The present Americas Cup races are a case in point. The boats and the TV coverage are amazing. If you haven’t been watching, the capsizing of one of the Oracle boat six months ago is shown here. It gives you some idea of the complicated and sophisticated nature of these boats. A long video of a race between the Italian boat and the New Zealand boat, which won the Vuitton cup in race #8 with the necessary help of GPS technology, since the race was run partly in heavy fog, is here (search through the video for the actual racing footage).
The boats are at the edge, if not over the edge, of technology—hydrofoil catamarans with a vertical wing rather than a fabric mainsail, 72 feet long, 7 tons, 134 foot mast, and the latest in carbon fiber and titanium fittings, capable of 50 knots speed in a 15 knot wind. But over the edge in cost, dependability, and skill and strength requirements for the crews. They are huge, but relatively delicate, tending to get in trouble if winds are too strong or water too rough, but wonderful to watch—and apparently it costs on the order of 100 million dollars to participate in this event.
My wife and I probably will make the short trip up to San Francisco and watch one or two of the races between the U.S. and New Zealand boat, but as in most major sports, we will miss the superimposed information and various up-close and overhead camera angles of the TV. And I will be entertained, but not feel part of the game, since I will certainly never be on the crew of, or probably even ride on one of these superboats. If I owned a traditional sail boat, I don’t know whether they would inspire me or kind of spoil my fun.
I often wonder whether increasing technology and investment in sports/athletics and other activities is turning us slowly into a nation of watchers, rather than participants.
When I was in high school, our crummy cars were a big deal to us. The “sport” of informal drag racing from stoplights, or on empty sections of lightly used roads, was part of the game. I don’t remember any accidents due to this, because traffic was much lighter then than now, and our cars wouldn’t go all that fast.
There had been specially built cars competing for speed over a quarter mile on various desert dry lakes, but no precise timing available in informal competitions. In 1950 an “official” drag strip was started in Santa Ana, California, and the sport of professional (pay to participate) drag racing began. Originally it was possible to enter these races with modified production cars because entry fees were low, and car expenses consisted to gasoline to drive to Santa Ana.
But now, amateurs can’t play. It once was considered noteworthy to get ones car up to 60 miles an hour in a quarter mile. Top dragsters are breaking 300 miles per hour in an elapsed time of under four seconds. To put this in perspective, if a car traveling at 100 mile an hour passed the starting line and a waiting dragster and tripped the green light signaling the dragster to go, the dragster would catch up with the 100 mph car 1/3 of the way down the quarter mile course. By the time the 100 mph car reached the half way point of the course, the dragster would have crossed the finish line. Another interesting number—the 500 cubic inch engine of a top fuel driver produces about 7000 horsepower during its brief run, more than the first eight rows of cars at the NASCAR Daytona 500.This kind of performance requires very high technical sophistication and vast amounts of money.
If you never have seen an example, click here and turn your volume up. It is a very short video of a race between two people, John Force, who is one of the all time heroes of drag facing and who has several kids now racing, and his daughter Courtney —a sweet father-daughter experience that my daughter and I cannot duplicate—too expensive and the technology is too sophisticated (also we would kill outselves).
This is clearly a different world from my high school days. After the sport became professionalized, and laws tightened up, street drags became much rarer, if not nonexistent in areas such as the one in which I now live. For a while, I went to races to watch the action and be amazed at the equipment. But then the cars became so fast that I quit going, because I couldn’t identify with the cars or the drivers any longer. So I, like many people, ended up watching them on television or the internet. Interestingly, my grandchildren and their friends seem to have little interest in owning or driving a car— Perhaps because automobiles are so sophisticated that they are boring? Certainly they are more difficult to modify than old ones, and it is more difficult to find and legally drive cheap old relative wrecks such as we had in high school.
The same thing has happend in athletics. When I was in college, it was not such a big deal to play inter-collegiate athletics (especially in schools with crummy teams like the one I attended) because this was before the days of recruiting, sports scholarships, and big TV money. I certainly was never an outstanding athlete, but I spent a lot of time playing basketball and other sports.
But now it is essentially impossible to “walk onto ” the varsity team of a major sport in universities such as Stanford, and equipment continues to become more expensive and facilities more difficult to find, so people who are very good athletes are reduced to watching sports on TV or the internet and observing people wearing and using the latest equipment including vast stadiums and arenas outfitted with the latest communication equipment (and if in college enjoying an athletic scholarship or if professional a few million dollars a year), and try to get their exercise in gyms full of stale air and expensive high-tech equipment that looks like it should be in a rehabilitation center and gives us little sense of accomplishment or joy of being part of a competing team. Great strides have been made in arranging team sports accessible to kids. Maybe we need to put more effort into amateur sports for adults, complete with less formidable financial and technological barriers to entry and participation.