Rooted in survival

Aug 1, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

Our competitive games often sprang from real human needs

We are being treated this week to two spectacles of human competition, one local and global.

At the local level, it's the Fremont County Fair's rodeo. At the global level, it's the 2012 Olympic games.

Both pro rodeo and the Olympics are rooted in physical contests that mirror actions that people take -- or took -- as part of their survival or their occupations outside the sports arena. On the ranch, it can be necessary to rope a calf, to control a steer, to try to ride a nervous horse, to break a horse to a saddle, or simply to ride a horse quickly from one place to another.

Rodeos sprang from informal competitions among cowboys and ranch hands. They were doing it anyway, and they found that spectators enjoyed the show.

Many of the basic contests in the Olympics draw from fundamental humanity, sometimes dating to ancient times. Even before civilization, faster runners had advantage over slower ones. Those who could swim could go places and find food that others couldn't.

If you had better balance than someone else, it could pay off in different days. If you could throw a spear, or jump across a chasm or lift a heavy object, it could make meeting basic needs easier.

Ditto if you weren't afraid to jump from a high place, or wrestle another person, or run a long way to find food or water, or paddle a boat through a treacherous stretch of river.

If you could control your horse better than the next cowboy under different circumstances on the job, chances are you would make more money than the next guy, too.

Interactions with other people can bring out the competitive side in us, even if it has nothing to do with catching dinner or outrunning an animal. Sometimes we just like to test ourselves against another. Sometimes we just like to show off. Sometimes we just like to have fun.

How else to explain the willingness to try to ride a huge, snorting bull, or invent games with goals and sticks and bouncing balls, or throwing ourselves into the air and doing tricks?

How else to explain why others would want to watch us do these things? They spring from life's duties, but they become life's amusements.

Today, then, we thread our horses through a maze of poles. We slide stones toward targets on ice. We swim in synchronicity, and ride bicycles in ways and places that aren't just unnecessary, but ill-advised.

No, there really is no earthly reason to climb aboard a bull or do a dance with a ribbon on a bouncy floor mat, or do handstands on a pommel horse. The reason must be something other than earthly, then, the thing that gives us our distance from the other creatures in our world.

Long ago, we competed for food, for mates, for shelter and survival. Not long afterward, we probably began competing for fun as well -- and watching as others did. Today, from the backyard wiffle ball field to the rodeo chute to the starting blocks at Olympic Stadium, we have long since stopped wondering why do it. We're enjoying it too much to notice.

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