“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”
– Steve Prefontaine
Consider for a moment the race as a poem, and the athlete as poet. What would it mean to engage in a race as an artist creating a work of art?
The quote above from Steve Prefontaine is telling. If you have watched race footage of Pre, it is easy to see how he lived this concept every time he stepped onto the track to compete. His performances often encompassed an aesthetics of human experience writ large on the stage of a 400-meter oval.
The philosophers of antiquity had many things to say about poetics. Plato, in The Republic, regarded the poet as divinely inspired, but poetry as a seductive imitation removed from the truth of the world. His student, Aristotle, wrote in Poetics of the creative art behind such imitation; and conversely claimed that it is through poetry that we come closer to knowing the truth and the universal aspects of human experience.
Aristotle extended this notion of poetry to all forms of art, regardless of medium, mode or object of imitation. Modern concepts of poetry similarly affirm a view of art as a window into what it means to be human. And when we talk of poetry, we often use it in the broader sense conveyed by the original Greek word poesis, meaning “making,” to encompass any form of artistic creativity.
Sport, from this perspective, could be viewed as a form of art where the medium is the race and the modes are swimming, biking, and running brought together to imitate the object, in Aristotle’s vision, of people in action. The race can imitate, or make a microcosm of human experience–pain, joy, frustration, elation–and is capable of revealing truths to the athletes about themselves and the world.
In many ways, the race as an experience of the human condition is as true to the ideal as many of the genres explored by Aristotle. The race as a poem also fulfills the functions that Roman poet Horace wrote about in Ars Poetica (Poetic Arts) in the first century BCE: to please and to instruct. Sport practiced at its highest level brings pleasure to the spectator, and endurance events are certainly tools of learning for those involved. The prize of self-knowledge awaits every athlete who tests themselves on the multisport stage.
In his treatise, Aristotle inquired into the structure of the ideal poem, and paid close attention to the role form played in achieving the function of the aesthetic ideal.
As poet, the athlete adheres to principles of form. Correct form, whether in the water, on the bike or on the run, leads to proper function. The overall structure of the athletic performance, with detail paid to each line and stanza, each transition and segment of the race, is key to composing the effort into a unitary work of art. And the composition as a pièce de résistance entails composure, that tranquil control of mind in the midst of speed and action. The race as a poem flows from the body like images onto paper and leaves behind the indelible mark of human capability.
What does it mean to race as an artist? We know what the resulting poetry looks like when we see it. The epic poem created by Mark Allen and Dave Scott on the roads of Kona in 1989 comes to mind, along with the Greg LeMond upset of Laurent Fignon in the final stage’s time trial of the Tour de France that same year. Or Lance Armstrong’s first Tour victory after cancer…and second, third, fourth, fifth…
Yet the true beauty of the poetics of sport is that every racer can become a poet of their own work of art, from pros at world championships to age groupers at local events. It just takes focus, preparation, and an artist’s attention to detail.
As Pre said, “A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they’re capable of understanding.”