Millions of people watch the big three American sports and many more millions watch soccer with a fervor that rivals any godfearing religious holy roller. But these sports showcase athletes at the top of their game, earning the big bucks. Their superhuman speed and strength draw vicarious joy from weekend warriors, stats geeks, and talking head know-it-alls on 24 hour sports channels. But the greatest sports of all are sports for sport’s sake.
ABC’s Wild World of Sports came on Saturday TV throughout the 70s and 80s. Howard Cosell guided us through wacky outsider sports of all sorts: powerlifting, log rolling, even Mexican cliff diving. But all these have practical uses in the world. Lifting might help you win a fight. Logrolling strengthens a lumberjack’s all important balance. Cliff diving could one day assist you in getting away from a persistent murderer.
But what about the useless skills done really, really well? I’m talking about things like baton twirling, juggling, and solving rubik’s cubes. I love the earnest, dedicated practitioners of skills like these. They have stars just like the major sports and they playout the tragic storylines and triumphs, too. There are competitions now for everything, even everyday activities: Memory, handwriting and of course eating. But to watch someone scream in exaltation over a killer juggling routine must be unmitigated fun.
Let’s take juggling first. It’s been around since the early Egyptians. I wonder who was that first guy to pick up a few rocks and start throwing them around thinking, “Hey people might be entertained by how good I am at this!” In the early 20th century juggling was a mainstay of stage acts and comedy shows. People juggled flaming bowling pins, chainsaws, and butcher knives. Juggling magicians in Vegas stage shows abounded. Then in the 1980s, people began to organize conventions and competitions. Now every year the World Juggling Federation holds an international event sponsored by ESPN. There is even something called “combat juggling.”
Speedcubing is just what it sounds like, the sport of solving rubik’s cubes fast. Rubik’s cubes are far younger than juggling or baton twirling. Invented in 1974 by Hungarian architect Erno Rubik, it has earned a mythical place in the popular imagination. The puzzle is known to separate the geniuses from the normals and the solving of a rubik’s cube comes with the image of someone’s brain working out complex equations with ease. The World Cube Association presides over competitions, but it’s not just see who can solve it the fastest. There is blindfold cubing, underwater cubing, even cubing with your feet.
In Terry Southern’s groundbreaking Esquire essay “Baton Twirling at Ole Miss” he says, “… it is a refreshing moment indeed when one comes across an area of human endeavor absolutely sufficient unto itself, pure and free, no strings attached—the cherished and almost forgotten l’art pour l’art.” But Southern, writing back in 1963, could not have foreseen the explosion of the baton twirling world. Started in Europe and Asia, baton twirling really took off in America in the ’40s. It was mainly relegated to marching bands. But now Twirlmania is held every year at Disney World. The competition draws thousands from countries all over the world.
What I’m saying is — useless skills have a purpose, even if they don’t beget swimming pools of cash or soft drink deals. Odd atheletes’ passions likely exceed their professional counterparts, though their glory may be small and fleeting. But in our distracted lives where little gets done without looking at a screen, it’s comforting to know there’s a kid out there somewhere spinning a baton higher than he ever has before and catching it just at the right moment. That’s a satisfaction few us will ever know.