.

If yes, then how about this distinction: play vs. competitive skill? Or to use ancient Greek terms: παιδιά (paidia) vs. ἀγωνία (agōnia). Paidia is formed from the Greek word pais, paidos, which means “child.” Agōnia derives from ἄγων (agōn), which means “contest” or “struggle for victory.” Paidia is a kind of play; agōnia—which gives us the word “agony” by the way—is undertaken purely for the purpose of demonstrating one’s own superiority.

This distinction seems to leave room for something such as competitive play: Two teams, or individual competitors, square off and only one of them wins. But the point of the competition is to have fun and improve one’s skill out of love for the sport itself. Such play involves competition, yes, but it’s still play (paidia): a pursuit undertaken fundamentally and finally out of love.

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