Dear Fellow Runner,
Sport began as a religious cult – as a way of controlling and changing the world.
Living in the most-arid regions of Mexico, the Zunis played games which they thought would increase the probability of rain. To ensure a good whaling season, Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest played the first known hockey contests, using whale bones as both “pucks” and “sticks.” Some of the original tribes of India arranged tug-of-war contests to expel demons and encourage the sun to shine (contestants at one end of the rope were “evil,” while those at the other end were “good,” and victory by one side was thought to indicate dire troubles ahead – or a year of prosperity).
The earliest Eskimos varied their competitions according to the season. In the early spring, Eskimo players used a kind of cup and ball to “catch the sun” and bring it northward; in the fall, they employed a “cat’s cradle” of seal intestine which was designed to ensnare the sun and prevent it from journeying too far toward the bottom of the earth. For the Eskimos, sport was a way of uniting earth and sky, a method of bringing people together for a common cause.
The ancient Greeks believed in the divine aspect of sport. The original Olympic Games were designed to honor gods; according to some historical accounts, the very earliest Olympics took place next to the temple of Zeus at Olympia – and were undertaken in the great-god’s honor.
Over time, however, sport began to symbolize the daily strivings of humanity. In his Epistle to the Corinthians (in the New Testament), Paul noted that athletic contests symbolized the “Christian fight.” He wrote about wrestling against the powers of darkness, fighting the important battles, and finishing the race. Describing his mission in life, Paul wrote “I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air ……..”
Sport also developed utilitarian, political functions. The not-quite-so-ancient Greeks viewed sport as a way of curbing war, as a method of improving relationships between people who ordinarily would be in conflict. One story suggests that King Iphitus of Elis became so concerned about the slaughters taking place between the various city states of Hellas (in the ninth century B. C.) that he consulted with the oracle at Delphi to find a solution. The oracle allegedly told Iphitus that sport was the only way to stop war – and thus that the Olympics, which had fallen into disfavor, needed to be re-established. With the resulting revival came a “sacred truce” between previously warring states, along with guarantees of safe conduct to all contestants going to the Games. Eventually, the Olympics took place within a “holy month” during which war was prohibited and in fact the carrying of any weapon was proscribed.
Thus, the modern-English word “sport” does poor justice to the origins of competitive activity. “Sport” has evolved from the Latin word desporto, which means “to carry away” or “to make merry.” In human history, sport has rarely been simply a diversion, however. A better term would be the Swahili word for sport – riadha – which is very likely to be derived from another Swahili word, radhi, meaning “agreement” or “unification.”
Philip Boit is certainly aware that sport involves much more than merriment and entertainment. The Kenyan (who is the brother of Mike Boit, the 800-meter bronze medalist at the 1972 Olympics) participated in the 10-K, cross-country ski race at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano – and in doing so became the first African to ever compete in the Winter Olympics.
His entry in the 10-K ski competition at the Games sparked controversy. Boit had been an excellent runner in his home country (as a young athlete, he had dreamed of one day running in the Olympics), and some observers predicted that his lofty aerobic capacity and excellent endurance would automatically lead to outstanding long-distance skiing performances. Skeptics, however, noted that Boit’s skiing economy might be poor, and that in fact his skiing-specific strength would be modest, compared with the force outputs displayed by Scandinavian skiers who had been participating in the sport since childhood. One American newspaper went so far as to say (in reference to Philip and another Kenyan cross-country skier named Henry Bitok), “These are not athletes clearing hurdles to reach their Olympic dreams. These are marketing pawns financed by well-heeled publicity seekers.”
Such verbal and written contestations came to an end when Boit’s first Olympic race did not proceed according to plan. He finished in last place, in 92nd position, with a clocking of about 48 minutes, about twice the amount of time required by the winner, Bjorn Daehlie of Norway, to traverse 10 kilometers of snowy paths. Philip’s troubles in this race stemmed mainly from the fact that he was not yet supremely coordinated and forceful during the actual movements required for cross-country skiing. He was an outstanding endurance athlete with a huge heart and muscles bursting with mitochondria and oxidative capacity, but he was rather mediocre at optimizing propulsive force and coordinating the specific motions required to skim a body over snow on thin, rail-like structures. He could wax Bjorn Daehlie in a 10-K road race, but Bjorn would always return the favor in any event taking place on waxed skis. Nike, which had financed Philip’s build-up to Nagano, dropped its sponsorship. Clearly, Boit was not able to “just do it.”
Boit’s initial difficulties with cross-country skiing, occurring in spite of his great aerobic prowess, sparked EducatedRunner’s interest in developing a “neural system” of endurance training for runners which revolves around very high-quality, race-pace-type running, along with a form of resistance training which has the aim of maximally strengthening and stabilizing each and every part of the gait cycle of running (as opposed to more-general and less-specific strengthening exertions which don’t focus closely on running’s true biomechanics). Over time, this system of training, inspired by Philip, has worked very well for both elite and mortal runners. It’s clear, though, that EducatedRunner missed the “big picture” associated with Philip’s sporting pursuits.
The most-important story was that after Bjorn won the 10K at Nagano, it would have been very easy for him – in this age of the “we’re-number-one” Olympics – to take his urine test and then quickly move into the press tent to bask in the limelight provided by Scandinavian journalists, honoring him for yet another gold medal. He could have crowed that Norway was the best, waved a flag, maybe even held up a single finger as a sign of superiority.
But Bjorn didn’t do that. In fact, he returned to the finish line he had crossed many minutes earlier.
To wait for the marketing pawn.
Said Philip later, “It gave me a lot of morale to see the world’s-best skier waiting for me …… It made me feel that I was actually considered.”
When Daehlie finally reached the press tent, he told reporters that he was extremely impressed to see Boit coming across the finish line. Daehlie and Boit became close friends, and Philip later named his first-born son Bjorn Boit.
Bjorn and Philip were not skiing aimlessly, they were not competing to be number one. They were bringing people together, uniting earth and sky. They were engaged in the ancient practice of Riadha.
This essay is taken, with permission, from Owen Anderson’s inspirational e-book, Aurora. To purchase a copy of Aurora, simply click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.