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Bobby, I didn’t think I’d ever need to tell you this, but I would be a bad parent if I didn’t. Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking.Hank Hill

Everyone has an opinion on what sport is superior to another. Sports fandom borders on the mentally unstable in the United States. March madness is about to begin, and will overtake the cubicle world. I am convinced that the research laboratories of Penn State University could announce that they have found one grand unified cure for cancer, and there would still be people chanting “Penn State sucks!” at the news, hearing nothing but the name of the school, and associating it with football.

With a culture so obsessed with sports and athletes, an alien visiting from another world might take an educated guess and assume that this United States must be full of healthy active people. And of course, the alien would be dead wrong.

Athletic involvement suffers from the same fate as many once common activities. Music is practiced by fewer and fewer people each year. Congregational singing is one of the last places where people gather and sing together. In both cases, it illuminates a trend in modern technological Western society: the professionalization of everything. Music has more and more become a spectator activity, and sports are so weighted toward the spectator it isn’t even noticeable any more. Something about mass market forces convinces us that only an elite few can participate. (Though the first round of auditions of American Idol reminds us that maybe not everyone should try to be a solo performer.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one is active anymore except the elites, but the scale is tipped toward a societal encouragement toward fan-hood over participation. It takes pulling back the curtain of the local sports page which focuses 95% of the time on anything involving a ball, to see that there are people everywhere getting out there and being active. I don’t just mean pick-up games at the YMCA. I mean this whole world of runners, cyclists, swimmers, kayakers, and on and on.

We are all responsible for our own choices, but I have to say that I wish I had grown up in an era with more encouragement toward sports for those of us who didn’t have the co-ordination for ball oriented sports. Any activity beats none, but with such a focus on team wins and quickly measurable stats, so many kids just lose interest in physical activity.

Well, I’ve finally gotten to a point in my life where I define sport as “that which gets me moving under my own power.” The endurance sports reward completion as well as speed. I am not likely to ever win a race, even as an age-grouper or clydesdale. But I do not dream of the 1st place medal. I crave the finisher’s medal. There’s a reason why the original “Rocky” is such a great film (questionable sequels aside) – Rocky does not win the fight. But he is standing at the end. He goes the distance.

There can only be one first place in a race. This does not make the rest into losers. Not even close. The only way to lose is not to play. That’s not feel-good wishy-washy new-agey nonsense, nor is it an attempt to undo any celebrating of the elite champions. But even the big repeat winners of the endurance events will give great respect for the back-of-the-packers. If the winner of Ironman in Kona can be at the finish line for the last place finisher, we can learn from that.

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