Monday, March 22, 2010

Running as an art and as a way of life

In the waiting room of my dentist last Monday, I didn’t read one of the usual magazines on the reading table. I had taken my own book with me, Why we run by Bernd Heinrich. I opened it where I had stopped reading the day before and my eye was caught by a statement of Steve Prefontaine, the late middle and long-distance runner and one of the persons who has made running popular: “A race is like a work of art that people can look at and be affected by in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding”. Being a runner myself, I thought this statement is as true as a statement can be. At least when one interprets it as a sentence about running, although, I suppose, every sport is an art in its own way. I had to think of the joy of seeing a race on a track, in the field or on the road. I had to think of all those graceful African long distance runners. Just seeing them running makes it already worth watching, independently of how the race develops. And I had to think of the wonderful John Ngugi in the first place, who won so many races and who was the best cross country runner in the world for many years.
However, at second glance, I think that this quotation describes only one side of the expressive side of running. Although I do not deny that a runner (and, generally, a sportsman) is an artist, what this statement does is showing how the sport is from the outside, from the third person perspective in philosophical terms. It shows how we see the sport, how we as spectators experience the performance of what is for us, the spectators, actually a kind of show that can move us in many ways, like a piece of art.

From the perspective of the runner, the first person perspective, it is different, I think. Unlike an artist, a runner – or another a sportsman – does not try to make something beautiful, a work of art. If that is what s/he does, it is only a side effect. A runner wants to perform as well as s/he can. S/he wants to win. Or running is done for pleasure, for the joy of doing it, for losing weight, for feeling well, or for another reason. However, one cannot do that only by simply doing it in some way. One has to live for it. Of course, one can go and run just as one goes shopping, takes the train or reads a newspaper. But for many people it is more. It is a part of what they are, maybe a little part, maybe a big part, but it is not something that is done casually. It has become a part of their personality, their personal identity. Without it they would be different persons in a certain sense. Then, from the first person perspective running or sport has become a part of the way of living if not, for some, the way of living itself.

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