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Super Humans and the Ethos of Pain

Some athletes commit slow suicide, leaving a trail of destruction after the lights have dimmed and the crowds have stopped cheering. Who's to blame?


My good friend and fellow AIH blog writer Cara has been doing some interesting work lately. After Rich Peverley's heart attack (that's what it was media people), she decided to dive into the world of sports injury and look at why athletes do what they do -- sometimes through extreme pain.

She set up the boundaries between playing hurt and playing injured and for the most part tried to impart to us that pain and athletics are frequently synonymous. The reality is that athletics and especially elite athletics require suffering. It's part of the drama, it's part of what sells tickets and it's part of what attracts viewers. We all accept this, it's a given, but what are the boundaries? When the boundaries are crossed, who shares the burden of responsibility for the tragic outcomes?

The myth of the superhuman is the bread and butter of sports marketing. We all grew up idolizing someone in sports at one time or another, and why not? As children, we watched our heroes preform incredible feats on rinks and in stadiums with thousands cheering them on. We watched as our teams went to war with those from rival cities and our heroes either emerged in glory or descended into crushing defeat. It's the very bedrock upon which mythology is built, and the drama is accordingly dispensed by all that stand to make money -- lots of money -- perpetuating the superhuman myth. Media outlets write the tales, and immortalize the heroes, while corporate interests bombard us with hero images and product promotion.

Of course there is a certain reality though, and it may still be shocking to even the soberest of sports fans; superhumans don't really exist. There's a human cost to be paid. Sure, some of us are extraordinarily athletic with good basic tools to excel in sports, but that's not a buy into the world of elite athletics. It's simply a pre-requisite. The real hall pass for entry into the corridors of elite athletics is the ethos of pain.

In order to succeed in elite sports you'll need to suffer, and you'll most likely need to suffer more than the guy your stepping on to get to the next level. It's an accepted fact that in most professions the guy that works the hardest, and sacrifices the most is usually going to end up succeeding. The difference in high level sports is that the sacrifice is your physical well being, and a lot of times your state of cognition. The ethos of pain for professional athletes often demands a shortened life span and in some cases a diminished mental capacity.

If we really want it to be about the love of the game, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, it needs to be on human terms. We need to tell our athletes its okay to just to be human, it's okay to be hurt. It's okay to live for sport, not die for it.

The other hard truth is that not everyone makes it, actually most don't. For every high profile success there are a thousand untold tragedies. The pressure exerted on young elite athletes to overcome pain and get to the next level can be all consuming , and the mental conditioning that forms around extreme competition can lead to dangerous decisions that don't always have the best interest of the athlete at heart. In the end playing through pain and hiding injury becomes almost a right of passage, and a quietly accepted norm.

The wreckage from these "new normal's" can reach into families and communities with devastating effects when things go horribly wrong. And yet the ethos of pain continues to be preached from the pulpit of youth sports.

So why do it? So why take the risks and roll the dice with your life, and your general well being?

High level athletes command some of the richest salaries in all of society, and enjoy some of the highest accolades we can bestow. Athletes that sacrifice it all and make it to the top enjoy a status that few of us can even dream of, in short superhuman status. And yet, all the money paid to these athletes is a bargain. The superhumans power the mythology machine, which in turn extracts billions of dollars from the consumer . Full circle.

So who's responsible when a kid kills himself for being cut from a junior hockey team? Or when a pro football player dies in his forties from brain lesions that turned him into a shadow of his former self? Who shoulders the burden when a player skates on to the ice after suffering a fourth concussion and risks it all one more time?

A certain amount of responsibility is with the athletes themselves. Personal responsibility is an important factor in stepping away from any risky behavior, at the end of the day you're responsible for your own well being and that of the people that depend on you. Also with the huge rewards involved a certain amount of risk taking doesn't seem unjustifiable. However you have to wonder sometimes if the ethos of pain built up around sports by everyone that consumes it can sometimes set up athletes to fail.

We all have to ask ourselves if the drama we consume, and the mythology that we perpetuate is worth the human toll, a toll that's sometimes exacted on our children from a young age. Maybe we ask ourselves if its okay to label someone as "tough" because they play with an injury or if we perhaps call them irresponsible instead? Maybe instead of telling our kids to "get up!" when they lay on the ice hurt we ask them if they want to come out of the game? Perhaps at some point fans have to ask their sports clubs if it was the right decision to play someone who might not be ready to come back?

The fact is that sports reflect the people that consume it. If we really want it to be about the love of the game, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, it needs to be on human terms. We need to tell our athletes its okay to just to be human, it's okay to be hurt. It's okay to live for sport, not die for it.