Volume 94, Issue 82
Tuesday, February 27, 2001
What makes an athlete?
I have this friend who loves sports. He's the type of guy that picks up a newspaper and reads the sports section first. He's also the type of guy who will tell you what makes an athlete, an athlete.
Despite his openmindedness about sports in general, he holds one thing true. No matter how much you argue, no matter how much you try to prove him wrong, there's one thing he will never change his mind about. Race car drivers are not athletes.
He will argue that all they're doing is driving a car, really fast, often in a big circle. All race car drivers really do he says is sit. in a car. All these things being fairly obvious observations about race car driving in general.
But race car driving is about more than driving a car, it's about smart thinking, cat-like reflexes and high stamina. Drivers often have sustained heartbeats over 160 beats per minute for several hours, not many people can keep 160 for more than 20 minutes yet alone for a half hour.
Add to this the fact that last week when Dale Earnhardt, one of the legends in the sport, suffered a fatal high-speed crash.. Small mistakes cost lives in this sport. All of this from someone sitting and driving a car for a living.
So all of this begs the question what defines an athlete. Obviously it's not about just being fit, otherwise a lot of people would be considered athletes. And conversely it's not just about playing a sport, otherwise a lot of beer guzzling soft ball playing men would be smiling at the world on baseball cards. Athletes are in a sense a combination of both.
We live in a world where we watch "athletes" collect million dollar salaries for working a few months of the year.
Many would argue that a high percentage of the people in major sports today are not really athletes, but are really in a sense hired guns.
Athletes are people who love the sport, not for the money, or the fame, or anything like that. These are people who love the sport for the sake of sport.
Sitting here, reading a newspaper about the newest salary signing, it's hard to believe a major league shortstop is really playing for the love of the game, when he is taking the best offer available instead of staying with the team that helped forge his career.
Today the only place to really see athletes is at the Olympics, where men and women compete for glory, not because it says so in their contract.
They play for no other reason than for a love of the game.
Perhaps in the end this is exactly what defines an athlete not the money, or how good you are in the end, but someone who is willing to dedicate their life to playing a game for no other reason than the joy of throwing a baseball or skating down the ice.
So pehaps looking back to the greats like Rocket Richard and Joe Dimaggio, and recent greats like Nolan Ryan and now Earnhardt, athletes are those who play simply for the love of the game.
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