More than any other competition, the Olympics reveal a love of sports that transcends cultures and places. At the same time, they invite some critical questions about the sporting world.

Billions of dollars and years of planning, not to mention massive structural and logistical coordination and renovation, go into making each Olympics possible. Thousands of athletes all over the world dedicate countless hours of their lives—sometimes, just about all of their lives—to training for an event that may last all of ten seconds and which often earns them very little money, even if they do win a small medal. Thousands of people find employment in service of facilitating these international contests that are, after all, just games. All of this commitment and all of these resources can seem completely extravagant; they could be directed instead toward feeding the hungry, or to buttressing efforts to eradicate disease.

Further, even the many nations competing in the Games differ on what sports are or what place they ought to occupy in culture. What one nation considers a sport another may dismiss as trivial; most sports are susceptible to descriptive manipulation so as to be made to appear trivial. Advocacy organizations are pushing for chess and snooker (closely similar to billiards) to be included in future Games. This trend can make it seem as if the Games are merely occasions for fêting, and pouring billions of dollars into, popular pastimes and hobbies.

Can athletes justify dedicating their lives so single-mindedly to pursuits such as running a short distance quickly or racing from one end of the pool to the other? Can people who work with and for athletes justify erecting massive organizational structures that facilitate these endeavors? Can society justify spending billions of dollars promoting athletics? And can just anything be a sport, or is there some unifying meaning common to all of them?

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This essay attempts to answer these questions.

Why We Play

How should we think about the value of playing sports? Well, here’s one way. Anyone wishing to affirm that people pursue actions purposefully and wishing to avoid an infinite regress of moral reasoning will hold that purposeful action must ultimately be motivated by some basic reasons for doing things. These reasons are principles that need no further justification. If you ask yourself why you want to live in harmony with others or to understand the truth about God, it’s difficult to do because these goods seem so clearly self-evident. No argument is needed to explain their intelligible attractiveness.

The attractiveness of playing sports is closely connected with the attractiveness of three such basic reasons: aesthetic experience, skillful performance, and play.

One basic reason that can motivate human action is the desire to enjoy aesthetic experiences, such as fine music and palate-pleasing wine. While some might choose to attend the opera because they want to have a good aesthetic experience, others might choose to become excellent opera singers, to become musicians capable of packing the house. What motivates these people?

One reason that these people take up their craft is that they seek skillful performance. Skillful performance can be described by three criteria. Humans seem to have some natural inclination to craft challenges or tasks that (1) require intentional effort to fulfill, (2) involve increasing degrees of difficulty and therefore require increasing degrees of skill or excellence, and (3) achieve some end. No act can be considered a skillful performance if it is accidental rather than intentional, if it has no degree of difficulty and therefore requires no skill, or if it isn’t aimed at some definite end.

One can seek to become a skillful performer in many ways. One way is by engaging one’s body in intelligently guided performances. People can transform the natural world by using realities, including their own selves, to express meaning, serve purpose, and exercise diverse modes of creativity. We introduce value and meaning into the world not only in the form of artifacts—paintings, musical pieces, architectural design—but also through artistry that involves our own embodied selves. A beautiful figure-skating performance, a perfect game pitched, or a fearless footrace run well can be works of art, creativity, and skillful performance every bit as much as beautiful artifacts can. Indeed, these, too, are artifacts.

Thus, for some folks who are drawn to sports, they’re after skillful performance. But others don’t have any interest in performing skillfully. They just like playing games. Playing games is “autotelic,” as some philosophers of sport put it, or a “basic good,” as I would say. Put more simply, games can be ends in themselves, not simply means to some other end. One need not answer “why are you playing games?” with some further reason. Many athletes enjoy the game for the game’s sake, not just because it makes them healthier, allows them to socialize, and so on.

What Is a Sport?

Now, all organized sports are sports, and all sports are games. But the reverse isn’t true. Not all games are sports: “I Spy” and “Twenty Questions” are games, but they are not sports. Further, not all games are skillful performances. The card game “War” is a game, but it is not a skillful performance—in fact, it doesn’t involve any skill whatsoever. Also, not all skillful performances are games in the standard sense (most people wouldn’t call landscape painting a game), though perhaps one could nearly always find ways to think of one’s skillful performance as a game by adjusting conditions for its achievement or one’s psychological approach to it.

An undertaking must be both a game and a skillful performance to qualify as a sport. But these are individually necessary, not jointly sufficient, criteria. In addition to being both a game and a skillful performance, an undertaking must be “scored” (I borrow this notion from Alexander Pruss) for it to be a sport. There must be some common standard that makes it possible to compare athletes’ success or failure. Someone could make a solitary game of using sticks to hit rocks into holes in the distance, but this would not yet be a sport (golf) if one weren’t keeping track of one’s success by any sort of standard.

