The Sporting Life


On Sports

Photograph by Nick Kenrick.

It didn’t make sense to speak as we walked along an empty path by a lake in western Ireland, since the wind would carry only the sound of itself and of the rain against the stones and grass, and since there wasn’t much to say anyway. I tried not to picture our hotel, where there was a fire and books, and a tray of coffee and slabs of cake. Instead I stared at a sheep ahead huddled with some rocks.

Bone-soaked, half numb, and disoriented, I thought of a little book I had recently read by John Casey, Room for Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports. It is a lovely but peculiar collection of essays about his various athletic endeavors. Most of his activities are of the lonely, unwatched variety, like canoeing, sailing, and long-distance running. Casey spends a lot of time rowing a dinghy.

Casey’s book is not really about a dozen sports (is rowing a dinghy a sport?). This book is about being sporting, about being a sportsman. What qualifies as a sport here is whatever encourages the cultivation of character. A sportsman is not merely athletic; he is fair and brave. He can read maps, tie knots, sleep in the snow, quote the Odyssey. He can take care of himself, though he is generous and self-deprecating. He is an ideal man from another era, an era that idealized its own nostalgia, too.

Casey won’t cop to nostalgia here, not exactly. The first piece in the collection is titled “I Got Fat in Law School,” and it chronicles how he shed the pounds. He uses practical language. But you don’t learn to build a snow cave because you want to lose weight. The exhortations to exercise quickly slip into the bigger project, a defense of the idea that there is some connection between the sporting life and the good life, between being an athlete and being a hero. You don’t have to read the sports section of the newspaper on any given day to realize that this is a lie. Still, the idea, the desire, is curiously hard to shake. You want to think speed means something more than speed. You want to believe that a person proves something of her worth when she walks for miles in the rain, from nowhere to nowhere.

In Casey’s book, the futility of his activities is part of the point. Casey doesn’t exercise for money or fame, or even, though he is incredibly competitive, to win. (At the end of the book, he declines to take place in a national indoor-rowing competition, because he can’t help but find it debased. “Medals are for wind chimes,” he writes.) For Casey, the end is mostly in the exertion.

There is something a little fishy about this, in the way that there’s always something fishy about the invocation of amateur excellence. Partly this is because amateurism can be a synonym for exclusion: amateur athletes, like gentleman farmers, do it because they can, not because they have to. Partly it has to do with manhood. This is apparent in a literal way; the handful of women who join Casey on hikes or in boats are generally athletic, but most of them are more notably “pretty.” There’s even some anxiety about the size of his “little-boy tinkler” at boarding school in the preface. But in a more significant way, Room for Improvement is a postcard from another generation (Casey is seventy-two years old). In his obsession with fitness, with survival skills and tests of courage, Casey is a kindred spirit of that paragon of sporting fellows, Teddy Roosevelt.

Like Casey, Roosevelt had overcome childhood frailty (and shame) with strenuous exercise. He developed a strapping chest and an even more muscular ego. He also, like Casey, had a lifelong love of the outdoors and an insatiable need to live “the strenuous life.” When injuries or duties took him away from his routine, he became anxious. One idle period in the White House, after a leg injury, left him nearly desperate, until he came up with a solution: an improvisational fencing game. “At six every evening General Wood comes over and we play at singlestick together,” he reported to his son Kermit. “We put on heavily padded helmets, breastplates and gauntlets and wrap bath towels around our necks, and then we turn to beat one another like carpets.” (It was all fun and games, even after Roosevelt lost sight in one eye during a White House boxing match.)

The lengths that Roosevelt went to entertain and define himself by his feats are famously—charmingly, appallingly—ridiculous. He was extraordinary. But he shared with many men of his situation a special anxiety about manliness. He discussed Social Darwinism, worried over neurasthenia, and thought that a prolonged peace had led to the nation’s feminization. He longed to prove his courage. He wanted to go to war.

Sports, of course, are the great substitute for war. We talk about them as we talk about war, in terms of winning and losing, strategy and tactics. But for Roosevelt the end was in the fighting itself: in the demonstration of strength and self-sacrifice. A soldier, like a sportsman, was virtuous. War for him was idealistic, a welter of moral, physical, and spiritual challenges. It grew from the same source, and the same fears.

This is where Casey and Roosevelt diverge. Casey is not jingoistic. Nobody dies in his dinghy. Nobody even beats anyone like a carpet (unless you count the bit about judo). In fact Casey’s preferred sports, importantly, involve almost no touching of other people. They are about the self in contact with the self. Why the difference? I’m not sure. It may just be that Casey’s life has spanned a catastrophic world war, the threat of nuclear armageddon, and more than one long, devastating, and futile conflict. It may be that war is different now, fought with drones instead of on horseback. (War wasn’t fought on horseback in Roosevelt’s day either—but he pretended otherwise.) It may just be a question of personality. Or it may be that the seed of something warlike is still there, embedded in the impulse to compete, even with oneself.

People have always walked in the rain, or rowed dinghies, or climbed mountains for no apparent reason. They have tried to get some purchase on uncertain and shifting ground by strengthening their bodies, by subjecting them to severity. People have always taken pleasure from the landscape, have noticed the way the green ground glows in the Irish hills when it is raining. And there is certainly something beautiful, something that lends itself to the cold and spare lyricism of Room for Improvement, about the communion between body and spirit and nature that happens on an empty trail.

Still, in Casey’s voice you can hear an undertone of a particular longing, a nostalgia for authenticity or superiority attained through hardship that reaches past simple pursuits. It’s an ideal in which moral, physical, and spiritual grace are one. In his book he describes a series of dreams:

My body was changing mysteriously. It was dawn. The sky was apple-green; the air felt like a silk shirt. I had to go somewhere far away. My body was changing so that I would be able to. It grew longer and lighter. I began to run, easily but with an astonishingly powerful spring. Air came into my lungs no only through my mouth but directly through the skin of my chest. It was like slaking a deep thirst. I came to a hill. I feared that would be the end of the magic, but the new power just coiled up tighter … I was acutely conscious of the trees and rocks and the air and light, and how my motion was in rhythm with them.  The purpose of the journey and what lay beyond the next hill changed from dream to dream, but the original sense of my body in motion was constant and recurring.

When I finally learned how to cross-country ski, I realized these dreams had been a foretaste of sensations obtainable here and now.

I am suspicious of this. The turn, the diminution, is remarkable, and sad, and a little absurd. One has the sense—not only here but throughout the book, in its restlessness—that cross country skiing will not, in the end, be enough for the would-be superman. But though the quest is impossible, it still persists. Out on that deserted trail, skirting the lake, I felt a part of it, too.

Louisa Thomas writes about sports for the Daily. She is the author of Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—A Test of Will and Faith in World War I.