As the Winter Olympics start in Sochi, Russia, what is the fascination of sport? Could it be the mental battle that echoes the challenges of our own lives?

Thought for the Day 8/2/2014 Listen

For non-sports fans there are many reasons to dislike the Winter Olympics: the politically charged location, the controversy over legislation aimed at gay people and the exorbitant cost. And yet, I reflect that we weren’t far into the London Olympics before I was hooked and I imagine that pretty soon I’ll find myself taking at least some interest in what’s happening in Sochi.

Behind the hype is the sport and behind the sport is … what? Why can we become so gripped by competition, even when we’re watching a Hungarian ski jumper or the Japanese bobsleigh team? I suspect that what really engages us is not so much the physical contest as the mental struggle that underlies it.

The first time I saw someone meditating was watching the 1975 Wimbledon final between Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. Connors was the reigning champion and his play oozed determination. No one gave Ashe a chance, but he effortlessly took a two-set lead. Connors battled back to take the third, but he was in trouble and when a fan called out, ‘Come on, Connors!’ he yelled back, ‘I’m trying!’ Meanwhile, the camera fixed on Ashe’s face in breaks as he sat with eyes closed and a look of calm spreading across his features. Ashe was quietly clearing his mind through meditation and he took the fourth set to win the Championship.

That match seemed to me a contest between sweat, strain and trying to beat your opponent, and the presence and awareness that come from overcoming yourself. The reason athletes like Johnny Wilkinson and Tiger Woods use meditation, as Ashe did, is that to play the best shot or make the right kick under pressure is, above all, a mental challenge. It means letting go of thoughts about what has gone wrong or might happen next and managing your emotions so they motivate you but don’t overwhelm you. Then you can focus on what’s happening in the present moment and access the skills and experience you need. This is a fundamental practice of Buddhism. As the Buddha said, “Though one should conquer thousands of men in battle, he who conquers himself is truly the greatest victor.”

It’s true that sport can often be crass and aggressive and that events like Sochi are compromised by political and commercial agendas, but its power goes beyond this. Could it be that what appeals most deeply in a sporting contest is the echo of the challenge in our own lives to overcome obstacles and master ourselves?