Working Stiff - Part 1

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 3

After all these years, had sport become too much like work that it was no longer a respite from that which is labeled work? Or at least feels like it at times?

                “To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”
            - Studs Terkel, Working

          Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about work and the way it intersects with play, games, and sport. It’s been a project of sorts. Starting back in 1976—this personal notion that work and play were not simply contrasting ideas and conflicting activities--I went off to college and ended up studying “Leisure Management” or some such very soft science degree. Besides being easier than most programs of study, I assumed correctly that it would put me in the presence of like-minded sporting folks who valued working at something that didn’t seem like, well…work.  I suppose not much has really changed since then.
          Or maybe it has.
          I came home from my job at the university last week and felt too tried, too cold, and too stiff to even take my dog for a run to the end of the block. My neighbor, who believes that modern endurance sport is really just work in disguise, watched me stare at my shiny running shoes and my anxious dog on the porch.
          “Can’t separate the map from the territory, eh?” he asked in his typical metaphoric speech?
          “Naw, just digging gopher holes in my mind here,” I snipped.
          “How can you be tired, Tinley? All you do is talk about sports all day.”
          “Maybe I just talked myself out of any energy to do what I was talking about.”
          “Ah, sports,” he mumbled as he went back into his house, impressing me with the Jean-Marie Brohm quote I knew he’d been saving, “just a prison of measured time.”
          With his prompt pinging and caroming in my head like a game about go “tilt,” I laced one shoe and then the other and sent the dog off on his own. “I’ll catch up to, Boy.”
          After all these years, had sport become too much like work that it was no longer a respite from that which is labeled work? Or at least feels like it at times? Even when professional athletics was my primary source of employment, there always seemed a distinction between my training for racing’s sake any my playing for the sake of only itself.
          I blamed my thick confusion on a thin lunch and jogged off in search of my dog.

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          The intersections between our work and our sport are as distinct as we are creative in our observations of then. Everything from doing business on the golf course to writing off a backyard lap pool on our tax returns might be considered. But the essential difference is that for nearly all of us, work is a requirement and sport is a choice.
          Still, lots of people blur the lines by seeking work in the business of sport and are gainfully employed in what has been estimated a $350 billion economy. Whether its fixing bicycles, negotiating athlete’s contracts or taking pictures of others playing sports, we are often attracted to a sport-related job because we are athletes ourselves and enjoy being around others who find pleasure and satisfaction within a physical culture.
          Indeed, the professional athlete is considered to have the ultimate occupation—high pay, adulation from others, travel, time off, other-wordly fitness levels. But lest we forget, to achieve very high levels of performance requires years of preparation—years of very, very hard work.
          I found my dog chasing a bird that seemed to be toying with him; the two somehow engaged in a deathly dance that both knew would never be consummated. This prancing in plain view of its owner might be considered both a pet’s job and his play, I thought, but it also his instinct. And his right.
          It is our instinct to want work, to desire an activity that rewards us in direct relation to our investment. And it should be our right to have work. But when we engage in work we don’t always feel that equality exists in its production. The same might be said about our fitness levels. Does twenty sit ups each day really provide you with “20 Minute Abs?”
          We should be paid more, we should be running faster, we deserve a raise; we deserve to get on that podium. This is the inherent Sisyphean struggle that comes when we are lead to believe that life is fair.  Nothing is truly meritocratic though, and we may become lured into some cynical march claiming it was work, not sport that was unfair. It was our job that committed grand theft soul. Play, play by virtue of definition is incapable of this deception.
          But play ain’t sport, is it.
          Therein lies another essential difference between work and sport—work takes on blame while sport, perhaps because of its root in play and games, is unassailable. The idea of work takes on a kind of functional disenchantment when juxtaposed against our more pleasure-filled activities.  How many times have you told someone, “I had a bad day at work on Monday because of my bike ride on Sunday.” Sports are supposed to remain free from tyranny because like grandparents and the first day of summer, our culture reminds us of their historic purity and promise of tomorrow, even if these icons have their own inherent failures at times. Work, on the other hand, is an easy target.
          The challenge, it seems, when sport and work overlap is to find clarity in separate understanding when it’s not obvious; to affix a meaning that rewards us within the context that we create. It’s a simple idea, but a difficult task.
          Structurally, work and sport share various elements. They both are designed around a specific purpose, an ideology of achievement. Sports and work are quantifiable, bureaucratic, organized, and intent on producing something of value to be consumed by others. But we don’t think about this, for example, while swimming with some friends across a crisp July lake. Time and distance may sneak in under the radar but if we are swimming with friends for the sake of swimming with friends, it’s not sport and it’s not work…it’s play. If someone says, “Let’s race to the dock,” our activity simply takes on elements of a game. And if we tire in our effort and think to ourselves “this racing sure is a lot like work,” it’s only because we are making the comparison to something that is supposed to be hard.
          At least that is what we are led to believe.
          The best “workers” I know have a fluid relationship with their jobs and their sports. They aren’t always the most productive or the fastest but they seem happier in their ability to shift meaning as the context suggests.  The best sportsman I know don’t look for Sports Center Glory by creaming their 14 year old nephew at a Thanksgiving Family football game.
          A big project due becomes an opportunity for a new challenge and a tough workout scheduled becomes a physical release for a mental job well done. Some people are born with the skill of attitudinal shift and others learn it. Some occupations and some sports are better suited to altering one’s mindset but I think the skill is more an indication of the worker than the type of work.
          Endurance athletes seem to posses this skill in larger quantities than other athletes playing power and performance sport. But I don’t know if the style of sport attracts or teaches one to fix meaning in a positive way. Comparatively, I have friends in the military who have returned from theaters of war and they are very, very good at finding the right kind of meaning in their sport experience. As far as I can tell, once you have had enemies from which your life they would steal, failing to win your age group at a local 5k is really not that big of a deal.

*                    *                    *

          When my dog and I returned from our little jaunt, my neighbor was taking out his trash cans to the curb. I subconsciously considered the content of his trash and wondered if what I threw away nearly defined me. His recycle bin had a few too many consumer catalogs, mine a few too many wine bottles; each perhaps representing our respite from a day of work.
          “I see you logged a bit of roadwork after all,” he said, referring to the term that old boxers often used for running on the street.  
          “Yep,” I smiled back, “just doing my job.”
          “What was your time?” He was trying to quantify some 30 minutes of chasing my dog around the school yard.
          “Time?” I asked and looked at where my watch is usually worn. “Not sure.”
          “Was it a good one?” he asked while aligning his barrels as if the trash workers wouldn’t pick them up in the morning if they weren’t straight.
          “It was a good one,” I said, “a pretty good one,” and went in to feed the dog.

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date: December 7, 2010

Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

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