For Albert Camus, the only real philosophical problem is suicide. One might argue that for an athlete, the only real problem is age.
After all, modern sport is built on the meta-narrative of progress: higher, faster and stronger. Ageing represents the end of possibilities for advancement in these three goals. And an athlete becomes aware of ageing a lot earlier than others who are not involved in sport. In your 30s, you are already a Veteran.
I didn’t plan to focus on ageing when I became a sports researcher. But if you’re interested in meaning in sport, then it seems inevitable that you will have to address it.
In existential philosophy, psychology and education, there is a strong emphasis on discontinuity. When our life projects become disrupted – when we cannot go on like we have been before, for example chasing personal records – the tacit meaning of those projects becomes explicit. Ageing disrupts the modernist narrative of sporting progress.
In my MSc research 10 years ago, I wanted to explore whether how runners describe a spiritual dimension in running. It was not supposed to be a study on ageing. However, the title of the thesis eventually became “‘That is Why I Gave in to Age My Competitive Ability, but Not My Soul!’ A Spiritual Journey in Endurance Running”.
I did some further research with runners who shared their life stories with me. Some runners had lost all interest in running and especially competitions at the time they realised that age was catching up. Progress was everything.
Others explained that it was time to reconsider why running is a meaningful activity. And some recognised that ageing and slowing down is a potential crisis, but that winning was never the only thing anyway.
There was a lovely story about the research later in the Runner’s World magazine by Amby Burfoot. The subtitle about reading Sartre makes the point perhaps better than what I could myself. Running culture seems obsessed with measurement, times and personal records. One of my participants considered that “poverty of the mind”. We need resources – philosophy, art, perhaps poetry – to reflect and explore meanings of our sport involvement beyond the obvious ones provided by the sport culture.