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“Jack Bauer The Athlete”

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | December 8, 2010 | Comments ()

By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | December 8, 2010 |


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I signed up for the competition with some reluctance. My own anecdotal evidence would indicate that I am in at the very least the 95th percentile for world's deepest sleepers, which would not seem to favor my chances. My boss insisted that I give it a shot and take the time off, however, and first prize was an extremely tempting $10,000. Additionally, a friend and I have held our own smaller versions of the event over the last ten years. So it was that I found myself in line in the middle of Hollywood to participate in Fox's 24 marathon, an event with the goal of setting the Guinness world record for the longest consecutive hours of television watching, a title to be earned by the contestant that could persevere in this battle of sleep deprivation for over 86 hours.

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My trusty Webster's dictionary that has rested on my shelf for many years lists the first two definitions of "sport" as follows:

1) any activity or experience that gives enjoyment or recreation; pastime; diversion; 2) such an activity, especially when competitive, requiring more or less vigorous bodily exertion and carried on, sometimes as a profession, according to some traditional form or set of rules, whether outdoors, as football, golf, etc., or indoors, as basketball, bowling, etc.

In my teenage and young adult years I read more than my fair share of Sports Illustrated. Every so often the magazine would go outside its normal purview of basketball, football, baseball, etc., and deliver an article about chess, Scrabble, or something else in that vein. Inevitably, the letters to the editor a few weeks later revealed a backlash with a familiar dismissive refrain: "That's not a sport!"

I have frequently thought of the many different sports that humanity has created as being describable by a two-dimensional spectrum with its X-axis and Y-axis denoted by "skill" and "athleticism," respectively. All sports require one or the other, and most require an amalgam of the two. In football, for example, the skill aspect manifests in several aspects of the game: recognizing opposing offenses and defenses and adjusting accordingly, executing textbook tackles, and knowing how best to secure the ball, to name a few. Its athletic aspects consist of being able to run the fastest, jump the highest, push with the most force, throw with the most velocity, etc.

Some sports require substantially more athleticism than others, which can lead to the rather snobbish reaction described above over the notion of giving something like chess or Scrabble even a modicum of respect as a "sport." You will occasionally find bowling and billiards aired on ESPN; while those are certainly sports that require many hours to master, I doubt that you will find many people that would make the argument that the best of those sports could begin to match the overall athletic prowess that you will find in basketball, soccer, track and field, and the like. You will also occasionally find coverage of spelling bees on ESPN, and I would be surprised to find anyone considering attaching an inherent athleticism to that pursuit.

I suppose this comes down to a matter of semantics, but in my opinion the physical exertions that we most readily and commonly attach to "sport" need not be so exclusionary. I know what I like, and I find that the mental battles of junior high kids at the Scripps National Spelling Bee or the knowledgeable prowess exhibited at the Jeopardy! Tournament Of Champions can be just as enthralling as the World Series, the NFL playoffs, or March Madness. As a spectator, they have common elements that appeal to me: the culmination of training and the competition of the best. I think that the participants across those disparate events have much in common too, as they devote copious preparation and constant focus in the attempt to succeed. The brain might not be a muscle, but it certainly can engage in exercise.

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I registered as contestant number 35 according to my place in line. As a former mathematician, I tend to attach more significance to numbers than the average person. They speak to me in ways that a former number sense and calculator "mathlete" hears, and I listen. I do not buy into the silliness of numerology, but the numeric threads of coincidence appeal to me in crafting my own personal narrative. In this case, I had told my significant other, who had shared my skepticism about the worthiness of my participation in this contest, that this television marathon would be my "last great adventure."

Over the years I have entered many contests and indulged in many strange happenings similar to this one, so it seemed appropriate that my entry number matched my age, a value that with each passing year seems to ask me more strenuously: "Are you ever going to grow up?" Spending almost four straight days watching television is an activity for the young. It is a quest for those who do not have those more pressing responsibilities in life that cannot be so easily cast aside. I have managed to avoid those responsibilities and in some ways have no intention to ever "grow up," but at 35 that avoidance does increasingly linger in my ponderings.

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There is absolutely nothing athletic about sitting on a couch for 86 consecutive hours and watching television, and it is not mentally strenuous in the way that some of the non-athletic sports I mentioned above are. In fact, this orgy of couch potato behavior strikes me as the very antithesis of athleticism. This is the sort of excessive sedentary sloth that inspired the clarion call to action by Arnold Schwarzenegger (and more recently by Michelle Obama) for children to put down the video game controls or step away from the computer and enjoy frolicking in the great outdoors for the sake of our public health. A similar crusade concerned with the state of education in our country might witness this television-watching event and encourage disposing of the remote and reading a book.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me to be a "sport" of sorts, and I was looking forward to writing a column about my personal experience with the resulting struggle to stay awake and an amusing story about my visions of nonexistent insects crawling all over my skin. There certainly is a physical challenge of endurance at work in this scenario. My college roommate (the 49ers fan mentioned in the previous column) and I dreaded encountering what we called the "Sleep Wave." (I will spare you the exceedingly nerdy origins of that phrase.) Sometimes there was studying still to be done or papers yet to be written late at night in the dorm, and that sensation of wanting to succumb to falling over into bed and simply postponing until the morning any worries about what you did not finish was all too powerful. This was the Sleep Wave. It is a force that I still must battle these days when I procrastinate one of these columns into the late night before it is due.

An old teammate of mine who has stayed in far better shape than I have over the years recently competed in something called an "ultramarathon." It was a ridiculous 100-mile run in Leadville, Colorado, and it boggled my mind to hear that people actually attempt this monstrosity in the mountains. The primary goal of many of the participants in this event is simply to complete the course before the 30-hour cutoff. It is not unusual for contestants to walk part of the way or even stop for a nap. It is events like these that tap into a reserve that goes beyond the normal constraints of athleticism and training. Completion demands an intangible willpower that exists beyond our normal physical boundaries. My only frame of reference that would resemble this experience existed during the height of my college training, when hours and yards passed into the near uncountable and my muscles felt blasted into oblivion. Somehow, though, I managed to complete the task at hand, and at times I even managed to excel. When I did excel, I savored that feeling during practice of being "in the zone" above all others.

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After over 86 hours of staring at a television screen, I imagine the remaining participants in the 24 marathon felt something akin to that. They were not allowed to look away from the television. They had designated breaks per the rules, but there had not been enough time to sleep, and that lure of the Sleep Wave must have been enticing even when weighed against $10,000. Their eyes burned, and their bodies were on the brink of collapse. Competitors had fallen to the wayside as the hours passed, but three individuals persisted in their willpower and conquered droopy eyelids, hallucinations, the madness of monotony, and the world record. This particular achievement of mind and body might not be athletic, but it certainly seems sporting to me.

Unfortunately, I can only "imagine" what they felt, as I was not there to share it. This 35-year-old opted to pull out of the competition at the last minute in order to look after his very ill girlfriend over the weekend, and - while my old competitive juices invoke some disappointment - I am very much at peace with that decision. This was a responsibility that I gladly embraced. Plus, if I want to be "sporting," I probably would be better off swimming a few laps instead.

C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.



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