Further, scored, organized games need to involve skillful performance based on physical excellence. Chess, for example, is a scored game and a skillful performance. But being physically fit or unfit makes no difference at all to how well one plays chess, as long as one’s body is functioning well enough to allow one to move one’s fingers, see the board, and so on. So chess is not a sport. The same is true of something like poker. By contrast, physical fitness or excellence clearly improves the performance of track and field athletes.

Organized sports are surrounded by institutional structures that gather together participants into a further level of common undertaking, efficiently handle logistical and financial concerns relating to the sport, and so forth. But not all sports are team sports, even when they are organized. There are two kinds of team sports. In one kind (such as gymnastics, fencing, or wrestling), the team doesn’t coordinate to make a single performance. The team’s victory is simply a function of the individuals’ performances. But in a sport such as basketball or soccer, the teammates are performing as a unit in a different way. In these team sports, if someone wins, everybody wins, and if anyone loses, they all lose. In either form, team sports can allow athletes to enjoy a true camaraderie—a special form of community that adds to the attractiveness of playing games.

Sports, then, are scored games involving physically significant skillful performance (and governed by codified, shared, and public rules). Athletes who participate in sports need not have reasons for doing so other than that they want to become skillful performers or that they enjoy the play. Team sports are additionally attractive because they promise distinct forms of community and offer new and distinct instances of skillful performance and play.

Why We Are Fans

I’ve made a case for why people are attracted to participating in sports. A different question is why people love to watch sports and cheer for their favorite athletes.

A friend recently asked me whether I thought it justified for fans to mourn deeply the loss of their favorite team. (He was a Tar Heels basketball fan.) I answered with an analogy. Members of a family rejoice when a family member achieves success. We identify, to an extent, with his passion for the undertaking that gives him joy. We can understand and appreciate the fulfillment that he derives from honing his craft, even if the craft is not something that we ourselves care much about.

Why do we identify this way with family members? For one thing, we can relate to the person, and so his success is emotionally interesting for us. We are united in and by shared cultural interests and experiences. We know something about his upbringing and background, and his success might well be motivated by hardships and struggles that we share. Consequently, his triumph is in some real sense our own, for it represents the triumph of the human spirit and the conquering of adversity.

Fandom is a kind of vicarious participation in the athlete’s undertaking. Fans identify in some meaningful sense with the athletes who represent their various existential dimensions or aspects of their experience: say, as a lifetime Cleveland native (LeBron James), a member of the black swimming community (Simone Manuel), a tall middle-distance runner (Andrew Wheating), a Muslim (Muhammad Ali), a student at Notre Dame (the Fighting Irish), and so on. The more intimate, shared, and direct are the ties between athlete and fan, the more justified the fan is in getting emotionally wrapped up in the athlete’s fortunes. A father can rightly mourn his son’s loss in a close championship basketball game much more than I can mourn the loss of an American man from the Midwest who loses in the finals of some sport that I have never played or been interested in.

Further, what makes watching sports distinctly exciting and enrapturing relative to watching other skillful performances or games or even scored games that are skillful performances (such as chess) is that fans enjoy a distinct and irreducible aesthetic experience in watching Usain Bolt sprint, or Roger Federer play tennis. These athletes engage their own bodies to produce works of art that are beautiful in a way simply unlike what one can see on the fine woodworking channel or a Bob Ross episode.

In sum, when fans direct their commitment and support to athletes, they, too, are participating in various forms of common goods. Their fandom realizes whatever relational goods may be common to them and the athlete: familial ties, personal friendship, or patriotism, to name a few. And something similar is true of those whose professions support athletes in their endeavors, at whatever level. These coaches, administrators, and officials recognize the deep value of athletics. They want to facilitate the enrichment of those participating in sports and to enjoy being part of the athletic community.

An Apologia for the Olympics

The joy Olympic athletes and their supporters experience cannot be easily dismissed as or reduced to misplaced effort and energy or to irresponsible self-indulgence. Sports really mean something to people, and rightly so. In competing as and identifying with athletes, we flourish in distinct ways and realize our God-given potential for creating and appreciating beautiful works of art.

Questions of the proportional attention and effort expended on sports are always helpful and necessary. But we would be wrong to assert in principle that sports are superfluous to fulfilling individual and communal life, just as we would be wrong to assert the same of creative enterprises such as the crafts of painting and music. These arts enrich our lives and give us joy, even if we can’t readily articulate or quantify that joy and fulfillment. (Can you readily articulate what you find enriching about listening to a beautiful symphony?) As the great American distance runner Steve Prefontaine said, “A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”

We don’t need to apologize for watching and loving the Olympics. Perhaps we would do more good should we offer an apologia on their behalf.