Why we care about sports

From primitive cave paintings to an $83 billion industry, sport has been part of our lives for millennia

Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared September 20 to be the first International Day of University Sport. The day is meant to recognize the importance of sport within academia and to encourage the development of high-quality physical facilities.

As students at a university with 85,000 students, 44 varsity sports teams, and the country’s largest intramural program, we should indeed be celebrating.

Sports have always been an integral part of human society. Fifteen-thousand year old cave paintings in Lascaux, France depict sprinters and wrestlers; the Ancient Greeks hosted their version of the Olympics as early as 796 BC.

While often associated with fun and competition, many sports find their origins within the military tradition: they were developed to aid warriors in their training. The Maori of New Zealand used sport-like games for thousands of years as a way to train their young warriors for battle; now they dominate the rugby field like no other country can.

Across all of human history, sports evolve and change, becoming an increasingly prominent part of our social structure. The 1896 revival of the Olympics in Greece featured only nine sports, while the next Summer Games in Japan will host 33 different sports and a total of 324 events.

The popularity of sport is growing steadily. The economic impact of the North American sports market is proof of this. The industry brought in an estimated $83 billion in 2015 alone. In situations like the 2004–2005 NHL lockout, where sports are suspended, their absence can be quantified: the NHL lockout, which lasted 10 months, is estimated to have cost the Canadian economy $170 million. But, the importance of sport is not limited to social and economic factors.

Studies find many psychological benefits to sports, in addition to the well-documented health and mental wellness aspects.

Just watching sports and cheering on your favourite team has a positive impact. Watching sports can cater to the fundamental human need of belonging to a group. Fans of a team often feel connected to other fans — in much the same way that  parishioners of a church feel connected to other members of that church. Teams provide a sense of unity and community. Sports teams can bridge the gaps between genders, races, classes, occupations, and ages — bringing people together in a way few other things can.

Per the Seattle Times, “Rooting for your favorite team makes you feel better about your life. Because it does. Virtually every study shows precisely that: The sense of goodwill, bonding and shared purpose that comes with being a fan has a ripple effect that can benefit all aspects of living.”

The pleasure of watching sport is neurologically ‘wired’. When a favourite athlete or team wins, a large surge of dopamine is released. Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter, and in such quantities, it activates the pleasure centres of the brain, increasing learning and memory. This increase in memory helps explain why fans continue to watch sports so religiously: to recreate the physiological excitement they previously experienced.

Furthermore, scientists have discovered ‘mirror neurons’; they are accurately named, because your brain reacts to certain actions the same way, whether you are completing said actions or watching someone else do them.

This explains the surges in testosterone observed among many sports spectators, and why so many of them feel such intense connections to their favourite teams. Watching LeBron James shoot your team’s winning shot will create a chemical reaction in your brain very similar to you making the shot yourself.

While the evidence is clear that playing sports can have innumerable positive impacts on your mental and physical health, it is increasingly clear that simply caring about sports can provide similar benefits. It isn’t an accident that sports have continued in society for thousands of years. They teach us important lessons; they bring us together; they create communities; they increase social bonds; they bring out the absolute best in human performance.

That is why in a world as divided as ours, our common love of sports is something to care about — something to be celebrate.

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