an artist’s guide to sports

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I have always wondered and have generally assumed that the long-running arts podcast Bad at Sports was named as such because of the teen movie assertion that jocks and nerds (aka artists) are natural enemies, and the two never ever cross paths unless the nerd is secretly also beautiful and fated to fall in love with the jock. In this world, jocks are rich kids who love to party and drink beer and hurt people’s feelings, and nerds just want to be left alone to play Pokémon or read Proust and write poetry and play punk songs about how racist the police are until they figure out how secretly beautiful they are. What a shock to grow up and find that many artists are actually the rich kids who like to party and drink beer and hurt people’s feelings! And many jocks, at least those who have aged out of the world of helicopter parents and division 1 scholarships, are secretly just nerds who want to be left alone to play Pokémon!

There is, of course, the pantheon of jock artists and jock art, a tradition that extends as far back as painting itself exists as an art form tucked away in caves. I tried again last week to read Sun and Steel, Yukio Mishima’s autobiographical essay on his obsession with bodybuilding and his own particularly weird take on masculinity. The book is out of print, and I’ve tracked down copies several times only to read a few dozen pages and then leave them to collect dust on a shelf until I lend them away to friends and never ask for them back. I always like Mishima more in theory than in practice, the way Ralph Bakshi animation cels always look cooler than the films ever are.

I’ve read more Hemmingway than Mishima, and while I do personally appreciate his assertion that a sport is something that should be able to kill you, I find his top three list too narrow. David Foster Wallace’s tennis book is forever on my “I’ll read it eventually” list, but I’ve never really been personally attracted to tennis, and it feels like a hurdle to be persuaded. During lockdown I made it through four fifths of a torrented copy of the Cremaster Cycle before moving on to the complete archive of 90 Day Fiancé. If I want to watch a river of fundament, there’s already 9 seasons of one on Discovery+! I am a firm believer that, generally, sports as an artistic theme lends itself best to a classic three-act film structure as a medium, with painting a runner up, and boxing as the best sport to depict with either.

The best artsy sports book I have ever read, which I have read more than once, is Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It is the book I recommend first to friends when they tell me they are starting to get into running, and it’s the only running book I’ve ever read that I also recommend to people who just want to make art. It is an easy read and is up there with David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish as a great book for an artist to keep on their nightstand for when they are overthinking things. Murakami’s greatest strength is that he knows he’s just sort of a middle-of-the-road guy, writing middle-of-the-road books, and running right down the middle of the road well enough to get a lot of personal satisfaction out of the activity without having enough talent for anyone to give a shit.

No one really cares if you run a marathon (or if you lie about it), just the way no one really cares if you write a novel or paint a painting or record a song. Or at least no one cares about it as much as you care about it. The happiest way to be an artist, I find, is to go in under this assumption and try to find literally any reason to make art that doesn’t have to do with being good at it. In this way, I’ve found a lot of peace as an artist by paralleling it to my own extremely mediocre sports career. Most people who do sports don’t win at sports, so they must get some kind of pleasure out of a process where everyone is almost always losing. Last weekend I competed in a triathlon of about 3800 people where only a few people could be said to have won anything at all by making it onto the podium in a race that will not even count towards any of the organization’s championship events because it was very necessarily shortened due to extreme weather. Even the winners didn’t really win, but most of the people who registered for the race did their best in spite of the hellish rain and wind.

The writer running in the rain during her triathlon. She is grimacing.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice! The writer during her 70.3 Ironman competition the previous weekend.

Why bother to lose? Why bother to make art? Murakami’s own reasons for competing as a runner and triathlete pretty well parallel my own. He has an excuse to travel and meet interesting people, the training helps him to stay physically healthy and mentally focused in a way that supports his writing and teaching work, it gives structure and intention to the months and years, and it just feels nice to set a personal goal for yourself and achieve it:

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I expect that this winter I’ll run another marathon somewhere in the world. And I’m sure come next summer I’ll be out in another triathlon somewhere, giving it my best shot. Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by. I’ll age one more year, and probably finish another novel. One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long-distance runner.

My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance—all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson. (It’s got to be concrete, no matter how small it is.) And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it. (Yes, that’s a more appropriate way of putting it.)

Some day, if I have a gravestone and I’m able to pick out what’s carved on it, I’d like it to say this:

Haruki Murakami

1949–20**

Writer (and Runner)

At Least He Never Walked

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What better goal for an artist than “at least she didn’t stop making?”


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“two legends on one stage”

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