Space the Nation: To the victor go the spoils

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Feb 20, 2018, 6:05 PM EST

The headlines:
Why I love the Winter Olympics, even if I don't quite understand any of it
Family Recreating Curling Event in Their Living Room Embodies the Olympic Spirit
The Olympics are a mass propaganda tool for countries to assimilate their citizens

The Trope: The Olympics themselves are an overstuffed vehicle for corruption and graft — a more honest approach to the spectacle would include events like “palm greasing” and “indoor pocket padding.” But they manage to captivate us nonetheless; overnight curling experts are born, and gender expectations fade away when you’re watching a breathtaking figure skating routine. Is the appeal of sports truly universal? In genres that reward imagination, what kind of feats get the gold?

Where you can find it: Sports themselves are not specific trope in science fiction and fantasy. Sports are a canvas for the same plots and character arcs that appear across all genres: You will find plucky underdogs and last-minute comebacks in realistic fiction and in Harry Potter, the known and unknown universes are filled with scrappy untrained savants (as in Shades of Magic’s Element Games) and former ringers wasting their skills in some backwater (like Wolverine picking up cage matches in bars).

Instead of operating as a trope, sports in genre is a category of the familiar upon which creators can anchor their creations, or piggyback on our exceptions. On some level, the concept of “sports” or even ritualized competition is limiting. Once you’ve conceived of a universe in which individuals compete for prizes or glory, you’re married to a whole suite of other conditions that would make them seem pretty familiar. It would be a truly alien culture that didn’t have kind of sports at all. So we know intuitively how to follow Quidditch, we grok the overall point of podracing, and understand why you’d want to be good at Pyramid.

In dystopias, sports aren’t all that different, they’re just played for insanely high stakes (examples here are almost too numerous to mention). (Thanks to the Hunger Games, archery’s popularity has soared; let’s hope that stays a silver lining to a dark narrative and not just good planning.)

Arguably, sports are where civilians come into the closest contact with an imagined future: think of the tech just in regular old American football… helmets that absorb and redistribute impact, space-age polymers in pads and — perhaps the most otherworldly, if you think about it — that CGI first down stripe is itself a minor miracle. And then there’s the training! Motion-capture sensors, cold lasers, lumpy pneumatic leg wraps, and robotic dummies for tackling practice. These techniques (except the robotic dummies) are sampled by elite athletes in general, who also experiment with nutrition and supplements…most of whom are even probably legal. This year’s Winter Olympics features body hacking that renders athletes something close to transhuman: biathletes who have learned to lower their heartrate so they can pull the trigger between beats.

These innovations exist to improve upon fairly ancient impulses (what is football but slightly civilized battle?) and activities (the Chinese invented skiing — and gunpowder — 2,000 years ago); I suggest once again there’s only so many flavors of sport in the world, or others.

What genre fiction can do with sports, and what it often does, is remind us how strange our preoccupation with them already is.

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