Sports and Competition: A Human Obsession
Fifty-Six seconds left. Last chance. Game on the line. 4th and 5. Ben Roethlisberger throws an incomplete pass to Mike Wallace, and simultaneously, millions of Americans either screamed in complete joy, or groaned in complete disappointment. This is how Super Bowl XLV ended, which, by the way, was the most watched program on Television ever. Guess what was number 2? Last year’s Super Bowl. Chances are, most of you were at a Super Bowl Party, watched the game, or in some way heard about the game while it was being played. Maybe you didn’t even hear about the teams, but instead heard about how Christina Aguilera got the lyrics to The National Anthem wrong, or about how The Black Eyed Peas put on a pretty average-at-best Halftime show. The Super Bowl grabbed the attention of Americans everywhere for one day, and then you heard about it for a few days after. Usually it takes world news to do something like that, like, say, the turmoil in Egypt, or in last year’s case, the earthquakes in Haiti.
The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of competition in the most competitively balanced sports league in the world. Humans have an insatiable hunger for competition, and sports are the easiest medium for us to witness this. This has been true throughout human history. The Ancient Greeks were best known for their philosophies, but they also came up with the Olympics, which we celebrate every two years around the world. The Romans had their famed Gladiator matches, where the prize for winning was not only the joy that comes with it, but the other important detail of living. The famed Roman Colosseum held matches that were The Super Bowls of their time. Thousands of Romans, even the Emperor himself, would come and watch these events. Rich Romans looking to become leaders of the (then) Republic, would put on public spectacles, including Gladiator matches to gain popularity. The Aztecs had a primitive ball game that was also a key part of their rituals. Sports and competition have been a constant in human history, and in one author’s story, a constant in a twisted future.
And what is that you might ask? Painball. Painball is the premier sport in the future set by Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Painball captivates all of its viewers in Atwood’s future in the way that Football does today for us. The rules are simple. Convicts are given the choice of participating in this sport, or going to jail. Those who choose Painball are put on a team with other convicts, with the goal being to defeat the opposing team in battles. What’s the incentive for winning? Your life. Painball is played like Paintball is today, with the primary difference being that the bullets fired in Painball competitions are full of corrosive acid, rather than paint. If you get shot in the eyes, you go blind. If you’re hit in the skin, it corrodes away. Painballers put their lives on the line every time they go into their playing fields. And the best look forward to it every time. Much like the great competitors of our day, the best Painballers want to go out every day, as long as they can. They take pride in their teams, either the Red Team, or the Gold Team. Again, the appeal of Painball to both the viewers and the participants is the fact that it’s a competition, and your life is at stake. As Atwood writes, “Some got hooked on the adrenalin and didn’t want to come out when their time was up.” (98). Atwood also makes sure to point out the fact that there are cameras all across the Arena so that people can watch as this spectacle takes place. While at first it was a place to put crazy convicts, people began to notice it, and it became a huge form of entertainment. Those who survived would tell stories about their accomplishments in the arena, all while beaming with pride. Younger viewers, like Amanda, would sit and listen, completely stunned and in awe of the sports-stars they are talking to. In the same way that we give star athletes our undivided attention when they speak (especially publically), so to do the Pleeblanders give all their attention to Painballers. In one short paragraph, Atwood was able to take an aspect of her future society, and create something we can all connect to and understand.
Even if you aren’t much of a sports person, you can likely still identify with that key aspect of Painball, competition. Many TV shows that get huge amounts of ratings, but aren’t sports related in the slightest rely on our love of competition. Take American Idol for example. People tune in for the auditions, where thousands of people try to impress the judges to get on the show. Then, a couple months later, when there’s not nearly as many people left standing, people tune in on the first of two consecutive days to watch the last few remaining competitors sing. Then the next day, they sit through 59 minutes of pointless talking by the host, and a ton of commercials, just to find out who survived. Then the next week, people sit through it all again. Dancing With The Stars is another great example of this. We love our competitions, we love watching the best of the best compete, we love analyzing what they did right and what they did wrong. We ourselves love competing. There’s usually one or two star Football players on Dancing With the Stars, who are getting their competitive fix either during the Off-Season, or after they’ve retired. There’s TV shows like America’s Got Talent, there’s competitive cooking shows, and I’ve flipped through the channels to see ESPN televising a Spelling Bee. The list goes on and on. Humans have always loved to watch the best, and to prove they’re the best. With television, we’ve obtained the ability to watch people be the best not just at sports, but at any other form of competition imaginable.
So is there anything we can take as a warning of sorts from Painball? Should we be wary of just how far humans are willing to go to watch their beloved athletes on the biggest stage possible? Perhaps, but like Atwood finds it necessary to say for almost every other question regarding her book, it’s just a novel. Atwood never implies that Painball is the absolute future for anyone who wants to watch sports and competition, just that it’s a possibility depending on the society surrounding it. The society of The Year of the Flood is one that is completely desensitized to pay attention to whatever is in front of you, and is most interesting. Besides, our sports today will never reach that level of violence and brutality and still be popular. The closest comparison is Mixed Martial Arts and UFC, where fighters slug and wrestle each other until one gives up. But there are still referees there, and if the fights ever become too violent, they’re immediately stopped. If sports were only about the violence, then Baseball and Soccer wouldn’t be as popular as they are in the U.S. and around the world today. The main appeal of these sports will always be about the competition, and who can do best within the pre-determined rules. It’s true for sports, for American Idol, or anything else. Painball is merely there to show one of the constants of human nature and humans throughout their history: the love of competition.